Adaptability As the Key to Success in Design

Milo Goodman
Published in
4 min readSep 13, 2018


Embracing change and a future of infinite possibilities, though daunting, will inevitably strengthen your ability to adapt — and in turn, design. The ability to adapt can arguably lead to success in any field, but it has a multifaceted importance for designers. Beyond adapting to ever-changing tech specs, rotating team members, and the demands of clients and users, designers can set themselves up for success by learning to remain flexible cognitively, emotionally, and situationally.

Cognitive Adaptability

In order to adapt well, it’s important to understand the value of progress and react accordingly by making an effort to keep up with the changing world around you. Designers do this by not only being competent in art and visual communication, but also by becoming fluent in coding and knowledgeable of relevant software and technologies. Your clientele will also expect you to anticipate, understand, and design for the wants and needs of their business stakeholders. While wearing multiple hats can be undeniably challenging, well-rounded designers are better equipped to succeed professionally.

The constant evolution of technology also requires a certain level of adaptability from designers. Twenty years ago, you could only design handheld 3D games and augmented reality experiences in your dreams. On the flip side, designers may notice a rise in seemingly inconceivable jobs like gamification designer, chief drone experience designer, and human DNA and organ designer sooner than you’d think. We can’t predict the future, but we can welcome it — and that makes all the difference.

Emotional Adaptability

Creating a design that enriches the end user’s experience necessitates putting yourself in the shoes of your client and their audience and learning to overcome your own confirmation bias. This can require a level of emotional intelligence that transcends everyday empathy.

“If a company is using new tech but only the engineers are working on it, then it’s missing those touches that designers [have to] give it — the human element, the emotional element, the user experience,” explains Krista Van Guilder, a senior UX designer. “We as designers are doing more than just dressing something up and making it look cool. We understand how to use the tech in a meaningful way, not just adding all of the bells and whistles because we can.”

This isn’t likely to change anytime soon, either. It’s becoming common knowledge that creating for human beings is a more effective strategy than focusing on mastering metrics. As the ubiquity of personalization increases, so will the amount of emotion informing the development and design of user experiences. The more memorable and meaningful the design is, the more it will resonate with users.

Situational Adaptability

Rather than letting challenging circumstances control you, a flexible worldview is fundamental for designers. Approaching change as an opportunity rather than a threat can positively influence both the way you work and your work itself.

Because the realm of tech is constantly evolving, it’s important that designers are able to stay both optimistic and realistic during times of adjustment or transition. Good leaders can acknowledge shaky situations and plan for a better future by demonstrating confidence, and this applies to design as well.

Take, for example, a designer who invested hours in a project only to be told by their team leader that they need to start over with new data. Rather than focusing on the amount of time and effort lost, a flexible team member would likely confront the challenge head-on. The same goes for designers working in a team with revolving members or facing a finicky client. This kind of adaptability increases productivity and helps keep teams stable through times of change.

How Can I Become More Adaptable?

Be curious, ask questions, and get involved. You can start by reading relevant articles and research, checking out websites like GitHub, listening in on conferences and podcasts, and taking free online courses. Becoming an engaged part of the design community is an easy way to anticipate and keep up with technological trends, and working alongside your peers and predecessors can help you learn from their trials and tribulations.

Challenging yourself to try new things can help keep you on your toes, too. “Today’s designer needs to pivot quickly as things move fast, industries transform, and startups go belly-up overnight,” says Van Guilder. “Don’t let yourself become stagnant… [and] don’t get comfortable.”

Paying attention to the style and success of your peers’ responses to various scenarios can help you to become more situationally adaptable; whenever you find yourself faced with a similar set of circumstances, you can draw on your observations for reference.

Designers can also work on increasing their emotional flexibility by recognizing and understanding the restrictions of their own preconceptions and biases, whether that includes assumptions about their audience’s abilities or opinions on user experience. Working on the development of certain soft skills such as conflict resolution also help you to become more emotionally and situationally adaptable — and manage your client’s expectations, too.

No matter what route you take, keeping up with the ever-advancing world of technology, becoming aware of the limitations of your own preconceptions, and having an open mind are all key steps to take in your pursuit to become a more adaptable designer, and in turn, a successful one.

While adaptability is a critical quality, there’s something to the adage that there can be too much of a good thing. This is especially relevant when it comes to cognitive adaptability, as no one wants to be a jack of all trades but a master of none. We delve further into this issue here.