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

Elite basketball players often talk about playing “good basketball.” It refers to how productively the team is moving and playing together, beyond the technical excellence of individual players. Achieving this requires each player to have a high basketball IQ, which is defined as 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 transcendent awareness of the game and the other players on the court.

For today’s designers to be successful, we need a similar way to describe the higher order awareness that individual designers need to be successful. We need to define a Design IQ.

Design IQ refers to the ability to make good decisions in a business context and a deep awareness of the players in a system (users, stakeholders, history, market) that contribute to a solution.

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. Your job may be to build artifacts, but it’s important to be aware of who the different decision-makers are and what their incentives are. You may only have the end user in mind, but all of the people involved in a project have an impact on how decisions are made.

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 simply weren’t very good. Which one is correct? More important than knowing the data is to know what it means and what actions to take.

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. Learn to fail well and tell a story about it.

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 how his walks in the forest inspired him.

Be a role player

Another thing that design and basketball have in common is that the players often want to be the superstar — the high point scorers and the idea generators. 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.

Take your game to the next level

If you feel that you’ve maximized your technical skillset, consider taking your game to the next level by cultivating your Design IQ. We would do well to take a page from Phil Jackson’s playbook and focus less on building the best product, and more on playing the design game the right way.

Ginmann Bai

Exceptional design leader and strategist with a full spectrum design skillset.

Ginmann Bai

Exceptional UX design leader and strategist with a full spectrum design skillset. Hands-on visual and interaction designer with managerial experience and a big picture mindset.


Written by


Design Manager based in Boston, MA

Ginmann Bai

Exceptional UX design leader and strategist with a full spectrum design skillset. Hands-on visual and interaction designer with managerial experience and a big picture mindset.

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