Wait, Why Do I Need a Designer?

And what the hell do they do?

Designer — the title brings to mind a flurry of images and feelings: the minimalist chic of an ergonomically re-designed iPhone, the soft leather patternings of a Gucci handbag, the brilliant views of a New York skyrise. Each of these, and so many more, are what are interpreted by the zeitgeist and popular culture as the products of a designer, yet none of them are actually the embodiment of design that we think they are. Design is more culturally important than ever, but it has nothing to do with handbags, nothing to do with highrises, and it certainly has nothing to do with iPhones.

Pictured above: Design, but not really.

The Emergence of Accessible Design in the Modern Era and Why It Confused Everyone

Okay, so it has a little bit to do with iPhones.

The return of Apple in the early 2000’s, heralded by the revolutionary iPod, changed the world forever. This may sound pedantic, but it’s also true- just not for the reasons Steve Jobs would have you believe. At its core, the return of Apple meant the return of a certain level of aesthetic showmanship that was made accessible to the masses. In essence, they touted the fact that their products were more than engineered, they were designed, and it made design something of value, something to be desired. And with that, they made people want design for themselves. Yet unlike “design” from a New York million-dollar clothing line, this was design that people felt they had access to. The problem was that Apple hadn’t actually said what design was, or how it helped. All that people saw was that “design” was something Apple had, and that they were blissfully, insanely successful and made hand-over-fist levels of revenue. And that it was awesome.

Pictured above: How the world does not work

This lead almost immediately to a culture of consumers that valued and demanded design without knowing what it was besides “shiny” and a culture of entrepreneurs that demanded designers without knowing what they did besides “be creative”.

Admit it to yourself, “shiny” and “creative” are two pretty solid words to nail down what the average person thinks about design.

…You can see why this might lead to some confusion in the real world.

The Classic Mistake: Design is Not the Same as the Produced Result of Design

Despite the accidental cloak of sleek, polished mystery that Jony Ive and Steve Jobs cast over production design, they weren’t the first to keep the nature of it an elusive secret. Design has always had a sort of hidden value- the difference is that in the modern era, in a land of start-ups and self-starters, Design has to find its way into the lives of a lot more people and with a lot less guidance. It’s simple for someone starting their own company to see why they would need an accountant or a lawyer or someone in IT, but a designer exists as a weird add-on in most people’s minds. A “once we get up and running, we can think about design” sort of thing.

This is so, so, so wrong.

This thinking stems from an widespread and incorrect presumption: that design is only ever involved in the things that look designed when they’re finished. It’s obvious that when looking at a beautiful poster that a designer had their hand in crafting it, but it’s much less obvious when looking at the map for the subway, or the touch-screen of the checkout kiosk. The best design is hidden and unnoticeable, and that means that it’s often forgotten- usually to the detriment of business owners.

Pictured above: One of the most brilliant pieces of design of the modern era (based on Harry Beck’s 1933 design)

So, how does one know when you need to bring a designer into the fold? That takes asking a few other questions.

Firstly, What IS a Designer?

A designer is a person that solves problems. How? Through design, naturally.

Obnoxious self-referential answers aside, design is a method of thinking: a way of walking through problems and gathering information in order to create an ideal solution. There are many, many facets to design: illustration, branding, product design, ergonomics and human factors, architecture, advanced systems, automotive design, education and learning, and others.

Pictured above: Some of the few things designers create for the world

These facets, in turn, are handled by specialized people called designers. Though their titles may vary, they can be grouped into graphic designers, product designers, human factors specialists, architects, and a slew of other inventive titles. The type of designer someone identifies as is defined by the types of problems they solve and the content they create.

In Contrast, a Designer is NOT:

There is a saying that goes “I’m a designer, not a damned screwdriver.” and it encapsulates the core disconnect between what a designer does and what people expect they do. If you’re a designer, you’ve immediately grasped the metaphor and had a chuckle. If you’re not, let me explain.

A screwdriver is a tool- one that is held by a user to solve a specific problem in front of them: a screw needs to be screwed into something. It is simple, it is straightforward, and the user of the screwdriver just needs the screwdriver for its skill at turning screws. They already know what they want: the screw to be screwed into the hole. There’s no back-and-forth, no insight into the construction of the overall project, coming from the screwdriver. It’s just being used because the carpenter can’t screw the screws in with his bare hands. See where I’m going with this?

If you’re thinking about calling a designer because you have a “great idea” and you just need someone with magic wizard photoshop skills to create it, stop. At that point you have skipped the entire design process and done it yourself without realizing it, which probably means you’ve missed a few things. If you bring in a designer only for the process of project synthesis, you’re going to be ignoring 99% of what makes them valuable, and as a result, everyone will probably leave that relationship dissatisfied.

So they solve problems. Okay, fine, but what problems?

This is where it gets tricky. There is no such thing as an average designer because there is no standard skill-set and no standard set of problems they’re able to solve. A designer’s uniqueness and flexibility are what make them so difficult to pin-down in the public mindset, and in turn this leads to exasperated business leaders. But their flexibility is a boon: it means that there are designers out there that specialize and spend all their time learning about solving exactly the types of problems you have.

You have to know yourself, your business, and know your needs before you start looking for a designer. It’s that simple. The majority of companies that reach out for a designer are doing so as a knee-jerk reaction and haven’t thought it through. If you own a small business, there are elements to a business that are critical to success that a designer can help with, not only after it’s gone public but before it’s even legally an entity. Here are some examples:

Problem 1: You’re Getting Started

This is not about needing a “logo”- a company in its infancy can benefit incredibly heavily from the inclusion of a Designer. A Designer functions as sort of the counterbalance to the raw logistics of the usual start-up team. While you may have budgeting down, or cornered markets, or even distribution, a designer will look at all of that and go “but what exactly is this company?”. A company is more than its product, at least, a successful company is, and a designer can bring that to the forefront.

A designer can help craft what is called a brand: conceptualizing and creating that incredibly complex interrelated system that makes Apple, Gucci, and other products so unique and appealing. This is beyond color, type, and even advertising. This is about understanding your company, what it will be seen as in the public eye as it grows and what relationship it will have with the world at large.

Problem 2: You Need a Process

If you’re in the service or production industry, you interact with people. Whether in-person or digitally, a fledgling company needs a process by which it actually interacts with customers and employees, able to fulfill and exceed their expectations to grab their business.

And yet, so often small business owners take it upon themselves to do this without training or even really knowing what they’re doing. Human factors, which can also be called ergonomics, is the means by which human beings interact with the world around them. A profitable company makes finding and using their service desirable and convenient, which requires a large amount of logistical problems to be solved-usually beginning with usability processes analysis. If you have a client-facing website, an application, a standard phone interaction or greeting, or any other means of interacting with customers, this is when a designer can really help you rise to the next level.

Problem 3: You Need to Say Something

One of the most intuitive elements of design is that it manifests itself visually. There are audible, tactile, and interactive elements as well, but vision is the most dominating sense for human beings. The use of visuals for communication, be it on a poster or on film, goes back through all recorded history, and Designers have mastered the craft of visual communication. Graphic designers especially have a knack for getting across information visually, which makes them incredibly valuable when you need to make something known.

This is a great case where instead of going to designers with “pre-created” ideas, use that designer to generate those ideas in the best and most effective possible manner for you.

Problem 4–10000: Everything Else

Needing a designer can take many forms, but the main thing to take away is that designers deal in problem solving. If you know what you want the solution to be, you don’t need a designer, you need an engineer. This classic quote from Henry Ford is one that is rooted in design vs engineering principles: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

An engineer will get you the faster horse. A designer will invent the car. Which of those markets would you rather be in when you’re starting up your company?

Wait, I take it back, that faster horse looks *awesome*

So… I need a Designer, then?

Simply put, a designer should be called when you have a problem that they have the skills to solve. That sounds vague, and it is, but it’s also true. It takes some education on your part about what designers are out there and accessible to you, but it’s well worth the time invested.

“I need a brand”, “I need a way to make my website more user friendly”,“I need a way to let people know I’m open for business and a better deal than the current competitor!” and so forth are excellent design problems and will glean excellent design solutions.

Once you’ve put in the leg work of getting to know yourself and then into getting to know a designer, you’ll forge a relationship that will benefit the both of you for a long time to come.