What separates a designer from other people? All the design-thinking-two-day-boot-camps, visualization-in-a-day-workshops and design-sprint-weeks might lead to the impression that everyone can design. Everybody can design and that is cool. I’m all for co-creation, drawing, and reawakening our inner children to become more creative. But I like to compare this to sports. Anyone can go and sit in a race car, but you cannot compare this to the level of Max Verstappen — someone who has trained for this his whole life. Apart from talent, the difference comes down to training. Design and creativity use all kinds of muscles you can train. And what separates designers from other people is that they have been training their design and creativity muscles for a long time.
So what muscles did designers train?
The hands: visualization muscles
This is an obvious one. Designing, creating something, usually involves making something. Whether it is sketching or building a prototype, you have to make your ideas real. In order to communicate them to others, but also for yourself. Designing things, solving problems in creative ways, typically happens in iterations and this means: getting an idea onto paper, looking at it and getting ideas about the next iteration. If you make things visual, you can start to think visually, which is a great step forward in your creative capacity. This means you are adding a part of your brain to your problem-solving process other than your lingual brain. This radically increases your creative problem-solving capacity.
The eyes: seeing muscles
One muscle that is connected to the visualization muscle is the seeing muscle. Our brains filter out a lot of information about the world around us. That is a good thing because, without those filters, we would go crazy from the information overload. The downside of those filters is that we miss a lot of information. Creative problem solving is about seeing the solutions that other people have missed, seeing that crucial piece of information others don’t. Apart from their visualization muscles, designers have strong seeing muscles. They see the world differently, they see things other people miss. These things are in the visual-design realm: signs, forms, colors. But also in the functional domain: interactions, flows, information. Typically designers look at the world and see what’s wrong and they typically think about how to fix those wrongs all the time. Seeing, getting past the filters, is something you have to train. If you spend your time making things, you are also training yourself in seeing.
The brain: connecting muscles
This brings us to the next muscle: the brain. The brain works on the basis of connections. Every time you learn something new, new connections are built. Designers spent their time coming up with new things. To design something is to create something that wasn’t there before, to create a new reality. This activity has its impact on the connections in your brain. Constantly feeding your brain with inspiration and constantly trying to come up with new, creative ideas, trains the brain, creates more and different connections. These patterns and connections in the designer’s brain helps him to create faster, to become more and more creative as he gets more experiences. His brain is trained for creativity, for new connections.
But it’s not just about muscle power. Creativity is also about flexibility. Just like an athlete, performance is not only determined by muscle power, but also by flexibility. Coming up with new ideas involves taking risks. Designers know that that is part of their job. Without risks, no creativity. You have to make connections that were previously not there and that is risky because it might turn out to be a stupid connection. Designers are unafraid of failure. In fact, they fail so much every day that they don’t even see it as failure but as experimentation, sketching. Designing something new involves failing many times. So designers are unafraid of trying something new. This makes their brain very flexible. It keeps them young. Flexibility, agility, play, is key to creativity. And making your brain flexible takes time, energy and focus. Designers train their minds every day to be more flexible. They can adopt multiple views and mental models.
The connection to the subconscious
These are all things you can train in your conscious brain. And if you train them every day for years, you will get better. But that is not where designers get their superpower when it comes to creativity. The biggest secret to creativity lies in the subconscious brain. The subconscious brain is the most powerful part of your brain. Bursts of inspiration, lightning flashes of insight, creative genius, all come from the subconscious brain. The problem is access. You cannot control the subconscious brain directly. What you can do is become better friends with your subconscious brain. If you start listening to it more, give it interesting things to work on, you can start to build a better connection. The subconscious brain speaks in a different language that you’ll have to master. The subconscious brain speaks a more emotional language, a language of feeling. Every time you have the feeling something is not right or you should try something else, it’s your subconscious brain talking to you. The eyes are also a good way to talk to your subconscious brain. Visual thinking is also something the subconscious brain likes. Designers are better at visual thinking and emotional thinking so they typically have a better connection to their subconscious brain. They speak the same language.
Designers trained using the emotions in their work and how to think with their eyes. I think practicing design is an excellent gateway to intuition.
“That’s what separates a designer from other people: every day training for many years.”
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.