INNOVATING DESIGN PRACTICE
Not sure how you want to grow as a designer? Answering these questions can help you decide how to approach growing.
My niece, who works as a graphic designer at an eyewear company, recently asked me what courses she should take to further her education. This led to a discussion to unpack what she might look for to increase her design skillset.
I’ve thought about this before when I came across The Differences Between Experienced and Inexperienced Designers paper. From this paper and discussions with other designers I’ve mentored, the way to think about design growth in any industry is threefold — learn new hard skills, learn new soft skills and learn how to learn to be an experienced designer.
What are you trying to grow?
- I want to learn an application, style, or artistic or design process — Hard Skills Growth through tutorials, articles, and online classes.
- I want to have a more grounded approach — Hard Skills Growth through academic papers, journals, reference books, and university coursework.
- I want to lead teams or facilitate design processes on larger projects, strategic direction, leadership, innovation, … — Soft Skills Growth
- I want to use the skills that I have more effectively. — Experience-focused Growth
What kind of projects do you want to take on?
It will be easier to motivate yourself if you have a goal in mind. The goal doesn’t have to be specific, it just has to be directionally correct to guide your choice of things to learn. That stretch goal, of something you would like to accomplish, will help direct how to acquire skills.
Example 1 — I want to add Concept Artist skills to my repertoire.
Concept Artists create new visionary art or designs of possible futures. This is an individual goal that requires specific hard skills around creating visuals as well as some kind of stylistic background off which to base the future styling. The way that many people successfully learn new hard skills is to have specific goals that they meet at a set pace. Be willing to do research for a set period of time (2 weeks to a month). Start by looking at people in the field and make a list of the tools and processes they use. Prioritize the list. Knowing you want to learn those tools and processes set goals that use them to create new work at a set pace.
Example 2 — I want to lead a design team.
Being a team lead means that in addition to doing design work you will need to take on project and product management responsibilities. Leading a team requires convincing them that the end result (which may move a lot) will be worth the effort. IN addition to setting goals, time management, assessing risks and opportunities and directing people much of your growth will be interpersonal skills. Having a mentor who can tell you what your strengths and weaknesses are when dealing with people will be invaluable. While not putting too much stock in them, taking Meyers-Briggs personality test and reading what the different types of personalities are and how best to work with them can help to identify strategies for dealing with people’s different engagement styles.
Example 3— I want to move up a design level.
Moving up in design as an individual contributor has two components — the ability to influence people and the ability to handle more complex projects. Influence will be gained by the quality of your work, how well you can defend your work, and how well you understand others’ work. Work, in this case, is not just your design work but your work in relation to product management and engineering. Complex projects also require the ability to influence and understand other teams as well as becoming more innovative and strategic. Read the Experienced-based Growth section to learn how to be mindful about becoming more experienced.
How much do you know about [skill]?
I know nothing about [skill]
Often you will be able to easily find videos and tutorials on beginning to learn something. There are so many because they are easy to create since the number of steps, objects, and concepts is low. The most important thing you can do is spend the time to find reputable sources so that you learn meaningfully.
I am at an intermediate level
As you continue to level up you always want to be learning about how professionals approach the skill to help find quality content. Quality content will not only teach how to do a skill, but will also tell you what the growth path is, how not to do the skill, and errors and pitfalls when practicing it. Understanding journeyman mistakes — mistakes that practitioners make once they begin practicing and getting comfortable but before they understand all of the details of the skill — is the most valuable information you can receive.
Are you looking for depth or breadth?
Depth — I want to be really good at something specific.
We’re talking about a subject here, not a role. Becoming a really good user experience designer, architect, industrial designer, graphic artist or other design role is becoming experienced across many skills.
Knowing that your goal is to be good at something specific is a good start is to learn what it means to be proficient at the skill. Your first activity needs to be to research the subject:
- What aspects of the subject are important to learn first? Getting an overview of the skill and researching how learning the skill tends to progress will stop you from jumping in and trying to learn confusing or hard to accomplish parts of a skill before learning the basics.
- What makes a good resource for learning the subject? Not all resources are equal, and bad ones will let you create bad mental models and habits. Spend the time to evaluate what leaders in the field find important to learn and in what order. This will put you on a meaningful learning path.
- What are the attributes of different skill levels? Having an expectation of what different skill levels can accomplish will help you set realistic goals.
Breadth — I want to have additional ways to solve problems when new work or challenges present themselves.
Breadth can either mean learning more subjects or learning subjects that apply across many domains or parts of your processes.
Learning more subjects…
For learning more subjects, one can be a dilettante and learn just enough about subjects to understand how they relate or go deep and become a polymath where you become proficient enough across subjects to make strategic and technical connections.
Learning subjects that apply to any design domain…
Certain subjects or directions apply to any type of design process. An example of this for all design roles is learning different styles within the craft, which then provides more options when generating new work.
Knowledge of abstract skills, some of which are often learned in universities, such as semiotics, rhetoric, semantics, and ontologies, can help provide a more grounded approach across the design process. Also, understanding of first principles or fundamental facts or theories (such as those found in Universal Principles of Design) provides important grounding.
Knowledge of visualization and analytics including machine learning and artificial intelligence will be changing design of all forms for the next generation. Starting to learn how these concepts will affect design in your field will put you ahead of many in your field.
Learn about Generative design — using procedural tools to create objects, content, and constructs. This subject will be important in most design fields as a way to either design complex buildings, custom manufacture goods, virtual environments and other content and objects that vary and are engineered or are highly customized.
What is your learning style?
Many people have not stood back and thought about how they learn best. Go back through your classes and other learning experiences and think about what have been the learning experiences that you have been most engaged and successful in participating in.
- I learn best on my own, choosing how to approach a subject.
- I learn best when given goals and expectations to reach.
- I learn best with a live teacher who I can ask questions.
- I learn best in a group where I can see how others approach problems.
- I learn best reading about subjects.
- I learn best from seeing examples explained.
Knowing how you learn will help you plan. You will know whether you will want to enroll in a university, spend your time in structured courses, online courses with live teachers, or on books, videos, and other mediums.
What if you want to grow as a designer but the previous sections still haven’t given you direction?
The following table shows how experienced designers differ from inexperienced designers. Let's go through the ways experience grows a designer’s abilities and see how that could help when deciding a learning path.
While all of these differences manifest because of experience, and the only way to gain experience is through involvement in projects, understanding these differences can provide guidance on how to look for and approach projects.
1 Understanding the problem
Experts dedicate a substantially greater effort than do novices while elaborating on their understanding of a problem.
Experts often elaborate more due to their exposure to a variety of experiences which helps them see more options, risks, and opportunities. Having done many projects an experienced designer’s sphere of known-knowns and known-unknowns is much larger than an inexperienced designer. While there is still an infinite sphere of unknown-unknowns out there, the knowns cover likely scenarios they may have encountered and so are likely knowable via transfer learning — using previous projects to inform the current one.
Expert problem solvers typically conceptualize a problem in terms of an appropriate underlying principle while novices tend to represent the problem in terms of surface features (Bruer, 1993)
To become better at understanding problems you want to increase your exposure to different principles and problem spaces. The most interactive way to expand your ability to address new problem spaces is by interviewing mentors about problematic projects and the process they went through.
A session with the following open-ended questions can help you reduce unknown-unknowns going forward:
- Tell me about projects with the most difficult design problems.
- What was difficult about them?
- What past experiences or designs did you draw from to move forward?
- Was there a “big idea”, epiphany or connection that helped?
If you don’t have a mentor…start looking for one. But still, if you don’t have one, look for “case studies” in your field. The good thing about case studies is you will get exposure to different problem spaces and team’s solutions to them. The “problem” with these is that they are success stories and rarely delve into what was difficult throughout the design process.
Mindfully spend more time problem scoping and information gathering. That is after you have spent time learning about a problem do an activity you haven’t done before to gather more information — read some articles, do competitive research, explain the problem to an uninvolved person, etc. And after that rewrite the problem statement from different points of view — different user types, different modalities, different circumstances or contexts of use. Look for different decision criteria or constraints in these to see what applies.
2 Use of analogy
Experienced designers tend to draw analogies based on structural similarities, whereas inexperienced designers tend to make a surface analogy, that is, mapping and linkage to their everyday knowledge.
When you begin designing you will make analogies to the limited sphere of things you have been exposed to. As you are exposed to more problems and designs you will have a richer set of concepts which to compare new problems.
Learn to be mindful when your analogies are within or between-domain. Actively look for analogies that reach beyond surface similarities (looking at office buildings to design an office building) for ones that may look different but are structurally similar (drawing analogies about chairs as inspiration to design office buildings).
[T]he help provided by visual analogy was mainly successful in a definition of the problem, clarifications of ideas, and evaluations of solutions. Verbal analogy, on the other hand, was particular successful in generating design ideas. Both types of analogies contributed to the originality and aesthetic value of the final design outcome. (Caskin, Timmeren. 2014)
When you have a new problem, find competing or similar ideas. Then describe how the products are similar and different. This will help you build the vocabulary to discuss analogous solutions.
Take a problem that you are dealing with. Now pick a rich concept like forests, ocean, cars, or a sport and try to explain the problem using that concept’s nomenclature (language). You will be creating analogies and through them, you may reach a new understanding of the problem. The more distant the relationship that you can make feel related the better your ability be to find structural analogies in the future.
3 Use of metaphor
Experts identify and retrieve analogies from between-domain displays. However, novices identify a large number of between-domain displays but retrieve analogs from between-domain and within-domain displays at the same time.
Again, be mindful of within-domain displays — looking at chairs when designing chairs versus between-domain displays — looking at buildings for inspiration when designing chairs. Reaching farther for metaphors also tends to inspire more innovative solutions.
It is suggested that novices, who are not always able to make abstractions to identify relevant information to the design problem, whose design knowledge structures are not well-formed, and who have no design principles available can particularly profit from metaphorical reasoning in this stage of the process. (Casakin 2011)
When approaching a new design problem look at using metaphors during these phases of the process:
- Defining the design concept, and framing the design situation.
- Establishing a system of relationships between a design concept and the design problem.
- Applying a concept to the design problem, and developing design solutions.
Proficiency in the use of metaphors may contribute to gaining self-determination in design intentions, bridging the critical gap between the conceptual/abstract design phase and the development of tangible and detailed design solutions, as well as helping students to gain a better understanding of the design process. (Casakin 2011)
Experts add constraints to the design problem.
Look to see if adding meaningful constraints to a problem, whether it be a specific format, additional logical components not asked for, or a limited set of materials will help shape design direction towards more fertile problem spaces.
Design Principles and Design Goals are good kinds of constraints. By explicitly stating that you have a direction (principles) or need to reach a certain state (goals) you are putting constraints on the design that can help focus the solution space.
5 Transitions between design steps
Senior designers spend more time, consider more alternatives, produce more transitions between design steps, and generate higher-quality solutions.
To work on having more alternatives look at reframing using analogies and metaphors (or using additional) at each stage of design.
Practicing both of these activities will help you generate higher-quality solutions.
6 Mental iterations
Skilled designers do more mental iterations.
Of course, just doing more iterations will not add value to your design process. But…being mindful of the quality of the iterations can be useful. You can evaluate iterations or design moves to see if they moved in a positive direction. If it didn’t, why not? Bad constraint, bad data, mismatched persona, wrong problem-scope, wrong problem-framing, etc.
7 Organization and structure of cognitive actions
Experts’ cognitive actions are well organized and clearly cognitive actions (chunks), whereas novices’ cognitive performance is divided into many groups of concurrent actions. Experts’ strategic knowledge allows them to use a smaller number of processes and to form different groups of processes.
There is no jump from little or no structure to an experienced designer’s organized and chunked structure. Each individual needs to build up their own structure through own experiences. The structure that will empower you will invariably vary from that of others. Exposure to new design problems and the process of solving them is how this journey from novice to experienced designer will be effected.
8 Design behavior: Problem scoping and problem framing
Expertise in design (creative domain) has some aspects that are significantly different from expertise in other fields (standard solution). Expert designers are solution-focused, not problem-focused.
Problem scoping and problem framing are ways to reach a solution. Instead of looking at how to solve a problem, look at how to scope and frame the problem to tractable solutions.
Problem scoping and information gathering are major differences between advanced engineers and students, and important competencies for engineering students to develop.(Atman, Adams, Cardella et al. 2007)
If you are interested in more about applying design practices to help your company innovate check out Designing for Innovation.
The Differences Between Experienced and Inexperienced Designers. Ganyun Sun, Shengji Yao, Juan A. Carretero. 2014.
A study of teaching methods to enhance creativity and critical thinking in graphic design. Samantha Colleen Barbour. 2016.
Analogies as Creative Inspiration Sources in the Design Studio: The Teamwork. Hernan Casakin, Arjan van Timmeren. 2014.
Evidence-based design heuristics for idea generation. Seda Yilmaz, Shanna R. Daly, Colleen M. Seifert, Richard Gonzalez. 2016.
What inspires designers? Preferences on inspirational approaches during idea generation. Milene Gonçalves, Carlos Cardoso, Petra Badke-Schaub. 2014.
Metaphorical Reasoning And Design Expertise: A Perspective For Design Education. Hernan Casakin. 2011.
Cognitive processes in iterative design behavior. Robin Adams, C.J. Atman. 1999.
Creativity in design: Analyzing and Modeling the Creative Leap. Nigel Cross. 1997.