Unintuitive Lessons on Being a Designer

Julie Zhuo
Mar 15, 2016 · 14 min read

1. What looks like genius is actually the result of brute force.

When we see a perfect end result, we usually never see what it takes to get there. So I used to assume that great work came in flashes of brilliance. I’d see a stunning end design and think to myself, wow, this designer is a genius. I’d imagine her sitting down at her desk, opening up Photoshop, and quietly translating the marvelous vision in her head onto the screen while sipping chamomile tea. I’d assume she was in possession of some mystical talent that I simply did not have.

If you have literally tried every possible variation, you will have come across the best solution.

That’s it. Simple. This was never made more apparent to me than when a designer with an immaculate handle of the craft showed me what it took to get to a stunning final design of a complex layout that I’d considered leagues above my own current skill level: about a hundred variations of every possible combination of composition, type, line height, color, and more.

2. Developing your eye is the single most important skill to hone.

How good your work product is will always be limited by how good your eye is, and by that I mean your critical discernment of the strengths and weaknesses of a design. It is always better to learn how to become more critical in every dimension: product, interaction, craft, communication, etc. Even if for practical reasons you end up making tradeoffs on how much time and focus goes into each dimension, you cannot make those tradeoffs well without a clear understanding of what excellence looks like.

  • Constantly be asking yourself at every stage What would make this design better? even if you don’t end up implementing the suggestions.
  • Always seek out the most critical person you know in a particular dimension (craft, product, etc) to get their feedback on your work.

The either-or trap is completely false. A design can be easy to understand AND feel exceptionally well-crafted. It’s entirely possible to do good work across multiple dimensions. That should be the bar we aim for.

(Note: please don’t take this point to mean that you need to be that smart-ass who always has to point out every flaw in every design. There is a difference between trying to be helpful and trying to show off your knowledge, and we humans have a finely-tuned radar for these things.)

3. To do things of great impact, you cannot be a lone wolf.

Some of my greatest frustrations in design come from with my interactions with other people. Sometimes, I can’t get an engineer or PM to agree with me that a particular feature is important. Sometimes, I have a completely different vision of how something should work than another designer. These disagreements can feel like battling a room of mosquitos— annoying, draining, sometimes pointless. How nice it would be, I find myself thinking sometimes, to go it alone. To be my own creative master and do the things I think are right.

There is no eating your cake and having it too when it comes to complete creative freedom while doing things of great magnitude and influence. Not even at the very top.

The graph of impact tends to correlate with how many people you need to work effectively with. Once I realized this, I started to see my interactions with other people differently. It was no longer about winning battles and proving that I was right, but about developing stronger collaborative relationships. It was about getting to the point where the hum of working together became something I looked forward to. It was about the work that we did together being better than anything any of us could have done on our own, and recognizing that the debates and disagreements we had were a necessary part of getting there.

4. You cannot evaluate a design without knowing its intention

I used to think passing judgement on design was clear and objective. That, like a gymnastics competition, you could raise a scorecard, rank the contestants, and hand out some medals. This was the impression I got from hearing groups of designers debate the merits of Mac versus PC or try and rank which to-do list app was the best. This is how people make it sound when they discuss universal principles like make it simple or interactions should be delightful.

What I’ve learned since is that design is the art of solving specific rather than abstract problems. If the problem is not clear or well-understood, you cannot begin to evaluate how effective the solutions are.

When I used to look at a complex interface I didn’t understand, like an app that allowed a Fortune 500 company to manage its inventory of thousands of ads, I’d automatically apply the “universal” principles I’d learned from designing consumer products. I’d wonder why the interface looked so complicated, and why there was so much density. I’d question whether we really needed all the bells-and-whistles features exposed directly versus being hidden behind an affordance to hide some of the complexity.

5. If you don’t want design to be treated as a service, you need to have an opinion about what problems are worth solving and why.

The idea that design is “problem solving” likely resonates with many designers. Certainly it is a much broader definition than “designers make things look pretty” which we can all appreciate is no longer the conventional wisdom. Until very recently, I thought of the role of a design team as taking well-defined people-centric problems and coming back with creative solutions. In my head, the main challenge to overcome was making sure everyone understood what a broad, people-centric problem was (i.e., the ask shouldn’t be Design a dashboard that shows you top nearby restaurants but Help people easily find great places to eat.)

6. Investing in your communication skills gives you a 2x multiplier on your effectiveness.

I used to think good design was only ever about the design, and that if I could deliver a great idea and execution, I’d be able to give myself a hearty pat on the back for a job well done.

7. Everyone feels like an imposter sometimes.

If you feel like an imposter, you are not alone. I guarantee this. In fact, I am certain that everyone who works in a creative profession — no matter how outwardly successful they appear to be — feels this way.

8. Good design is obvious.

A good design should be obviously good to the people it is intended for. I’ve already written about this one at length here, so I’ll keep this brief.


The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Product design VP @ Facebook. Author of The Making of a Manager https://amzn.to/2PRwCyW. Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.