The modern, mature digital designer.

What qualities make for a good designer—today?

As someone approaching 15 years of professionally designing across enterprise & consumer domains, I’ve been reflecting lately upon what it means to be a mature digital product designer.


By that phrasing I mean someone who is beyond those initial, awkward yet excitable years of getting one’s feet wet, having crossed some thresholds of achievement, with a qualified sense of pragmatic idealism not too contaminated by shades of jaded cynicism…yet! And in the current context of ubiquitous presence, smart algorithms, connected devices, and anything-as-a-service spanning bodyware to healthcare, what do these emerging facets of digital design mean for such a mature designer? Furthermore, we must contend with “design” increasingly valued by founders, funders, and executives, with expanding in-house teams; what is that impact, as well?

Below are some essential qualities for a digital product designer to succeed in this modern environment.

* Not easily intimidated by— and indeed relishes the opportunity to tackle— scale, ambiguity, complexity, and assorted wickedness, with a nimble sense of artistry, curiosity, and humility.

* Intuitively recognizes the inevitable, inherent interrelations of brand, behavior, usability, marketing, strategy and overall “experience”, beyond elementary role/task divisions. A holistic vision persists and pervades.

* A steadfast ability to be unfazed by constantly changing tech, with roots grounded in the fundamentals of empathic understanding, contextual synthesis and swift visualizations to enable productive conversations. The emphasis is on what lies beneath the techie glamour.

* Thinks in terms of “first principles”, daring to ask fundamental questions on the origins, purposes, values of problems being tackled, eagerly digging deeper at a humanistic level of interpretation and interaction. This means not yielding to “first blush” conventions, thus willing to advocate “radical notions” that stimulate novel ideas and provoke critical reactions.

* Knows how to nimbly dance with data, either quantitative or qualitative, exercising good judgment in ambiguous and incomplete situations, to deliver the best solution. This requires constant assessing of tradeoffs, risks, benefits, per criteria that map to those aforesaid “first principles”.

* A highly evolved sense of self-awareness, intuitively considers the materiality, medium, and expression of various digital solutions in terms of cooperative strategy and individualized tactics— for platforms, services, apps, protocols, modules, screen sizes, micro-interactions, and so forth.

* Carries an ever-expanding reservoir of creative material — “the fodder” — for inspiration on-demand, drawn from years of experience, snapshots and memories of specific situations addressed in the past, with an intuitive grasp for the underlying patterns that define such moments. Doesn’t just stop at the digital, but also considers the physical and natural worlds, for complimentary or even contrary perspectives.

* Knows how to supplement textbook HCI/UX knowledge with orthogonal, yet useful inspirations— novel discoveries in a range of discontinuous fields like fine art, science, drama, literature, music, politics, etc.

* Fearlessly explores, sketches, experiments, prototypes, and iterates obsessively with continual feedback & judgment cycles, knowing that any of it will be discarded at any time. This requires a willingness to sacrifice one’s own concepts or directions for the sake of what’s truly better for the system, business, or market at-large.

*Not distracted by Lean, Agile, Design Thinking, or whatever the “mot du jour” is, remains resilient in the face of exciting trends or fads and focuses on what’s best for the business & customer.

* Embodies a certain savviness to navigate through a range of tools, trends, styles. Meanwhile, designs to an internal compass of doing what’s right, necessary, and sufficient to support the original business & design aims. Driven by a pursuit of ideals (i.e., design integrity), guided by pragmatic concerns, with sound doses of strategic & tactical awareness of the situation.

Of course, this is not a perfect or exhaustive list of defining characteristics of the modern, mature digital designer. Many of these qualities have been present in those designers of legendary status (Paul Rand, the Eameses, Vignelli, Rams, etc.), just extended into a more multivariate context of designing for digital media & devices. Hopefully these points will serve as an aspirational guide for any designer seeking to evolve their own professional stake in this field.

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