Design: mechanics, mindset, and mastery

What is the blend that makes you into an expert designer?

Suppose I wrote out the steps of a typical user-centered design process on a whiteboard (just pick any reputable textbook ;-) and someone walked into that room, memorized this process, and then executed it accurately for a client — is that person now a designer? Hmm.

Well, that’s exactly the question our professor asked the class, in the final weeks of a graduate design seminar at CMU, well over a decade ago.

I find it to be an interesting question to revisit in 2015, especially in light of the rapid rise of many short-form certificate programs in design, as either free/cheap online video tutorials or startups funded to churn out so-called “UX Designers” on demand (after they pay hefty tuitions, of course!), to accommodate all the wild demand in the field.

Certainly, anybody can be taught the rote mechanics of a tool or a process, as a sequentialized series of steps — the rawest form of tactics, that through incessant practice can become natural, intuitive like the muscle-memory of a piano player. But to become truly expert and valuable as such, requires a deeper level of engagement beyond simply 10,000 hours of practice.

Design in practice involves an ever evolving, dynamic relation of mechanics, mindset, and perhaps, ultimately a kind of alchemy— a transmutation of that which is understood & practiced into one’s own being. There’s a vital intellectual awareness of all this happening at multiple levels as you do the design work. Let’s break it down a bit…

Mechanics is that initial level of design practice (or activity, as “practice” implies a kind of behavioral rigor) for many entrants into the field, certainly those who are transitioning from other fields, possibly enamored of the “cool stuff” that may be created. Hey, that’s OK! It’s totally natural. You want to master the behaviors of tools and procedural sequences of steps towards creating and delivering something worthy of praise, or solves specific problems at a sufficient level. For the vast majority, this is perfectly acceptable as a goal and focal point to sustain one’s design aptitude. Yay!

Mindset is the next level of design practice, which requires a certain depth of forethought, around the purposes and values guiding the choices being made at the mechanics level. Understanding the “why”, the context (wherein constraints, contingencies, probabilities and possibilities, and thresholds for compromise all exist), and how they intertwingle to arrive at a nuanced appreciation for what’s really happening when design transpires— this frankly is what separates the beginners from those seeking to go deeper. This requires patience, persistence, and a critical, continual mindset of curiosity, wonderment, skepticism, with perhaps a dose of provocation. Asking how might we, why not, or what if we don’t do it this way… and so forth, are valuable. This provides a frame for applying those base level mechanics in a more deliberate, consequential manner, beyond tactical, rote execution.

But where the real magic of design practice happens — and what truly separates the beginners from bonafide masters — is the emergence of a kind of “alchemy” in practice, for lack of a better phrase. This is the sublime, intuitive, woven-within-you sense of design as a true art. Not art like funky paintings! Art as in a deeply connective, strategic, internalized sense, a lens upon the world of action and reaction, which natively guides your outlook, your habits, your conversations, your interactions with systems and process and culture in terms of Design (yes, with a capital D :-). This goes beyond the now proverbial 10,000 hours, demanding continual deep reflection on one’s practice, critical assessment of insights over the years, cultivation of one’s own ethos of a design philosophy with testament and conviction.

Sketching out the relationship. How does it all work together?

This alchemy — the elusive and somewhat magical blend of mechanics and mindset into something uniquely personal and very powerful in practice — involves a powerful sense for adaptation, the ability to anticipate and adjust dynamically per some as-yet-unforeseen circumstances, or awareness of certain attitudes, contingencies or other parameters. And along the way, maybe invent or re-invent, as the case may be, on the fly. Truly intelligent improvisation that’s contextual and still resonant with the needs of the moment.

So…back to that original question: I’m not sure memorizing & executing a “formula” for design make one a designer! It’s a very good and useful start, of course. But it’s just the first step towards a richer, deeper journey of actualizing one’s abilities with an emerging art for doing it at a level of intuitive mastery, if one choose that journey. That journey of truly being a designer takes significant time, practice, patience, and exposure to a wide variety of situations, guided by a reflective sense for self-improvement and adaptation to what’s possible. Understanding this dynamic of mechanics and mindset at play in your own work over the years is an essential aspect towards becoming a fully formed and masterful designer who can turn difficult challenges into beautiful moments of preferred change.

Originally published at

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