You’re a better designer than you think

Hey you. Yeah, you with the screen in front of your face. I want to tell you a secret…

You’re a better designer than you think.

I’ve probably told you this before, or maybe someone else has too. You probably didn’t believe us, but it’s true. It doesn’t matter if you have a fancy piece of paper with the word “design” on it or not. It doesn’t matter if the word “designer” appears next to your name on an org-chart or on a business card. If you make things for a living, if you are part of a team that makes things, you are doing design work at some point in your day. And you’re better at it than you think you are.

When you’re telling someone like me that you’re not very good at it, or that you’re not a designer at all, you’re just making excuses not to get better. If you stop telling people how bad you think you are at design, you could be even better at it. Trust me, I have two fancy pieces of paper with the word “Design” on them and almost two decades of experience working as a designer.

I and everyone like me is just trying to be a little bit better today than we were yesterday. That’s all you have to do too. Instead of telling me or anyone else you’re not good at this thing that you routinely participate in, just try to be a little better at it today than you were yesterday. You’ll surprise yourself.

Maybe you’re still unconvinced, or maybe you just need a little help being just a little bit better today. Well, great news! Here are some things that I have been taught over the years to keep in mind. I’ve found all of them to be absolutely 100% true, which is rare.

Good design can always stand up to a million “why?”s

You make a better design when you let your inner three year old come out and ask that never ending stream of “Why?” questions. Why does it need to be this way? Why is that important? Why do people care about that thing that makes it important? Why? Why? Why? Why? Keep asking yourself (and the other designers you work with) “Why?” throughout the whole process and your design will always be better for it.

Good design is never made out of fear

This is a hard one, because there are a lot of scary things about the kinds of decisions you are often asked to make when you’re making things. The truth is we will never know 100% for sure before we make any decision that it is going to be a right one but our research, experience, training, testing our ideas before we produce them at any real cost, and thorough exploration of “why?” seriously shifts the odds in our favor. It lets us make very informed guesses. This is why so many experienced designers look so confident presenting work. We know the odds and we feel good that our process has bent them in our favor. We also know that, except for some rare projects, the stakes are almost never “life or death” which is often how they can feel. If you are afraid that your design will fail, you will make decisions that cause it to fail. Don’t let fear keep you from making a decision that you can back up with research or testing. If you don’t have those things go get them and your fear will soon vanish.

Good design decisions are pretty much never the first option…or the second…or the third…or…

It’s a widely believed myth that a great designer can stare at a blank page (or a napkin) for a few minutes and then quickly jot down a brilliant, elegant, and simple solution to a problem. It doesn’t work that way in the real world. Remember there were at least ten versions of any part of the project you never saw that helped get to the one “good design” that got passed on to you to work with. You make things for a living so this fact should not be surprising to you. However, a lot of people seem to think that this reality doesn’t apply to design, and that their inability to create a perfect (or even good) solution on the first try makes them “a bad designer.” Get your ideas, as in more than one idea, out of your head as quickly as possible and you will quickly find that you’re ideas are better than you think. They’re just sitting behind a line of bad ideas that have to be seen first. Bad ideas are jerks like that.

Good design decisions are reached by curiosity, not just pretending to know the answer.

The best phrase you can ever have escape your mouth is “I don’t know, but we can find out.” Nothing gets me more excited than when someone I’m working with says that. It means we’re actually on to something. It means we’re not just copying our competitors or something someone really likes that has absolutely nothing to do with the problem we’re trying to solve. Good design is born of curiosity and an understanding that you are not “the normal.” The world rarely works the way you believe it does, so keep that in mind. Good design, at it’s core, is decisions based on things you know, not things you assume, about the world and the people in it that you are making things for. To be a good designer is to constantly be learning and exploring the world around you, so that you can continue making things for the world around you.

The secret to doing anything is believing that you can do it. Anything that you believe you can do strong enough, you can do. Anything. As long as you believe.
— Bob Ross, Jedi Master

So please, stop telling me, “I’m not a designer,” if your work includes making things for a living. Your title may not be “designer” but your work is impacting the design. You are a designer if you’re making the road map, if you’re deciding on the underlying technical architecture, if you’re defining features, if you’re handling exceptions, etc. All of these things are part of the design. Stop trying to be “not a designer” and join us in just trying to be a little bit better at design today than you were yesterday.

Those of us whose title is “designer” will be here to help you and encourage you along the way. We know that despite what the org chart and the business cards say, we can’t do good design without you. We know that because we all know the secret, and now so do you: You’re a better designer than you think.