To talk about what makes designers great, we first have to talk about what design is.
On a fundamental level, design is meant to show the intent that exists behind an action or an object in a clear way. Great design strips away all possible interpretations of intent, leaving only one. Great design is unambiguous, meaning that it’s not open to more than one interpretation. For any design to be great, everyone should be able to understand its intent, regardless of their background, experience, and taste. I’m sure that you can imagine how achieving that level of clarity can be incredibly difficult.
Within the context of software, a designer must be empathetic to the user’s pain. She must then extend that empathy to a more important place — understanding. Understanding not only of the problem, but the context in which it exists, and how to fix it.
A designer who incessantly works at her craft will undoubtedly get better. While the quality of her work will keep increasing, practice alone doesn’t make a good designer great. What differentiates one from the other is not a difference of quality, it is a difference of kind. Not what to make, but how and why to make it.
A Difference of Kind.
A specialist is someone who excels at one thing, and approaches their work in a formulaic way.
Think of a UI/UX designer who’s at the top of her game. She is able to take any piece of software and design beautiful, easy-to-use navigation for it. With time, her approach to designing UI may become formulaic, regardless of what app she’s working on. The framework for helping customers “get from A to B, do X” becomes habitual because she understands their problems, and designs solutions that satisfy their needs.
Do you remember thermostats before Nest? They were all infuriatingly difficult to use because the path to their programmable features was obscured by poorly designed navigation. Nest came along and said, “Nonsense! Here’s a big dial — turn left for ‘cooler’ and right for ‘warmer.’ This thing will remember what you like. You shouldn’t have to think about your thermostat — it should think about you.”
Consider the implications of that kind of design approach.
It starts with the user experience and works backwards to the technology. By figuring out why a problem exists in the first place, a great designer doesn’t just mitigate its effects — she can eliminate the problem completely. Being a specialist, even one with a broad skill set, is not enough to arrive at that result. A systemic (or holistic, if you will) approach is needed.
A Generalist Approach.
Being a great writer is not about being good at English or putting words in a sentence. It’s about communicating thoughts clearly and knowing which thoughts deserve being written. By that analogy, being a technically competent designer doesn’t automatically solve anyone’s problems. Technical skills should be a complement to people skills like empathy and emotional intelligence.
Consider that each problem has three parts — what the problem is, why it exists, and how to solve it. Because of that, best design solutions often come through the cross-pollination of ideas and varied fields of knowledge. The what (identifying a problem) is the easiest step because we feel its effects. We experience some pain and want to eliminate it.
The why is infinitely more difficult to figure out because of our reliance on common knowledge and intuition when looking for an answer. To figure out the why, a designer must exercise deliberate thinking to distill the problem to one indisputable fact — the foundation or the first principle. Not “what is the problem?” but “why is the problem?” A great designer must make it her starting point because the answer to that question will inform the how of solving a design problem. The how is where technical skills are most important and being a generalist puts one at a massive advantage. Myriad of ways to solve any given problem exist but only one may be optimal — the one that eliminates it altogether.
An Opinionated Approach.
Harry Beck was an electrical draftsman employed by the London Underground in the 1930s. This was the time when London Underground used topological (geographically accurate) maps that were a nightmare to read because they looked like this:
Harry Beck felt that the map was bad for the soul, and in his spare time designed a map that looked like this:
Beck’s map was originally rejected because it went against existing expectations for what maps were supposed to look like. Next time you take public transit, take a look at the map, and appreciate the fact that it’s a descendant of the one above. The opinionated map that defied convention in favour of clarity and good user experience.
Here’s a more contemporary example. Before June 27, 2007 when the first generation iPhone was introduced to the world, most smartphones looked like this:
Great designers have strong opinions about what the world should look like, even when those opinions go directly against common wisdom and what is expected. One of my favourite book covers is for a book by Augusten Burroughs called Dry. It was designed by Chip Kidd and looks like this:
How easy do you think it would have been to make that cover look actually dried and withered?
A great designer needs to exercise strong opinions, making them come to life through skilful execution. It’s worth noting that “opinionated” is not the same as “being loud with one’s opinions.” A great designer doesn’t feel contempt towards people who use her product, and never assumes they are too stupid to understand it. It is her job to arrive at a solution that is unambiguous. It is her duty to hold strong conviction about what the world should look like, while exercising humility in the arduous process of making it better.
The difference between a good designer and a great designer is not a difference of quality. It is a difference of kind.