Is there too much to know to be an effective designer?

Jon Kolko
Jon Kolko
Apr 6 · 8 min read

Design is a full-bodied discipline, but we’re letting new entrants to the profession only scratch the surface.

When I was an undergrad, I took a class with Randy Pausch called Programming Usable Interfaces. One of the first things he did was give us a free book called Usability Engineering, which reiterated the main theme of the course: that it’s critical to make interfaces that are usable.

At a similar time, I took a class with Dick Buchanan, and one of the first things he did was ask us to reflect on and explain the differences between design and art. 20-something years later, I’m still not sure I can offer a crisp distinction, but that doesn’t change the fact that his question shaped my emerging perspectives on design, reinforcing the importance of usability.

For myself and others who grew up in this era of computing and design foundationally highlighted areas where a design solution could make things usable, useful, and desirable. Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Thingspointed out that shower dials turn the wrong way, doors push where they should pull, the stove burners map haphazardly to the buttons that work them, and the world is generally out to get us because of “bad design.”

This idea of viewing the world as a series of human-made problems also surfaced when examining digital interfaces, which — unlike annoying doors that push instead of pull — actually had the ability to cause material problems. In school, I learned to propose interface and system solutions to make software easier to use. We were taught not to focus on “user-friendly” but instead to advocate for usability as a fundamental in software development.

Ultimately, I graduated knowing that I had a design hammer, and the world was full of nails. This was my formative view of our profession. It’s unique because of when I learned design, and whom I learned it from.

Design Through the Generations

Beauty

Form and Function

Wassily Chair from Knoll

Usability

This is the focus that shaped a large part of my initial understanding of design.

Problem Solving

Leveraging this process in such a broad, flexible manner also shaped a large part of my understanding of design.

Innovation

Experience and Service

Designers who gained experience during this generational focus expanded on the notion of usability to introduce pleasure — the idea that a digital product can be more than just a utility, and that services “count” as first-class citizens of design, whether or not they have digital components.

Impact

Strategy

Value

Is the profession too big to know?

For example, the “strategy generation” of design still includes a lot of aesthetics and innovation — they aren’t mutually exclusive. In order to practice design — and do it well — we need to be proficient in all of these principles.

It can feel overwhelming for new designers, but there’s a precedent we don’t often think about — medicine.

“To give you some idea of the extent of medical information overload, it has been estimated that about 560,000 new medical articles are published every year and 20,000 new randomised trials are registered. That’s equivalent to 1500 new articles per day and 55 new trials.”

Glasziou P, Haynes B. The paths from research to improved health outcomes. ACP J Club. 2005;142(2):A-8–10.

Intellectually, we can see that it’s unfair to go to a neurologist and expect them to be experts in the functions of the kidney, eye, foot, or any other part of the body. But emotionally, we do just that. We see a “doctor” as an expert in medicine — all medicine — just as we imagine a “lawyer” as an archetypal expert in law. And what’s more, there are real pressures on members of those professions to be experts in all aspects of their discipline. If a neurologist does something to a patient that negatively impacts their vision, it’s not sufficient to shrug and say, “well, vision wasn’t their specialty.”

This is not the problem of a “unicorn” — someone who can make beautiful screens, code, make wireframe flows…and win MMA fights. It’s a problem of broad professional expectation.

I speak with hiring managers who are perpetually frustrated with this. They aren’t frustrated with the fact that junior designers don’t know as much as senior designers. They are frustrated with freshly-minted designers who have been led to believe that they can focus on some of the later things in the evolution I described above — impact, strategy, and value — without ever gaining competency in earlier, foundational, aspects of design.

Just because the discipline is complex doesn’t mean we can ignore most of it.

The parallels to medicine aren’t exact, but one thing we can learn from that world is the idea of specialization as a pathway on top of generalization, not instead of it. Practitioners need to study a broad and deep overview of medicine before focusing — with even more depth — on a specialization.

We’ve swung the pendulum too far to the side of “let’s get you a job,” at the expense of “let’s make sure you are equipped to do that job.” That equipping requires running back down the ladder of generational themes, and making sure designers can perform with confidence down the entire stack.

It takes many years of school and of practice to become a doctor, yet the message we’re telling people who are emerging from short-term design programs and bootcamps, or people who have been reorged into UX roles from program management or BA roles, is that they can — and should — skip all of that and just be an expert already. But I know that “become a doctor in 10 weeks” would never fly. And that’s a fundamental problem for the future of design. Whether the future is more of the same, or includes a broadening of the field itself, perhaps into the world of design ethics, nothing is more certain than that design is a discipline in which success depends on a strong and stable foundation before proclaimed mastery of specialty.

Perspectives on Design by Modernist Studio

Methods, Innovations, and Futures

Perspectives on Design by Modernist Studio

Modernist Studio is a strategy, experience design, and innovation consultancy that designs and builds the future across products, services, experiences and teams. Learn more: http://moderniststudio.com/

Jon Kolko

Written by

Jon Kolko

Chief Operating Officer, Modernist Studio

Perspectives on Design by Modernist Studio

Modernist Studio is a strategy, experience design, and innovation consultancy that designs and builds the future across products, services, experiences and teams. Learn more: http://moderniststudio.com/

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