Anyone can design. But not everyone can be a designer.
In the world of design, skills or talent can only get you so far. You need persistence, tenacity, and exceptional work ethic to do get to the next level. And to up your game even more, you need to go beyond the obvious. It doesn’t come easy. It requires hard work, and at the risk of sounding cliché, it needs a lot of practice.
You also need guidance. Proper guidance, critique and feedback can put you way ahead of the pack. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working for some amazing people who did their best to impart the knowledge that they had gained from experience and help me develop my design thinking. And I’ve learned them by heart. Let me take you through some of the advice that helped me stand apart.
1. You cannot judge a design unless you know its intent
In the freshman years of my career, I thought judging a design was all about being clear and objective. I used to think it was possible to rate and put a number behind a piece of work by scrutinising it under a microscope. This is how people make it sound when they discuss principles like ‘keep it simple stupid’ or ‘make interactions delightful’. But nothing can be further from the truth.
I learned later that design is the art of solving specific problems with clinical efficiency. If you do not understand the need, it is impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of the design.
I used to look at websites or brochures that weren’t aesthetically pleasing and cast them aside as lack of creativity. But in some cases, design has to be more about efficiency rather than looks.
When we judge a design, we are usually trying to imagine the problem that we think it needs to solve. Most of the time, it is obvious. But at times it isn’t. Not every app values reach. Not every service needs to be profitable. If the ask is to appeal to a niche and the design does that job perfectly, it has succeeded.
2. Always have an opinion about the problems that are worth solving and why.
There’s a consensus among people that designers make things look pretty. But it is no longer the conventional wisdom. But if you wait around for people to come up to you with a problem to solve, you are basically turning yourself into a service provider.
The only way to getting out of that is to form an opinion about the problems that need to be solved and convincing others of that. Recently I saw an idea developed by the creative minds at Leo Burnette for an automobile insurance brand where they came up with a technology to detect potholes in flooded streets. It fits seamlessly with the brand’s objective and sheds a more positive light on the brand’s image than any print ad ever could. That is the kind of intent and strategic thinking one needs to develop in order to get to the next level.
To be involved in strategy means to be involved in the why. This will help you identify real-world problems and prioritise those problems that are most pressing and need to be solved right now. It involves understanding what makes the business tick and what specific advantages the company or team has.
While this might not be a core competency of the design discipline, it is necessary in today’s world if you want to elevate yourself from being a designer to a complete creative professional.
3. Communication skills will give an added edge to your effectiveness.
If you think good design is just composition, typography, colour palette, etc., think again. Delivering a great idea and executing it perfectly is not enough. The true outcome of a designer’s work is whether it had the intended effect in the real world.
Coming from a small town in Bengal and having spent my academic years in Bengali-medium institutions, communication was a big challenge for me when I entered the corporate space. I spent months sitting silently in brainstorming sessions with ideas cluttering my head because I didn’t know how to express them. I understood that my skills would take me nowhere unless I knew how to communicate effectively. Years later, when I look back, I tip my proverbial hat to my younger self for putting in that extra effort.
The best designers excel at communication. This is because they can imagine how the user will think and feel as they interact with the design. They can tell the story of the design. They think deeply about what hooks would best get and keep someone’s undivided interest. They can address the user’s key pain points and build a narrative around that before leading up to why their design can eliminate those pain points. And most importantly, they don’t hide behind jargons. Their language is easy-to-understand, embellished with visuals, storyboards or animations to imagine what the outcome of the idea will be.
As a rule of thumb, remember this – if you can get your teammates excited about your design and see their eyes gleaming in anticipation, the chances of its success increase tenfold.
4. Most good designs look obvious in hindsight.
A good design should be obviously good to the people it is intended for.
I used to think that evaluating design work should be left to designers. After all, we are the experts, and so when non-designers would interject with their opinion, I’d listen half-heartedly. I’d think that they don’t know the context.
Unfortunately, the people whose evaluation matters the most are the people you are designing for. And those folks are likely not designers. They’re probably not even aware of the basic principles of design and aesthetics.
Certainly, context and history help make for more productive discussions. But at the end of the day, evaluating the success of a design isn’t complicated. We, the creators, complicate the discussion because the constraints we face prevent us from getting to the perfect idea. It can get messy. But it is quite straightforward to pass judgement on whether a particular idea feels objectively good or bad.
At the end of the day, the people whom we are designing for don’t have any of that context, history, or understanding of the constraints we face. But they are the ones who will be judging the work in the end.
The only thing that matters is whether your design works for them in solving the problem you intended to solve.
In the field of design, things don’t come easy. The mental strength needed to navigate the waters is at times more than we can accumulate in the short notice that we get. However, if we consciously try and make the best choice and choose the right path, things tend to get better eventually. It can be all smooth sailing after that.
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