What kind of designer are you?

Any designer has a unique mix of knowledge about users, business and technology. What is your own mix?

In the past weeks, I’ve been sketching the same diagram, over and over again.

Business — Users — Technology. Where do you stand? Where do you want to go?

Every time it happened, it was prompted by a conversation around the structure of a design team, or the things a designer could do to grow, or the career paths that design offered.

Product designer, user experience designer, interface designer, service designer, interaction designer, visual designer: I never found those distinctions to be useful, because I rarely meet two people using them to express the same thing. Precise vocabulary is great when everyone agrees on the definitions — otherwise, it’s a big source of confusion.

So instead, I just draw this simple triangle, with 3 words on it: users, business, and technology. And I explain the following.

  • Each edge is a dimension that a designer can be good at. A designer can always get better at dealing with users, or business, or technology, regardless of seniority.
  • At any given point, a designer is somewhere in the triangle. His position is the result of his past efforts. The more a designer has invested in one dimension, the closer he will be to that edge.
  • Moving around the triangle takes focused effort. If you’re trying to become better in all dimensions at once, guess what? You won’t be moving at all. So choose in which direction you want to move.
  • There is no right position to be in. That’s a key point. A designer can be perfectly at the center of the triangle, or at the far extreme of one edge. Both are equally interesting.
  • The right balance can depend on context. For example, I started my career by learning HTML/MySQL/PHP, because my work wouldn’t have an impact without someone coding it. Then I realized it was impossible to prioritize features without understanding users, so I invested in psychology-related topics. Then, as I discovered that the best protection for a design project was clear alignment with key metrics, I got better at interpreting business strategy.

The main value that I get out of the conversations triggered by this diagram is more clarity on what matters to the person I’m talking to. It’s simple enough to be drawn, understood and memorized in two seconds — and I’ve found that the best frameworks share the same characteristics.

If you’ve been using it, please let me how it’s been working out for you.