Becoming a Whole Designer
Are you a whole designer? Are you a master of the craft, influence and business of design? Or do you lament your ability to have more impact? To do and be more? Whole designers are uniquely skilled, and thus have amazing opportunities stretched out in front of them — today, and over the next 1, 3, 10, 25 years. What’s interesting is, many of the barriers they perceive — they simply forget they are already trained to overcome. With design.
Owning — and defining — your whole role.
A freshly graduated designer has the skills to unlock incredible opportunity at the C-Suite level. Really. A fresh-faced early career designer understands the value of simple, clear communication. A well-designed poster/slide/presentation is a powerful tool of influence. That’s not just your assignment. That’s also how you deliver your rationale.
A designer who has mastered the art of capturing customer sentiment and empathy — and documenting it with a camera, a simple interaction map, or a mood board — can get the attention of the GM of her business, and help them to understand the insights that drive customer action. AND said designer is capable of using customer empathy to frame a compelling customer problem worthy of the business’ focus. AND she’s equally capable of framing her own career challenges and aspirations using the same frameworks and tools, to systematically ideate, prototype and iterate in pursuit of better.
A freshly matriculated designer has the skills to boldly, rapidly, clearly draw on a whiteboard, make a roughly folded prototype or shape the dynamics of a meeting by confidently reorganizing the furniture (e.g. dragging all the chairs to one side of the room and making them all look the same direction) to focus a conversation, inspire decisions and command action.
Every designer, new or not-so-new, can do all of those things. Do at least one of those things every day. Start today. Build your influence. Start with your behavior.
“But I’m overwhelmed.”
Stop telling everyone you’re busy. People will remember you for how you spend your time. If you spend your time staring at a computer, tinkering with pixels in Photoshop, you will be remembered for it. Be remembered in action.
People remember how you answer the question: how is it going?
“Busy” is the equivalent of “you wouldn’t care or understand.” I flinch every time I hear it. And occasionally when I catch myself saying it.
Work and act in ways––boldly, humbly, visibly, publicly––that demonstrate the value you add. Invite others in. Answer their questions. Open up. Accept in-the-moment ideas and criticism. Make a change or add a sticky note. Show that you’re open and listening. You can ALWAYS change it back — especially once you have true customer behavior to guide you. If you “don’t work this way,” you should start. It will make you a better designer, presenter and collaborator.
Build relationships in other departments and functions. Learn how you can help them do their job better. Offer to help draw a picture, or facilitate a meeting. Manage your time, but these little micro-investments will pay you back.
Develop skills of influence and presence, in addition to your skills with tools and design processes.
Create experiences for your stakeholders–your team, your partners, your leaders–not just your customers.
“I want to have more impact.”
Stop focusing on your limitations. Stop focusing on the amount of time and work you have. Or how few opportunities have been given to you; make some. Make time. Make space. Be intentional with small, but steady steps to transform the company around you to be more receptive of design. Have design conversations with non-designers. Recognize your assumptions and test them by asking direct questions.
Gain empathy for non-designers. They are also your customers.
The truth is, the road to delivering the best possible product or experience for your end customers goes through the understanding, commitment and design capability of the rest of your team. If you can help engineers, marketers, salespeople, customer success agents and business leaders see and feel the customer problem ––the places where functionality is not enough, the places where emotional opportunity is at its highest — they will work extra hard in pursuit of delivering that benefit. This is absolutely core to your job as a designer.
“I want to achieve more, faster.”
Be intentional with your own growth plan. Structure conversations with your boss around the work that energizes you, the impact that you want to have, and the efforts your willing to expend to get the results you hope for. This is where stretch assignments come from. They’ll remember you for your passion.
Do a little more. Don’t do more of the same. Don’t spend three extra hours at work every night doing the same work you do all day. It makes you look inefficient. And it reinforces others’ negative perceptions of a very narrow skill set. That’s counterproductive. It erodes your brand.
Instead, do a little extra. Take time to explain what you do to someone who is curious. Take a moment to meet someone and ask them a burning question. They’ll appreciate and remember your curiosity.
Meet people from outside your job. Bring back something you learned from outside (not necessarily a presentation, but maybe just a single idea) and share it with a few people. Develop your reputation for learning from outside. They’ll remember you for your unique point of view. And as the employee with their ear to the ground for trends, analogs and inspiration.
“But Design deserves a seat at the table.”
Build the skills of business acumen and influence. You want a seat at the table? Understand what they’re talking about at the table. That means asking a few thoughtful questions:Why? How? Check your own understanding by playing back what you heard. Being interested goes a long way. Designers have a unique ability to connect concepts in new ways that often surprise and challenge their MBA-trained colleagues. Designers also have a knack for channeling the needs and POV of their customers. Your diverse perspective can be tremendously valuable, as long as you share it. And pay attention to and iterate on the subtleties of making sure your ideas are being heard and understood.
You have control over all of these behaviors. These behaviors don’t cost you anything except focused intention and a little bit of time. And typically these behaviors pay you back huge dividends: Building your brand, relationships, skills and experience. Ultimately, these behaviors build your credibility. You’ll have to exert a little less effort the next time. Reinvest that time in a new place. As you practice these behaviors, they get easier. They become “how you do everything.” And they no longer feel like effort because you start to feel the ease of mastery. You hone your skills as you create good, productive design habits.
Peers and stakeholders start to treat you differently. They give you different (better) work. They ask for your opinion in new (important) areas. They seek out your counsel. You earn influence by demonstrating value with your behavior. It’s a virtuous cycle. You start it by giving your time and attention to something beyond your assignment and your day job.
The truth is, anyone can, and should, behave this way. Designers literally learned it all in school, so they simply have fewer excuses:
1. Use your skills of observation every day to uncover the unmet needs of your partners, stakeholders and peers. Not just your customers.
2. Use your skills of framing, storytelling and visualization to make those problems clear, concrete, emotionally evocative and worthy of action.
3. Use prototyping and ideation to explore a lot of ideas and iterate on them quickly in various fidelities and scales — not just your “what”, but your “how”, too. Make and iterate on stuff every day. Teach others how.
4. Test your product and experience ideas with experiments. Test your internal experiments the same way. Quickly and continuously. Measure. Adjust.
5. Use your command of your craft (visual design, customer mapping, modeling, frameworks, storytelling, experience design, clear communication design) to share what you’ve learned with others at every level. Add value not just by “making it pretty”, but by “making it compelling.”
Go forth. Become the Whole Designer you were meant to be.