The Colors of Design Cultures

How principles of Magic: The Gathering could help designers find their strengths, collaborate with their partners in a better way, and match their personalities with design roles.

I played a lot of video games back in the day. Alright, that’s a lie, I still do. Occasionally.

For me, the best kind of games were the ones that let you choose your character or — like us nerds call it — select a class. I was confused at first; it was really hard to choose. Am I a mage or a warrior? Or maybe a priest? I figured that I was neither strong nor all that smart, so I started playing as a rogue.

It quickly became clear that rogues are pretty weak; my character kept dying over and over. Then I discovered I could kill a lot of enemies with one blow by hiding in the shadows and striking them suddenly in the back — it was safe and very efficient. I was following my pre-defined character development path, and my backstabbing skills kept getting better. I learned how to play to my strengths.

After a while I ran into a bunch of monsters who were vigilant enough — they could see me lurking in the shadows so I couldn’t catch them off-guard. It seemed hopeless until I found another player — an amiable yet guileless warrior. He wasn’t smart enough to defeat some challenges, but his strong armor and large shield could withstand most blows. And while the monsters were beating the shit out this big oaf, I had enough time to sneak behind their backs and finish them off. I learned how to deal with my weaknesses by finding someone to cover my back.

White Squall

And then I got a job. Naturally, I was approaching my design career the way I had approached games. It felt like all I needed to do was advance my skills, get more experience, and gain levels. I thought the more skills I have and the more tools I master, the better I get as a designer. I was wrong.

You can acquire certain hard skills—like a new design tool or methodology. Soft skills are harder to learn because they’re more so a manifestation of an innate part of your personality. Storytelling is not about writing and speaking — it’s about fearlessly bringing your vision to your stakeholders. Time management is about patience and adaptability, and business alignment is about influence and winning people over.

Our design process is a reflection of who we are: smart and strategic, selfish and selfless, patient and passionate.

Unlike in a game, we don’t get to generate our design characters from scratch. At best, we can try figuring out who we already are.

But how do we find our strengths as designer? How do we know when we should continue iterating on our strengths, or when it’s time to partner up with someone? Could there be a system to suggest the right skill sets or the ideal teammates for different design tasks?

I started looking into personality measurement frameworks. I’m a solid ENTJ according to Myers-Briggs, an extreme Red-Blue in Personalysis, and have an EQ of four. What did those tests tell me? Essentially, I’m a senseless, ruthless sociopath who’s probably going to die alone.

To me, it felt like those tests are optimized for better face validity — they’re designed for people to say, “Yes, that’s me!” rather than, “This is who I want to become” or, better yet, “This is who I should work with.” And most self-reported personality types don’t relate much to each other; they aren’t designed to fit together or develop into something else.

The Blues Brothers

I realized that if we want to figure out who designers are, we might need a different kind of assessment; one that would help us match designers together, find partners, friends, or mentors for them — not just put labels on their foreheads. My boss, Steph Hay, had heard about Gallup’s StrengthsFinder and wanted to try it out within ONE Design. We piloted the assessment with the 20 designers on our team to see what it could reveal about our strengths, our personalities, and how they might affect our design roles.

In this test, people take a quiz and get assigned five out of 34 “strengths”. To me, 34 felt like a lot of variables; it was rather hard to match them together, not to mention make them actionable for career and team development. I was curious if the strengths could be categorized somehow to make them more manageable.

Gallup has their own system called leadership themes. As the name suggests, it’s about team management rather than partnership or individual development. I thought we needed something more flexible, focused on complementing different kinds of strengths, so that people could use them in combination with each other. Most importantly, I wanted to help designers relate to their strengths by finding common use cases in the world of design.

So I took a stab at it and broke the 34 strengths into five buckets, based not only on their descriptions, but also on their affinity to each other.

⚪️ White strengths are about humanity and communication—empathizing, building relationships with people, and finding consensus.

🔵 Blue strengths are about intellect and ingenuity—they help you analyze information to figure out solutions and ideas.

⚫️ Black is all about intent and strategy—it’s about knowing where you want to go, why you need to get there, and preparing everything for the journey.

🔴 Red is the color of action, will, and passion — it helps you to start moving forward, spark creativity, and fearlessly blaze the trail.

Green strengths are about the flow — they help you to keep going and develop the process through patient trial and error.

Most designers’ strengths fell within only two or three of these buckets. I started looking into people’s main pairs of colors—what kind of personality they might describe, how might they map back to design roles, and what kind of partnership might those personalities require.

Still with me? Ok, try this: choose two colors from above that sound like you, that feel like they describe you the best. Now hold onto those, we’ll get to them in a minute.

Men in Black

Alright, so I didn’t pick those five colors at random. I’ve spent 10 years of my life playing another game called Magic: The Gathering™. It is a strategy game of colors that are designed in careful balance with each other. There’s a very particular order to Magic colors —a wheel of white, blue, black, red and green. Players mix together two or three colors to match their personal style of playing.

Each pair of colors has a certain meaning, it describes a particular style of playing, and — ultimately — the player’s personality. What if these colors could define our designer personalities? There are 10 pairs total. Let’s imagine how they might apply to the world of design, and to all of us.

The adjacent colors are called allied — they have complementary strengths that naturally add up to each other. Allied colors are stable, but their stability makes them rigid and predictable. In order to balance them, Magic players sometimes go off the beaten path and add an opposing color to the mix. Likewise, when we’ve asked our designers WHY would they want to partner up with someone, they said because they were stuck, and needed a fresh perspective and a new set of skills to help them out.

⚪️🔵 WU combines people with knowledge and helps find genius solutions to human problems. Isn’t that pretty much the core of user experience design? In Magic, white-blue is slow and passive; its main weakness is the lack of resolve (🔴).

White-blue is also the most common color combination I’ve seen among designers. This combo is great at empathizing with people and ideating through solutions, but tell me they struggle most with getting started and moving things along. Great designers can spend hours and hours debating what could be, rather than just MAKING it and seeing what happens.

🔵⚫️ UB are the colors of strategy and rationality. Blue-black controls the game by thoughtful planning and cold, emotionless calculation, but often needs time and resources (✅) to execute the master plan. In design, blue-black could represent business alignment and product strategy.

⚫️🔴 When you put together too much passion with too much intent you get command and control. Some people dislike this color combination, it is tough, rough and ruthlessly effective. And yet, sometimes we need that. And perhaps the only way to make it work is by adding something completely opposite — great empathy and honest communication (⚪). In the world of design, black-red could apply to design governance, guidelines, and — quite often — performance management.

🔴✅ RG combines passion with craft; these are the colors of creative exploration and rapid prototyping. We all love that. Red-green’s weakness is the lack of measure — wild explorations need thoughtful metrics (🔵) to know when it’s time to stop.

✅⚪️ GW is where people meet process, it feels to me like the design culture itself. A culture of constant improvement through patient teamwork, relentless communication, our conversations, our stories of successes and failures. It is such a long journey. And what every road needs is a destination — it needs clear goals and outcomes (⚫).

Based on my StrengthsFinder results, my colors are ⚫️🔴🔵. It sounds like I might be good at design strategy and guidelines. No surprise there—I’ve spent a good share of my career developing creative strategies, product roadmaps and design styleguides of all sorts. And it always felt that I’m lacking are ⚪️✅ — empathy and patience. I keep working on those, and I’m partnering with people who do it better than me.

The Scarlet Letter

In Magic the opposing pairs are called enemy colors. They are might offer a lot of potential, but they are unstable and much harder to manage. These colors are already so different and inherently conflicted that perhaps they require a mediator, a peacemaker, something in between.

⚪️⚫️ WB is where people meet business intent— sounds like a pretty good fit for service design. Service design requires a lot of thought (🔵) to bring customers and associates together we’re using service blueprints and journey maps.

⚫️✅ BG are standardized processes — facilitation and design management. Building effective processes requires people to take action, and drive change with power and passion (🔴).

🔵✅ UG is where technology meets process — this is our day-to-day design delivery, sprints, scrums, and meetings with our tech partners. More than anything else it needs good communication between all of us (⚪)️.

🔵🔴 UR is where interaction design meets creative technology to create breakthrough inventions. It often requires business strategy (⚫)️ to stay viable and provide good returns on investment.

⚪️🔴 Finally, WR is the color of human passion and radical candor. This is what makes us open up, overcome our fears, and accept our vulnerability — to become better partners and connect with each other. But sometimes it takes time and patience (✅) to get used to.

Alright, so which colors are yours? Hard to decide? All of them? Yeah, I was like that. My first reaction to the StrengthsFinder was “WAIT A SECOND, BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL OF THOSE OTHER STRENGTHS I HAVE?”

We think we can be everything at once — kind, smart, strategic, passionate, and patient at the same time. It’s hard to find what we’re truly good at — something we can always share with others and be responsible for. And it’s even harder to admit you’re NOT great at something—to accept your vulnerability and ask for help.

The Green Mile

Let’s look into a couple of examples.

Steph is 🔴⚪️⚫️, a super-passionate mega-communicative executive — she’s our Head of Conversation Design. The colors she’s missing are blue and green, which might mean she could use some patience and process around technology (🔵✅).

Sydney is ⚫️✅🔵, she’s a real avatar of process and facilitation — and our events manager. She doesn’t have white and red, which means she could sometimes benefit from an extra spark of radical candor (⚪️🔴).

Unsurprisingly, Steph and Sydney make a great team — they use each other’s strengths while balancing weaknesses at the same time.

None of this means that me, Steph, or Sydney necessarily need to change (unless we want to), but it creates a shared vocabulary for all of us to find friends who share our strengths — or to seek help from the teammates who are good at something we’re not.

You can end up with any number of colors — the trick is accepting the ones that you consider your true strengths, and finding partners for the others.

Notice a great cluster of 🔵⚪️⚫️ — more than half of people in this pilot group seem to have a natural knack for human communications mixed with strategy. Guess what — all of these people are content strategists and conversation designers within ONE Design team.

Everyone has different motivations; some of us want to grow, some want to get shit done, and some just want to find buddies. Designers want to find partners and mentors. Team leads want to find the right people for their projects — or, better yet, find the right projects for the people they’ve already got. And getting to know each other’s strengths sounds like a pretty good start.

Every one of us has strengths that could inspire someone, help someone in the time of need, or make us better friends, colleagues — and people.

Talk to each other, share your strengths, share your knowledge, share your passion, and let’s build our design cultures together.


Unless noted otherwise in this post, Capital One is not affiliated with, nor is it endorsed by, any of the companies mentioned. All trademarks and other intellectual property used or displayed are the ownership of their respective owners. This post is © 2017 Capital One.

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