4 Roles A Designer Should Take On

Some simple ideas on how to be more than a designer


The following quote is from Milton Glaser, in a presentation to the AIGA NY chapter. I first read this on Cameron Moll’s blog.

“While I was in the doctor’s office I noticed a document on his wall called ‘What A Surgeon Ought to Be’ written in the 14th century. I’ve changed a word or two but it seems like good advice for our profession.

Let the designer be bold in all sure things, and fearful in dangerous things; let him avoid all faulty treatments and practices. He ought to be gracious to the client, considerate to his associates, cautious in his prognostications. Let him be modest, dignified, gentle, pitiful, and merciful; not covetous nor an extortionist of money; but rather let his reward be according to his work, to the means of the client, to the quality of the issue, and to his own dignity. ”

I wish I could have read this years ago. It’s a great foundation to have. When I first started as a graphic designer I didn’t know where my boundaries were. No one told me because I think no one knew, at least in South Texas. I thought it was do as your told, design it like this, get it done tomorrow.

Whether you’re a design student, web designer, or creative director, I think we should try to better define what a designer ought to be which in turn will change what people expect out of a designer.

I’m going to give you 4 roles that have helped me grow as a creative, as a business owner and definitely as a designer.

Be a Problem Solver
Be an Owner
Be a Communicator
Be an Adventurer

1. BE A PROBLEM SOLVER (or Problem Finder)

If there was a zombie apocalypse tomorrow and all technology was suddenly destroyed, no internet, no phones, no computers, designers could still design. There would be people who could solve problems creatively. Solving problems is the essence of what we do. It’s not that perfect masking job you did in photoshop or that gorgeous font that took you an hour to find.

It’s the process you went through to identify what problem you’re solving, and how you solved it that makes you a designer.

During my first jobs, I waited. I waited for someone to tell me what to design. I waited for someone to decide the colors I was using were good. I waited for someone to tell me the problem I’m trying to solve. My design work was about pleasing the client and my boss.

These days I establish the problem. And you don’t need to be in a position of management to do so. If you’re a new designer working for someone, you are there to solve problems. Defining those problems is where your skills should be focused first and foremost. You’re there to think of issues to overcome that your client or boss haven’t or can’t think of. Think about things differently and you’ll bring value to the project.

2. BE AN OWNER

You don’t have to be the owner of your company to be the owner of what you do. When we say owner, we’re talking about someone who doesn’t wait to be told to do something. We’re talking about someone who goes beyond what’s asked of them to produce a better product. We’re talking about someone who can initiate, who can motivate and someone who questions things in an intelligent way.

Jason Fried’s gives the advice “Make something for yourself”. Making something for yourself gives you a reason to pour your passion into it because it’s yours. I challenge you to try to apply that passion to work that comes from a client or a manager. Sometimes it takes the right client to understand what you’re trying to do but good clients understand good ideas. If you give them an option they haven’t thought about, they’ll listen and consider it.

3. BE A COMMUNICATOR (or Storyteller)

Knowing how to communicate a message in the clearest way possible is one of the best tools a designer can have. We take images and words and we communicate an idea to someone. “Who is your audience” is something we were taught early on, but I think as designers we can take it farther than that. What is your audience’s motivations? What is your client’s motivations? What are the goals you are trying to achieve with your design? What is the single most important thing you want your audience to get from your design?

Every time we begin a new project at Barrel Roll Creative, whether that’s a website, a mobile app or even marketing material for a client, those are the questions we ask. Those answers fuel your work and give you the ammunition to make your design decisions.

So try to write more. Try to read more. The more you study language and people, the better you’ll be at getting your message across clearly.

4. BE AN ADVENTURER

For me, one of the best parts of this field is how quickly it changes. Technology is always improving and what was possible a year ago is significantly different than what’s possible today. So with every new project I try to explore new territory. Don’t get stuck doing the same things over and over. Try a new process, improve on an old one, or experiment with something you’ve always wanted to try. As designers we want to be adaptable and ever-improving.

At my company, after every project we asses how that project went. What went wrong? What went right? How can we adjust our process in the next project so both the client and our team have a better experience?

Don’t be afraid to really swing for the fences in your work. Granted, some projects will have strict requirements that could limit that. But pick your battles and don’t forget to enjoy what you do. Don’t be afraid to try something and fail. You’ll get it right the next time around. And the fulfillment from the success will be all the richer.


When I first started out I didn’t know what I could be as a graphic designer. No one told me. But it’s these roles I’ve discovered that have contributed to better clients, higher quality work, a better working environment, less stress and a general sense of happiness. Stepping into these roles now removes a lot of problems I ran into early on.

At Barrel Roll Creative I think we’ve established ourselves as problem solvers, owners of our work, communicators and adventurers. For me that’s exciting every day.

So going back to Milton Glaser’s quote What a Designer Ought to Be he says “let his reward be according to his work”. We receive our joy and fulfillment from our work. So get out there and do it in a way you love.