Building Your Design IQ

Mar 30, 2020 · 3 min read

“What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow…When you do that, the [championship] ring takes care of itself.” Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings

Basketball teaches us a lot about design. True players know that it’s not just about shooting the ball all the time — the actual mechanics are about keeping the ball moving and working together as a team to create scoring opportunities. This is what it means to play “good basketball” and it requires each player to have good Basketball IQ.

Basketball IQ is a player’s ability to read the situation at game speed, make good decisions, and execute the right play at the right time. It is a special awareness of the game that transcends mere technical skills.

Design IQ refers to the ability to make good decisions in a business context and a deep contextual awareness of the problem around the solution being built.

Let’s look at five ways to cultivate your Design IQ.

Think beyond the artifacts

In the last ten years, the driving question in the design process has shifted from “How can we make the most beautiful product?” to “Are we building the right thing?

Build your skillset not just in knowing what you are building or how to build it, but also why. Get comfortable with not knowing all the answers and focus on figuring out the right questions.

Improve your data literacy

The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter — Malcolm Gladwell

I was once observing a user test of an online learning platform where participants expressed that they didn’t know why certain course recommendations were being made to them. This was interpreted by some to mean that each recommendation should explain why it’s being shown. But others interpreted this to mean that the recommendations weren’t very good. Which one is correct? Data literacy means you can interpret information accurately and take the right action.

Cultivate self awareness

Everyone has used a product and has had an opinion about it, but that doesn’t make them a designer. In fact, many design researchers will tell you that people are quite inept at articulating why something does or doesn’t work. Designers, you should:

  1. Use lots of products and seek out a variety of life experiences.
  2. Expand your vocabulary for describing those experiences: What specifically is working or not working about it? What do you think contributed to that? How did it make you feel?
  3. Have some stories of failure and what you learned from them.

Look outside (your field)

My first computer science professor once said that the best programmers are not the ones that spend the most time in front of a screen, but the ones that fill their lives with a variety of life experiences. A high design IQ means seeing common threads across different experiences and allowing yourself to be inspired by anything. Just ask game designer and creator of Super Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, about his walks in the forest.

Be a role player

Another thing that design and basketball have in common is that the players often want to be the superstar — the Kobe Bryant or the Steve Jobs. But games are not won with everyone having the exact same skillset. The best design teams are made of people from different backgrounds who each understand the bigger picture and the role they play in it.

If you feel that you’ve maximized your technical skillset, consider taking your game to the next level by cultivating your Design IQ. We can prepare our design teams for the next decade by taking a page from Phil Jackson’s playbook and focus on playing the design game the right way.

Full of Truth

Ginmann manages a Design Studio in Boston, MA

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