7 Lessons From Design in Practice

Collected advice for collaborating on professional design projects in a meaningful way.

Over the past decade I’ve had the good fortune to work in a number of international design studios, and to work with teams of incredibly talented designers. I’ve worked in a wide range of roles across disciplines, from architecture to digital product design.

Through these experiences I learned a few lessons about working in design; lessons that I’ve never seen written down, or taught in any class.

Inspired by the prolific output of thought leaders in the design industry like John Maeda, Julie Zhuo, and Verne Ho, I’ve tried to collect and share a few of these key ideas. Some of this advice was imparted by the generous mentorship of peers, and some lessons were learned the hard way.

1. Broad strokes, bold moves.

From the outset, focus on the broad strokes of the design. Think in terms of emotion, structure, and concept. Understand that the core hook of the project must be intelligible by a new visitor in <10 seconds. Push it to the absolute conceptual limit, before you eventually have to step back and apply the lens of practicality. Don’t worry about the details. Don’t get lost chasing a shadow. Look for bold moves to gain alignment. Awaken the heart to arouse the mind.

2. Show, don’t tell.

Anything, when an abstract idea, could be a viable solution if executed correctly. Don’t just talk about what you could do, would do, or should do. Do it. Test it. You need to do the work and produce a whole range of options to discover what actually works in context. You’ll learn lessons in generating options, and can use those to refine future versions. Make them as different as possible.

Sometimes it’ll take an hour to find a proposal that sets your bones resonating, and sometimes you’ll spend a day just learning what doesn’t work. Show me what you know won’t work, so we can talk about why. So often, when you’re pushing beyond your comfort boundaries in order to generate one or two more options, something that you couldn’t have pre-conceived will click. These ‘happy accidents’ are where great leaps forward are made.

3. Only ask questions that you already have an answer for.

If you’re working on something and feel like you’re blocked, take a shot at finding the answer before you loop someone else in. Generate options, and then ask for advice on which is the best fit (if any). You can’t expect someone who isn’t intimately aware of the intricacies of the project to have a solution to a specific challenge without context, and typically a managing partner or project lead is torn in a dozen directions simulataneously. Make their lives as easy as possible, and your efforts will be repaid.

“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved”
Charles Kettering

4. Embrace criticism. We’re talking about the project, not you.

Learning to convince someone of your design decisions, and feel confident in them, is an essential skill for a designer. Always volunteer for crits, and be the first to question and criticise yourself. There’s no ego here, everything can be justified if you’ve done the work. Cultivate a ‘safe space’ in the studio environment, that fosters this culture of open discourse. Sometimes your assumptions or conclusions can be flawed, but far better to have that come out internally than publicly. It’s important to have fresh eyes ask hard questions that you may not have considered. Internal reviews aren’t a place to ask open questions, they’re a place to validate decisions or present options for team discussion.

Ensure that in all of your presentation materials, the heart of the strategy is being clearly and elegantly communicated (see 1., above). Impenetrable, beautiful work is meaningless.

5. Test it. Test it again.

Know your audience. Meet with your imagined user base before you put pen to paper. You’re designing with a tangible goal in mind, even if you haven’t found it yet. External insight is invaluable. As a designer you’re a generalist, not an expert, and even a client won’t always fully understand the nuance of the audience they’re trying to appeal to. This process of inclusive, user-centric design can also quickly win over stubborn critics. Make everyone feel like they have a platform for expression, and that their voice matters.

That said, crowd-sourced design is almost exclusively awful. Use research to inform the process, and then test early proposals with the same controlled beta group to demonstrate that feedback matters, and to validate your decisions. Generate multiple higher-fidelity options for internal discussion, then only present one or two to the client, confident in the rationale for each decision made (and supported by documented testimonials & research).

6. Jump scales.

This is more specific to physical than digital, but if you find yourself burning down on a certain facet of the project, either zoom all the way in or all the way out. If you’re working on a house and the ground floor plan isn’t flowing, think about the block plan, or the materiality of the front stair railing. However, one caveat — it can be all too easy to safely draw maps instead of having to make design decisions. Don’t wrap yourself in the warm blanket of high-level systematic planning in order to avoid trying on the uncomfortable New and making real choices.

7. Be positive & energetic.

The archetype of the lone, surly genius is horseshit. You need friends, mentors, and advocates. No-one operates in a vacuum, independently churning out vanity projects while being lauded for their skill and intellect. No matter how much praise you collected in D-school, remember that experience can’t be learned. You haven’t been exposed to the intricacies of client management, or discovered how to motivate a contractor. You haven’t carefully weighed compromises to meet a budget, or had to recover after a pitch for a winning idea flopped. There’s so much more to learn — be grateful that someone is giving you the framework to grow, and paying you at the same time. Try and retain this perspective, ‘be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise’ of your team-mates, and be pleasant when everyone else is stressed. Coffee helps.

Bonus (7+1). Protect your passion projects.

Often the most exciting innovations on a project will be brought in by someone who is motivated to do great work to prove a point.

Header photo taken by the author at Rick Joy Architects, 2007.