October 16, 2023


Something you probably don’t know about me is that I’ve been a (mostly) hobby photographer for twenty-some years. My parents had a dark room in our basement when I was younger—they both loved photography. I’ll never forget the day my Dad handed me a large, brown leather bag which I promptly emptied out on his bed. It was full of old film camera bodies, lenses, filters, doublers—so much gear for me to experiment with. Thus began my fascination with the mechanics of making a picture.

I spent a lot of time in the woods around our house trying all kinds of stuff with these cameras. It was a chance for me to understand the variables involved in capturing light, and I loved this scientific approach to the craft.

Eventually, I bought myself a digital camera (a Canon 10D) and a few lenses and began shooting more seriously. At the time I was working on a lot of small, local websites for businesses around town. If you’ve done this kind of work you know how bad the pictures often are from their archive of material to work with. So, I started offering to capture better photos simply as a way to have better material to work with in the design and development of their websites.

Over the years, my interest has ebbed and flowed with photography. But recently, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot for a magazine out of Columbus. It has been such a fantastic opportunity for me to rediscover a passion from my past.

This past week, I had the pleasure of shooting three separate portraits. Each of these was on location at the subject’s home or place of work. I didn’t know what I’d be walking into in terms of lighting or setting. I prepared as best as I could, rented a really nice lens, and jumped in.

Now, there’s something to be said for a photographer who understands the physics of how a camera works. How does the aperture impact the image? How fast can it open? How sensitive is the digital film? And of course, understanding how a specific camera works is critical too. How reliable is my auto focus or low light performance? These are all things I’ve studied for years. I can pick up most cameras and feel comfortable using them pretty quickly. What I wasn’t prepared for was the person on the other side of the lens.

It doesn’t matter how well you understand the camera if you don’t understand the person.

Making a beautiful portrait can be done with absolutely any camera. The common denominator in every great picture of a person is the ability to help them reveal their authentic self. As viewers of a portrait, we want to see the real person.

And, Design Systems?

It doesn’t matter how well you understand the technical or creative side of a design system if you don’t understand the people who will use it.

I have felt this intuitively over the last few years. Perhaps you have, too? All the tools, the techniques, the frameworks are certainly necessary and important, but also secondary to the people. If you want to make a beautiful portrait, you have to know the person. If you want to make a beautiful design system, you have to know the people.

Take this as a little reminder to spend some time with your subscribers, your contributors, your leaders, and your team. Each of these folks has brilliance inside them that will help you to make something truly valuable.

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