Design and Product Management hashing it out

Why a great designer is more than “just” a designer

I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a great designer on your team as I continue to build out the design team at TrackMaven. Whether a product designer or a communications designer, there are base level skills that everyone must have. But in order to truly succeed I believe there are additional skills that push you to the next level.

That first level has your basic requirements — a good eye for design, a style that is ever evolving and flexible, and a knack for learning new skills. These are literally the base line for a designer to get more than a quick email saying no thanks. I want to see at a quick glance what your attention to detail is — whitespace, typography pairing, color theory, if you have the ability to adjust your style according to the client you work for, and what you are doing to improve yourself on a daily basis.

Every mid-level designer, with a couple years under their belt, gets this. Well, anyone worth their salt. But what about beyond those basic skills? There are more things to look for when considering a new hire.

Understanding that design is not only aesthetic

This seems basic, but there are still so many designers I talk to or hear about on a regular basis who are in it just to “make it pretty”.

And believe me, I want you to have that skill. I want you to care about the aesthetic value and the ultimate impact it has on the brand you’re working with. I want you to understand and have opinions on the meaning of color both physiologically and culturally.

But there are two things I usually see with young designers: not understanding the problem they are really solving for and not thinking past their small part of the puzzle.

A user flow board by product designer Rebecca Machamer.

How can a designer improve in this regard? Absorb as much as possible, as early and often as possible. The more you know about a project, a concept, a mission, the more you’ll have in your tool belt as you continue to work on a project. Earlier in my career I worked with many clients who I could give two shits about as far as their mission went — I only cared about designing my piece (and usually, back then, had an IA who had already thought the problem out for me).

But now I realize the value of understanding these things, because it helps you craft a better story. Think about it — if you would have poured through some obscure marketing material that your client gave you, or understood how the sales process within your company worked, that information could be helpful to you one day as you work to solve a problem. Arm yourself with as many resources as possible to most effectively do your job.

Remember, design is not art, it is problem solving.

Understanding that they aren’t doing this for themselves

This one runs into the previous one a bit, but there’s definitely more to it. So many designers are worried about the perception the work they do gives off. That it’s not “sexy” enough or prestigious enough. You’re in it for the wrong reasons — you are there to solve a problem. That particularly minimalist style you’ve perfected is not right for every client or situation (or most, I would wager).

Designers have to be aware of this. You went to school for design, you’ve decided to make a career of it, or at the very least, make it a significant portion of your life and career. You have formed a skill that you are continuing to craft, and thusly are being paid to perform that skill. This is not to say you shouldn’t have a say in what you are working on, but at the end of the day, you are forming someone’s idea, even if it’s from the earliest ideation phase.

Realizing that the first solution isn’t usually the best

Every designer who’s been in it a while knows that you have to iterate. It’s an annoying word that comes up a lot in my vocabulary, but if time permits, that idea sucks compared to the next iteration of it. You can put that idea in front of people — the consumers, users, fellow designers, people in the hall — and get valuable feedback on things that you are too attached to. A second pair of eyes is a wonderful thing to have in your arsenal.

Every great designer knows they have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, especially one worth eating. But a key thing here is remembering not to waste the whole dozen — if you continue iterating, or changing your mind, or flitting from idea to idea, you are never going to get anything accomplished. At some point, you have to stop yourself and use the information you’ve been able to collect, and your insight into the project to perform the tasks at hand.

Knowing how to present themselves

Designers are in an interesting position. We have more flexibility, generally, than a lot of careers in how we dress and accessorize ourselves. Hell, I’m the VP of a company and have purple hair.

Presenting at the DC Dribbble meetup last year.

The issue is past that though. I believe that you can look casual without being disheveled, creative without looking messy. Pulling yourself together is a simple way to be taken more seriously, and honestly, it varies with your audience. I don’t wear sweatshirts when I’m meeting with our board, because I need to present myself in a manner that says I am a professional, and traditionally, that means no sweatshirts.

That also means how you communicate. I’m not a great public speaker, and while I’m a great 2-beer ranter, I’m not the best at selling my ideas in front of a group of people. I had to work on this and still work on it today. But practice makes perfect (or at least better) and the skill is a necessary one for any design professional. After all, if you want a seat at the table, you have to earn it.

I suggest forcing yourself to speak in front of small groups (we have things like UX Show and Tell and DistrictUX Book Club here in DC that offer those opportunities) where you don’t feel as pressured, especially when it’s on a topic that others in the room are familiar with. From there, speaking on panels and eventually in front of larger audiences will feel more comfortable.

Another lesson I’ve learned and want to pass along is the ideas that you continually communicate and that create your outward presence. Twitter is not a mechanism for complaining; doing so only gives the allusion that all you do is whine. Also consider your works and actions online (and in person, though it’s easier to slip online) in all respects. Look to the people that you respect and aspire to be — how do they act? Model yourself after them.

Thinking beyond today

A lot of designers get very focused on what they are working on in that moment. They know they have to design this landing page for this conference, but that’s all there is. But it’s not.

DC Tech meetup

What about other aspects that touch it? What about aspects that have nothing to do with the project, but might connect with the brand? Have you had a conversation recently with fellow teammates that are working on other aspects of a project you’re working on? Perhaps they have some insight that can help tighten up your concept.

The idea is, you need to lift your head and realize it’s not just about this moment and this project. Truly succeeding means understanding more than just your piece; it’s about understanding how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, not just today but in the long run. Good designers are aware of the whole picture — but great designers care about that picture and shaping it.

Realizing it never stops

I am a strong proponent for a good work life balance, but I also believe that if you want to be a successful member of your field, you need to dedicate yourself to your craft in more ways than just those 8 hours in the office. While you’re in the office, how do you manage your time? Is it focused on finding the right source of inspiration? Worrying about what everyone else is saying about the latest trend that passes through Designer News and Twitter?

Blake, hard at it — illustrating brains?

While I don’t get the opportunity to do so too much now that I’m in a leadership role, when I was strictly designing I tried to cut up my day. First thing in the morning I would get in, grab some coffee, eat my breakfast and catch up on the news and happenings on the internet. As I wound down from that, I would list the things I needed to accomplish that day, and red flags I had that would require someone else’s attention or help, and then dove into it. I tried to time block my hours in the office to complete tasks in an efficient manner. But I also understood that creative blocks hit, and you don’t always stay on the right track. Taking breaks to stretch and grab a glass of water, check in on Twitter or refresh your “inspiration bucket” might be needed.

But the focus on *needing* inspiration can be too strong of a siren’s call. Relying on other’s ideas, instead of solving for your set of criteria and giving it your own flavor can be a downward spiraling rabbit hole of this idea — oh, and that idea! — and all of a sudden it’s been four hours and you have nothing to show for it except a browser history trail that makes no sense.

Limit your time finding inspiration and instead struggle and learn to trust your gut to find answers. You’ll get better at this with time. Seeking means of education through reading, events, podcasts, etc can also aide in the absorption of ideas that come to you when you least expect them.

In closing

In the end, I’ve learned that no matter how great of a designer one is on paper, these things add up to a lot and change the perception others have of you very quickly. For us here at TrackMaven, culture and personality are very large parts of our success, which may be why I care so much about all these little details. Or perhaps it’s just the next phase in my own career.

By the way, TrackMaven is continuing to hire on the design team (among others) — so if you’re keen to join, or know someone else who would fit, join the pack.


This post originally appeared on Ruff Concepts.