Being a designer

This has actually been simmering in my mind for almost four years (!) since my days working at Involution Studio in Silicon Valley. What does it really mean to be a designer, as opposed to an analyst or guru or a UX professional? I’ve deferred writing this, as it necessarily involves wrapping some delicate and potentially controversial thoughts into a coherent message that advances, not condemns or offends. After all, we all benefit when the design field thrives via vigorous debate that makes us smarter and better. But it’s admittedly tough to do when I myself am a very passionate designer who lives and thinks in that “mode of being” (how so very existential ;-)

With that as background, today on Twitter I came across this blog post being popularly retweeted, prompting various reactions among my esteemed design peers. After having read the post a few times, I felt compelled to make a few critical points in brief response.

BTW I’m NOT gonna get into the semantics around “UX designer” as that’s been beaten to death elsewhere and we’ve all become quite bored of it ;-)

Yet I do want to highlight a few key issues that I’ve often mentioned before:
– designing anything well involves multiple “postures” at various moments
– designing often involves value conflict / conviction / compromise, making it a tough field for many
– designing requires aesthetics, sketching, and prototyping with earnest effort

Most importantly, IMHO this is what cuts right to the heart of being a designer: designing means you are an informed, talented visionary pushing an agenda for something better, through the influential force of your designs, rationale, personality, so forth. To elaborate further…

A courageous (and believe me, it takes guts to fight against mediocrity and short-sighted teams) designer recommends and advances, without apology, a strong vision of an improved or novel product / interface / service / system, informed by a deep understanding of the business, the user base, and the technology…and just as important, is her personal intuition, judgment, and experience. Some cynically call this “genius” design but the fact remains an experienced designer summons (unwittingly, or naturally) her past experience in identifying patterns and familiar situations and thus, optimizing a good design direction accordingly.

A smart designer listens to users, but isn’t beholden to acting upon each request or comment. More importantly she knows how to prioritize, filter, and yes even reject user data. A very good designer knows how to balance user input against personal taste, preference, and instinct honed by years of study, apprenticeship, and mastery of tools/methods/strategies. It’s an art, not a science. It takes serious practice and patience, and can be frustrating with lots of failures along the way.

A designer strikes an attitude of optimism, even idealism, with empathy, imagination, yet balanced with practical knowledge to execute a shipping product (specs, assets, prototypes). As Steve Jobs said, “real artists ship”. Can’t just stop at wireframes and flows. True designers deliver.

A successful designer takes a position and has an opinion at the table, of personal choice guided by professional judgment…and defends that opinion with sharp rationale beyond “it looks cool” or “i just like it”. A designer knows that the underlying basis of personal preference is a deeper connection to social / cultural / technical / commercial reasons and can suss that out, and articulate it convincingly.

A strong designer practices her craft with conviction, not arrogance. With clarity of purpose, not muddied by wishes and hopes. With acuteness of vision, in collaboration with other experts, but knows when to take a different course or push back (see above: having an opinion).

A bonafide designer knows the difference between using a process and having a process–and is willing to change it as projects change. Or not do some methods or even skip steps if not needed. That so-called “UCD Process” is flexible like improvisational jazz, versus an Excel spreadsheet. Having spent a decade at Oracle, Adobe, Cisco, frog, consulting for Netflix and LinkedIn and now a Principal Designer at Citrix working with the CEO and VP of Design, i know :-) Trust me. Or read accomplished designer Michael Beirut on his process. Might sound familiar to most folks ;-)

The fact is any designer worth her salt has often, justifiably, rejected user opinions, trusted her gut instincts, pushed the UI pixel minutia to challenge technical constraints, deferred edge cases for the majority’s sake, confronted or altered business plans, etc. That’s simply inherent to being a designer, if you accept the premise of “informed, talented visionary” as the predominant posture.

I suspect the real issue underlying that blog post, is the desire to distinguish between “Designers” and what I term “UX Professionals”, those who frankly indulge in excessive user / context analysis and tons of flows/wireframes but stop short of advancing an interactive, aesthetically refined vision of an improved product that leverages design talent, intuition, and experience. After all, talent and intuition are necessary too, just a different type of data borne of personal factors, but no less valid. As former AIGA President and acclaimed designer Clement Mok said, “Design is the art of causing change in accordance with taste and intent.” Sussing out that “taste” in terms of visuals, behaviors, layouts, typography, and overall choreography of the “experience” (whatever the hell that means) is what makes a designer essential to delivering valuable, emotionally-rich products that people love and use. You gotta have conviction, opinions, talent, and drive to be a designer and deliver the strategy / product / service etc, otherwise you’re a UX Professional. That’s not a bad thing, but just gotta be honest with yourself about what role you play in the field. Are you being a designer or something else?


2 Replies to “Being a designer”

  1. Your distinction of Designer vs. UX professional had me holding my sides in mirth.

    Brilliantly written, in-the-face post. High time some of our self-styled/appointed/aggrandised so-called professionals were shown the mirror and told they’re no Snow White.

  2. Stunning response.

    Now I’m wondering wether I feel so, because this is what I genuinely do, or it’s just that I have authority issues preventing me from blindly following orders.

    Anyway, it is always a tough move to try and tell someone they’re not “designers” – when actually anybody can be – based on the kind of work they do. “Designer” sells way better as a title and people feel they’re ripped off of some sort of recognition.

    However, at some point one has to acknowledge that being a designer is not just “cool”, it is also very demanding, challenging and disturbing to the least. And not everybody wants to go for those kinds of stuff on a daily basis.

    Passion, conviction and guts.


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