What makes a great designer?

Spoiler: It’s not just their knowledge of colour theory and font pairings.

It’s currently just past 5 am as I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a hotel in Tokyo looking back over the previous four days I’ve spent here.

I’ve been attending UX Days Tokyo, which Booking.com sponsored this year. I had the pleasure of seeing some amazing talks and meeting a lot of inspiring local designers — a few of whom may come over to Amsterdam to hopefully join our design team.

On my first night in Tokyo, I’d been awake for two days straight but had the opportunity of joining the speakers and some other sponsors for a secret party. It turns out that the party was one hell of an experience, a cruise down the Arakawa River enjoying dinner and drinks while taking in the city skyline view.

One of the speakers who happened to be on the cruise is somewhat of a design idol to me, Daniel Burka. I’ve been a fan of his work ever since I first started out making websites, following his work at SilverOrange and then everything he did with Kevin Rose up to his latest work with GV.

After eating some food, Daniel came over to introduce himself, and we grabbed a drink. We spoke about working on past projects, what I’m doing over at Booking.com and about the breadth of projects working at GV has afforded him. As we chatted, sharing some Japanese beer, I think he spilled the secrets which make him a great designer.

Let me share with you what I learned over the course of the next few hours that evening.

Variety & Experience

When I spoke to Daniel, we discussed working on the Digg website, helping the slack team launch their desktop app or working on the interior design of the GV offices.

What became very apparent was the sheer variety of the projects he’s been working on during his career. He applies his skills and knowledge to solve a vast array of problems.

Try to experience as much as possible, have your finger in a lot of pies so that you can learn from a variety of challenges and problems.

With each new project comes new learnings, embrace the variety and learn as much as possible from each one. It will help you develop and hone your skills as a designer, making you more valuable as you bring this knowledge to future projects.


After a few beers, I started to notice how passionate he is when talking about the work he does.

Whether it is helping the team over at Savioke design a friendly interface for a hotel robot or working with Calico a life extension company that aims to fight back at diseases most associated with aging — he’s extremely passionate.

Work on challenges or projects that you are passionate about, the ones that make you excited. I see it day after day, the people who are passionate about their work put in that little bit extra to make a solution better. They don’t cut corners. They sweat the details, and ultimately it shows in the end product.

Business Impact

If you ask CEO what keeps them up at night they may speak about growth in new markets, innovation or hiring the right people while growing a team — these are all things that design can help solve.

We often talk about font pairings, colour theory, and alignment — while these are all important, your Fortune 500 CEO doesn’t stay awake at night biting their nails about the alignment of that button or the line height of the product description copy. That’s what they pay us for.

These are conversations that we as designers should be having among ourselves, these things shouldn’t take up the majority of our time it should be a sort of default and design has so much more to offer the business than making stuff look pretty.

Think about how you can apply your skills to help solve the meaningful and impactful problems that your business is facing right now. As a designer, we can add a lot of value by tackling some of these issues and by listening to the challenges the organisation is facing not by teaching them about the small details of design.

Work Ethic

We have all been in a place of putting in those 12 hour days, on projects with tight deadlines, we just have to sometimes. Some people pride themselves on being able to maintain this day-after-day for months at a time, and that’s isn’t necessarily a good thing.

It’s easy to busy yourself; you can fill up your day with meetings, emails, and Facebook. But the longer we spend in the office doesn’t necessarily correlate to adding value to the business or our users.

Spend your time working on the challenges that matter, the meaningful and impactful problems. You will add more value to your users by solving these problems rather than sitting in a meeting or sharing that funny cat gif on Twitter.

Work smarter, not harder.

Daniel has a few years on me, designing since I was a baby in fact. So the biggest lesson for me is to continue to work hard and with a cocktail of these approaches and dedication — anyone can be a great designer just like him.

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