Design without Ego

A personal endeavor for creation in product teams.

It’s a real challenge to create new and novel solutions, especially as development tools continue to allow more imagination to become reality.

When designing the right solution, how do we accept that we may be wrong, but act confidently enough in subjective decisions?

Creativity in its best moments does not come from any of us, rather it comes through us.

The path to the right design is found while getting out of the way — whether in our own mind, or collectively as a team. It is designing without Ego.

Defining this Ego

There are many ways you might define or describe the Ego, and we can use all of these for the moment:

  • In the west we relate it to “the part that thinks highly of one’s self”.
  • It’s that person I consider “me”… who has a name, opinion of one’s self, and memories.
  • It’s the spoken thought in one’s head
  • It’s the part of you that thinks you’re an individual
  • The part of you that has anxiety

Look at the Ego now

Pause for a moment in silence and wait for a thought to arise — don’t worry it won’t take but 3 or 4 seconds. Wait now until you hear a thought in your head.


Where did it come from?

If you like, try it again… notice what it feels like as your silent mind suddenly generates a thought out of the darkness, and if you choose not to propel the thought further, notice how it dissipates back where it came from.


☝️ That’s your ego serving up you — involuntarily, like a heartbeat.

Btw — if you went through with the moment of pause, you just spent time in “Mindfulness Meditation”. I recently heard a wonderful quote on the value of doing this regularly:

If you want to understand the mind, sit down and observe it.
 — Anagarika Shri Munindra

With the above in perspective, let’s take a look at the design process at a typical startup in Silicon Valley.

Our own work, and team work

I believe these are the two largest challenges we’re faced with each day: our own work, and team work. Go figure, that’s everything.

The productivity in both Our Work and Team Work can be hyper-charged when we’re collectively intentional, mindful and open. There are times the Ego is needed to think through a logical decision, or compute some problem, and those are great times to call the thinking mind to action — but know when to let it fall away.

At the desk, alone with our head

This is a great opportunity to let the power of creativity (a sort of force in the Universe) take over our intuition.

You’ve probably felt this at a time when the hours fly by and you eventually discover a gorgeous creation you’ve been working on. In these moments little-to-no thought occurs, and we’re in a flow state. The Ego got out of the way.

With other heads in the room

When we’re with the team, ideating, the exploration really flows if everyone is contributing to an idea with no desire to control (external, obvious) and we are not doubting ourselves, questioning motives, or taking ownership of an idea (internal, not so obvious).

I believe ownership of an idea is the worst way to reach the best design. An idea is not your identity, it was given to you. That’s why it seems to come from out of nowhere.

When we design without Ego in the presence of our product team, we’re allowing creation to flow through us and into the group. As everyone allows creation to flow freely, using thought only to manage the logistics of dialogue, the product steers itself toward the Truth.

So with intention, back your desires and identity away and let discovery arrive while the Ego is kept at bay. Do this not only to start a creative endeavor, to but continue through the long enduring polish of a masterpiece.

Use active thought (Ego) when it’s needed

Our design research data is a science that should be mined with our brains.

For tactical work, sure it’s great to chip away the task list using the Neo Cortex to navigate decisions, questions, and organization.

It’s ideal to roughly schedule what sections of the day you’ll devote to active, vocal, thought; what hours are devoted to open creation; and which will be with team members.

Ego and Teams

This matter of the Ego is especially pressing when moving through the gauntlet of conflicting opinions, desires to be favored or find validation, and with the intense sprint schedules of typical startup life. So it’s vital to remove the Ego when cooperating with team members during the exploration and discovery phase of a feature.

This is why group discovery games are so helpful. People set distractions aside during focussed activities that help the Egos melt away. No one’s idea is judged, and often no one knows who’s idea it is. This is an ideal situation for teams to build something with piece-by-piece contributions from the members — focussing directly on the creation without awareness of their own efforts.

As a product team, we are sculpting a solution together. Let’s take this literally for a moment and imagine sculpting an accurate bust of Leonardo Da Vinci with the help of your colleagues. There is only 1 thing that his real nose looked like, and so the only debates needed are evidence for the correct shape. Disagreement is a non-issue as we act like one mind in contemplation of the answer. Who makes a final sway of the decision is irrelevant, and focussing on anything but the answer is a waste of time.

So we do not try to have all the answers, but make ourselves available to the answer. To identify with a design is to be at risk of missing a better design, since the more we allow ourselves to feel right, the more we’ve prevented discovery of additional truth.

The goal is to set our own viewpoint aside as “Plan B” in case a greater truth does not present itself.
This is opposite the common behavior: “keep my view point as Plan A unless someone can better it.”

Keeping our own viewpoint as “Plan A” creates a ripple effect across the product team as other members need to compensate for our commitment to an idea. Worse: when these ripples are coming from multiple directions.

Have faith. Be patient. If the idea is right, and all Egos are out of the way, the right solution will be inevitable.

The joy of letting go

This can be a deceptive challenge since there’s a dichotomy between creative struggle, the soul-wrenching quest that goes into creating, and detaching one’s identity from creation. But therein is part of the answer: since removing our Ego also calms the creative quest from feeling so much like torture.

When we detach ourselves from a sense that this creation defines us, we allow the creation to live on its own, which gives it a sense of purity that is more beautiful.

Design without Ego means not wanting our user test to have particular results.

Design without Ego means being joyful when someone points out an oversight in our work.

Design without Ego means appreciating when someone disagrees, because they are offering more insight and perspective.

Design without Ego means teams focus together on the path ahead, rather than watching their own feet walk the path toward a desired solution.


Let me know if any of this was interesting or helpful to your work.

More about me: a Product Designer at Plume WiFi in Palo Alto. Plume is an Adaptive WiFi™ system that is becoming the backbone for internet and IoT at home.

Also come by my UX Speed Testing event in San Francisco to test your prototypes and talk with other designers.

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