A modified version of the cover of James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’

What kind of a designer do you want to be?

The portrait of a designer

Summary

  • We conflate job titles like ‘UX Designer’ or ‘Digital Product Designer’ or ‘Design Strategist’ with self titles. Here’s a framework to understand yourself as a designer — “The Portrait of a Designer”.
  • “Hands” is the medium you design with, such as paper or pixels or wood or people.
  • “Head” is your process, or how you approach a problem. A sculptor’s process is different from a product manager’s process. A technologist’s process is different from an anthropologist’s process.
  • “Feet” is your context, or the place you are designing in. It refers to physical space as well as problem space. You draw inspiration from and uncover design opportunities from here, and impact it through your design work.
  • “Heart” is your voice, or how you bring your unique history to your design work.
  • You can use this framework to analyse another designers’s work. For example, Shepard Fairey is a graphic designer who created the “Hope” poster for Obama’s campaign. Paula Scher is a graphic designer who did the branding for Public Theater. Their medium is the same. Their context is totally different. Fairey’s voice is solemn and strong. Scher’s voice is inventive and playful.
  • You can use this framework to think about the kind of work you want to do.

Essay

Recently I was speaking with a design researcher who is working with kids in underserved communities to make educational games. We talked how working for a for-profit consumer internet startup would be a very different. The chat reminded me of a question I have grappled with ‘What kind of designer am I?’

Am I a digital product designer, interaction designer, or a UX designer? Maybe I should call myself a design thinker, a design strategist or a systems designer. And where do I want to apply my design chops? Is it in education or consumer internet or civic innovation? Or perhaps it is in envisioning the future of interaction design by becoming a design activist (That’s how I think of Bret Victor’s work).

So I drew a sketch to make sense of what being a designer meant to me:

Couldn’t find the original, so I redrew this one.

What does it mean?

Hands — What do you design with, or your medium

I think the fundamental thing that a designer does is to turn the abstract into something concrete. To give form to an idea.

A designer’s medium is the physical material and tools they use to achieve this. A furniture designer’s medium would be wood and metal. A graphic designer’s medium is paper, pixels and ink. A developer’s medium is code. A public policy designer’s medium is words and people.

Another way to think about your medium is, ‘What kind of artefacts does your design practice produce?’ Do you make apps, or chairs, or clothes, or buildings? The kind-of-artefacts-you-produce is often the most common way of classifying design disciplines.

Academic degrees at RISD. A mix of medium (Ceramics, Digital and Media, Glass, Metalsmithing, Painting, Sculpture, Textules), artefact (Film, Furniture, Apparel), and other familiar titles (Graphic, Industrial, Architecture)

Being able to mould a medium is where one spends the most amount of time in honing their design practice. It’s not uncommon for designers to want to switch their medium (for example, there’s a lot of industrial designers who are moving into user experience design). Massimo Vignelli, the man who designed the NY subway map, said “If you can design one thing, you can design anything”. It’s true, the design principles stay the same, but you have to spend fresh effort in learning a new medium.

Stefan Sagmeister, in an excerpt from one of his journals, says this about his medium (which he likens it to a language):

Stefan Sagmeister’s ‘Things I have learnt in my life so far’
Graphic design is like a language. So, of course, I can go and learn another language, like film or music … and after some significant training I’ll be able to speak them in a way other people understand …
Or, instead of learning a new language, I can refine the one that I do know how to speak — graphic design — and, much more importantly, figure out if I actually have something to say. It would be maddening to spend ten years learning how to direct a film only to find out I have nothing to say. If might be more romantic to say “I love you” in French than it is in Cantonese: nevertheless, it is still possible to say it.
It might be more touching to say it in a song than in design, but saying it in design should be achievable, too.
- Stefan Sagmeister’s Diary, June 30, 2000

Head — How do you think, or your process

Do designers have a different approach to problems? Nigel Cross says that the design method is different from the scientific method:

The scientific method is a pattern of problem-solving behaviour employed in finding out the nature of what exists, whereas the design method is a pattern of behaviour employed in inventing things of value which do not yet exist. Science is analytic; design is constructive.
To base design theory on inappropriate paradigms of logic and science is to make a bad mistake. Logic has interests in abstract forms. Science investigates extant forms. Design initiates novel forms.
- Nigel Cross in Designerly Ways of Knowing

A sculptor’s process is different from a product manager’s process. A technologist’s process is different from an anthropologist’s process.Delving into how designers work is a topic for another post, but what’s instructive here is to recognise that you have a process and reflect on it to understand what it is.

What is your process? Do you like to jump in and start building right away? Maybe you seek nature or museums or urban life to find inspiration first. Perhaps you’d like to observe and talk to the people who would eventually be using your design. Or perhaps you like to dig into data, analyse patterns and then generate design solutions.

Here’s Damien Newman, visualizing his design process:

The squiggle by Damien Newman (http://centralstory.com/)

Here’s a excerpt from my notebook, circa 2014, about the aspects of my process:

Yup, there’s a lot of “I suck”

Feet — Where do you do design, or your Context

What kind of problems do you want to work on? And in what geographical/cultural context do those problems exist?

A popular class at Stanford, and transformative for many, is the class ‘Design for Extreme Affordability’. It gets Stanford students to apply their design and engineering chops to problems of the developing world.

I remember sitting through the info session for that class and thinking, ‘I think I just want to build things for the everyday middle class’. One of my classmates, an incredible designer also known for being rather tongue-in-cheek and who wants to work in high fashion said, “I want to make things for extreme unaffordability.” :)

Kenya Hara, the art director of MUJI writes this in the book ‘Designing Design’:

Design is like the fruit of a tree.
In product design, vehicles and refrigerators are the fruit. Design functions from the perspective of how to produce good fruit. If you look at the fruit from some distance, you see the next tree that bears the fruit and then the soil in which the tree stands.
Important to the whole process of creating good fruit is the condition of the soil. If we’re after good fruit, we must cultivate the soil, though that might seem a roundabout path to the fruit. In our metaphor, the soil corresponds to the market and the “level of desire” to the individuals who make up the market controls the quality of the soil. What matters is the quality of the appetite: what kind of appetite do they have for living?

The context in which you stand (both the physical space that you inhabit, and the problem space that you choose to work in) is where you draw inspiration from, and is also the one you impact through your design work. The tech-fueled environment of the Bay Area engenders different products than do the streets of rural India.

This one is often very exciting to change, for example, if you choose to work for a design consulting firm, you get to use your medium and your process in all kinds of contexts.

Heart — Who you are, or your Voice

This one may be unusual for many. You may ask, aren’t we designing for the user? Isn’t the right solution to the design problem what one should seek? True, but there is something about you being the designer that gives it unique value and voice.

Neil Gaiman speaks of this is his 'Make Good Art’ speech:

Make good art. And while you’re at it make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do. The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.
The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.
A poster by James Victore. Subscribe to his mailing list, it’s awesome.

Your voice is the sum of who you are. The experiences that have shaped you. The things you love. Especially the ones which have nothing to do with design per se. Love video games? Bring it to your work. Love a city? Bring it to your work. This is hard to do. Harder still when you are designing for a need. But this is what gives your work it’s unique personality. I refrain from using the word style here, because it’s not just style. Style is a subset of your voice

I haven’t quite figured this out in my own work yet. Especially if you think about the world of apps there is little differentiation when it comes to voice. You may have a brand voice, but the scope to meld your own with it feels hard.

But I know designers who have been able to do so. One of my friends, the magician Andrew Evans who also works at IDEO as a designer, is able to add a touch of magic to several client projects he’s done.

One of my favourite episodes from the podcast Reply All is called Anxiety Box in which one man makes websites to solve all of his life’s problems, including his anxiety :)

So what?

What do you do with this framework?

One thing I noticed I can do is I can tease apart the work of designers that I am drawn to and why. For example both Bret Victor, or the cool folks at MIT’s Tangible Media group are thinking about the future of interaction design. For both, the medium is interaction design, and their context is the future. But the process is different, Bret’s work is deeply grounded in human needs, while Tangible Media is about asking questions through technology — what is possible tomorrow that isn’t today?

An image from Bret Victor’s talk ‘The human representation of thought’

Or it has helped me reflect on my own designerly leanings. I think your medium of choice manifests early in life. When I was writing this, I remembered that one of the things I wanted to be when I was young was someone who designed Bollywood album covers, even though I didn’t know that graphic design was a real job.

From my old audio cassette collection. Several covers had this little inscription ‘Designed by Himanshu and Rahul Nanda’. I finally looked them up on Google. Turns out those two were pioneers of digital graphic art for bollywood publicity.

It’s made me realize that sometimes there is tension between these different aspects of being a designer. The human-centered design process for example, starts by discovering real user needs and then suggests you make the right thing for that; be a product, service or experience.

But you might have zero interest in building a service. I remember a project some classmates of mine were working on who are gifted mechanical engineers. They wanted to design something that made the lives for paraplegics better. When they employed the tools of design thinking, it got them to the realization that paraplegics needed a sense of community more than anything else. They created an online portal, but it seemed their heart wasn’t in it — they wanted to make physical stuff. It wasn’t the medium they wanted to work in.

So, what kind of a designer are you?


Hey there! Thank you for reading. If you liked it do share and recommend.

Also, I currently lead the product design practice at Zomato and we’re hiring! Tweet at me if you’d like to know more https://twitter.com/ashpodel)


Extras

Some more fun bits if you’ve read this far!

1. [hands] One of my professors once looked at Jon Rubin’s work (http://www.jonrubin.net) and remarked ‘his medium is people’. Found that observation fascinating.

Here is one Jun Rubin’s projects — called Conflict Kitchen. Serving food from all countries that the US is at war with.

2. [head, heart] In the spirit of Bret Victor fanboy-ism, watch Inventing on Principle. It’s kind of a combination of who you are and your process — about discovering the cardinal principle that drives all your design work.

3. [heart, head] May contain non-design content is an excellent essay by Michael Bierut about how to bring content outside of the design problem at hand to your work.

4. [hands, feet] I worked on a project at the d.school called Stanford 2025 about exploring futures for higher learning. One of the themes was called ‘Purpose Learning’. This is where you’d apply your medium (your major) to a specific context (the mission) as part of your education. For example, metalsmithing for world peace or biology to eliminate poverty. May sound a bit out there, but then it was a project about designing futures.

5. [voice] A class that Thomas Both, a friend and colleague of mine designed was all about discovering your voice. You pick something you obsess about and use it in your design work. The first activity involved using something you love to create an ad for a banana. What? Yes!