Designers shouldn’t learn to X, they should learn to Y

If you are a designer and get your daily reading fix from Twitter or Medium, the chances are you’ve read articles telling you what you should and/or shouldn’t learn to do.

I don’t want this to be another one of those articles.

The problem with *those* articles

Articles telling designers what they should and shouldn’t learn take a ‘one size fits all’ approach, making assumptions about you as a designer, your background, your interests and the environment you work in. They oversimplify the nature of the problems we solve and dumb down the profession.

Tl;dr version of this article: you should learn to do whatever the f..k you want. If you have the desire, time and capacity to learn a skill that will contribute to your personal and professional development, make you a more useful member of your team, make you a better and more employable designer, or make you a happier and more satisfied human being, then start learning and don’t look back.

In his book Mastery, Robert Greene said it perfectly:

The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.

This is especially true for design, because…

Design is a complex domain

As designers, we are asked to draw on psychology theory and understand what motivates people to behave the way they do. There is a whole body of science dedicated to this pursuit, yet it forms part of our day-to-day job.

We need to work with strategy and business development departments who put together visions for our products, informed by complex marketplace factors. People go to university for years and study MBAs in order to do this well. We have to understand these visions and help others visualise them through our designs.

We need to work with developers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the browser/on your mobile device/with your connected ‘thing’. We need to understand those boundaries. More importantly, we need to think about where those boundaries will be tomorrow.

Don’t dumb design down

Design is a complex discipline, aiming to create simple solutions for complex problems. There isn’t a single skill that will make you a great designer. It’s a set of skills, and it will be different depending on what makes you, you and on the context you work within.

Design is about bringing together knowledge from different domains and using it to effectively solve real user and business problems.

Don’t dumb design down by saying that universally there is single skillset or body of knowledge that should be mastered at the expense of others.

Don’t dumb design down by saying that I shouldn’t learn to <insert skill here> because in your environment, your team and your existing skillset it doesn’t make sense to do so. I’m different, and so is the next person.

This is not a call for putting a horn on your head and becoming an all-knowing unicorn. This is a call for applying a team, context, product and designer specific approach when deciding what you need to learn to make yourself a better designer.

Celebrate the diversity of our profession

I’ve seen first hand how useful different educational, professional and philosophical approaches can be.

I’ve improved my visual design skills by working alongside great visual designers. I’ve been driven to learn about psychology because I worked with designers who studied psychology and saw first hand how it benefited their designs. My ability to prototype has been put to shame by designers who can code, so I want to learn to code better myself.

As designers, we should celebrate our diversity. When you meet a designer with a background different to yours, find out as much as possible about them. Do this to figure out what you can learn from them and what you can teach them. Don’t do it so you can tell yourself that your career history is more impressive than theirs – your ego doesn’t need more food.

I haven’t spent my whole career designing UI. I’ve spent periods performing user research. I’ve spent time understanding and breaking down complex business and technical problems, so that I could inform designs of better solutions. I’ve spent time designing ‘ugly’ parts of systems, because they had to be there so that the ‘pretty’, user facing parts had something to stand on. I’ve even coded. Badly.

Would I change any of this for a more impressive Dribbble portfolio? No.

The designer and person I am today are a sum of all of those experiences. I’ve learnt something through each one and I will keep pursuing different challenges that drive me to learn new skills and improve my existing ones.

So, should you learn X?

Replace X in this sentence with anything you want.

Should you learn to code? Sure.

Should you learn to better understand the business drivers behind your product ? Go for it.

Should you learn to better understand the psychology behind your users’ behaviour? Do it.

You get the pattern. If you have the desire, time and capacity to learn a skill that will make you a more useful member of your team, a better and more employable designer, or just a happier and more satisfied human being, then do it. Hell, if you just want to learn to code because it stretches your brain in a way your job doesn’t, just do it. And, next time you read the title of an article telling you what you shouldn’t learn, skip it.

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