Knows the principles
I like to compare design principles with the ancient biblical commandments, if you follow them you have a place in the design heaven (aka a happy user/audience), if you don’t you end up being “punished”.
However, unlike the commandments, design principles are not a list of things you should/shouldn’t do, they are merely a list of general guidelines that are meant to help you address basic human expectation & behaviours.
Knowing the principles it’s not memorising a list of things. You know the principles when you don’t even think about it and they become part of your instinct, almost like muscle memory.
When you really know them, you’ll react instinctively when you’re designing or reviewing a design. They will kick in and make you increase the font, move the icon a few pixels to the left or speed up a transition a fraction of a second.
In the end, design principles are really a mean to an end, which is to make your design feel right.
If you want to read a bit more about principles, I wrote an article in the past about visual design principles (#shamelessplug).
Observes the world
Once you know the principles, if you’re curious and have an eye for detail (two traits a designer must have, in my opinion) you’ll look at the world a bit differently, and you’ll notice things that you didn’t even think about before.
If you’re a bit like me, you can find joy in random encounters with hipster barber shops with amazing calligraphy on the window. On the other side of the spectrum you’ll get itchy when you look at a speed limit sign and the text is not properly aligned.
Why is this important? Believe it or not, your visual culture will very much influence your design output.
The idea of inventing something completely new is nice but the cold hard truth is that after 6000 years of civilisation, as we know it, the large majority of things are simply a remix of something else, whether we do it deliberately or not that’s a different story. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you try to bring your own twist to it. Simply ripping off someone else’s work is completely unforgivable, if you’re going to steal at least do it like an artist.
…the large majority of things are simply a remix of something else…
Hence I think it’s clear the importance of designers opening their horizons as much as possible. The more they know, the more ammunition they will have when they need to come up with something “new”.
A designer needs to know how to design. Kind of obvious, right?
If you have brilliant ideas but you can’t visualise them, you’re going to have an hard time in taking them to the next level.
Being able to visualise these ideas helps you make them more tangible and easier to grasp for others, so they can see what you do, without being inside your head. That’s why people say a picture is worth a 1000 words.
To sell ideas you don’t need pixel perfect designs or hyper-realistic prototypes, you just need to be able to give your audience a glimpse of what you idea can become. It can be as simple as a sketch on paper that illustrates the idea and makes it real enough.
With that said, based on my experience I came to learn that, the better picture you can paint, the easier it will be for you to tell your story and sell that idea.
You might argue that if the idea is good it will support itself, the problem with that statement is the fact that some people might not see what you do, no matter how many times you try to explain it (with words).
One of your superpowers, as a designer, is turning ideas into reality.
This can be as simple as making a couple sketches on a piece of paper but it can become as complex as making a prototype so realistic that people will mistake it for the real thing.
Depending on the stage and problem that your trying to solve the necessity will vary, but being able to do both will definitely put you ahead.
Another reason for “painting a good picture” is the fact that people perceive something that looks good as something easier to understand than something that doesn’t. If something is poorly put together that, most likely, will transpire to the idea, even if it was a good one.
People should not judge a book by it’s cover, but I’m kind of happy they do, otherwise I would be out of a job.
A designer’s job isn’t knowing the solution to a problem, their job is to know how to look for a solution. Do you see the difference?
The difference is that instead of instantaneously coming up with the solution, a good designer will ask questions, will research, will think about it, will experiment, will most likely fail and repeat this process again and again until they come up with the right solution.
A great designer experiments without the fear of failing because sometimes only after failing you realise the solution was staring at you the whole time. This means that many times, most of the time spent designing will seem like it was a waste of time, because you end up throwing away a big chunk of the work you did. However the reality is that without all that failing you wound’t be able to know what the solution was, it’s all part of the process.
Experiment without fear also means having to do it over and over again, this constant experimentation and iteration should just feel like breathing oxygen, you do it and you don’t even think about it.
Having this trait is essential if you want to stretch the boundaries of what can be done, because when you’re not afraid of proposing something that will be rejected the range of possible solutions will grow substantially.
Designing is very much an exercise of using empathy (with your target user) and intuition to come up with possible solutions to a problem. I would like to stress the word possible because that’s all they really are until you validate it.
As a designer, it’s very difficult and dangerous to say that I have THE answer without actually having people look at it and trying it out.
With my experience I learned that even when you have that gut feeling like “this has to be the best possible solution”, there’s always something to gain by sharing the work and getting a different perspective. It doesn’t need to be a fully blown user test by the way, it can be as easy as sharing with the colleague sitting next to you.
When you design in a bubble it’s easy to get lost in your idea and even easier to start to see it as natural and intuitive. Because you came up with it and have been looking at it for the past couple of hours it’s going to seem like the most obvious thing in the world.
With that said, it’s also good to mention that we also need to be pragmatic and learn from what has been tested to death. Not everything needs to be tested.
A designer’s intuition is made of design principles, design patterns, affordances, design history, years of experience with the world with a mind focused on design, and I think that can’t be ignored. You just need to learn to know how much we can trust in that and try to detach yourself from the work you do, so you can look at it and see whether or not it achieves the goal you’re trying to accomplish.
Adding to this point I think it’s important to mention an essential hard skill required, which is to be able to make something that can be tested.
You can test static images but I think prototyping is becoming more and more an “hygiene” skill that any designer really needs to have.
This one is also kind of obvious but I couldn’t really leave it out. The notion that a good idea needs no explaining is a myth. Good design doesn’t sell it self, if you want to push it forward you need to know how to make a compelling case that will win over your audience.
You don’t need to be a salesman, you just need to know how to present and explain your work. Understand who’s your audience first, so you can paint a picture in a way that they can understand. Show them how your design relates back to the original goal and how it serves the people that you’re targeting.
If you’re a bit of an introvert (like me), this idea might sound a bit scary and uncomfortable, but it’s actually easier than talking to strangers, at least I speak for myself.
This is all about design, sharing your line of thinking and making people buy into your idea. See it as your playground but do your homework, prepare well and if needed rehearse until you have your story locked down.
I wrote an article that touches this topic is the past too (#shamelessplugnumber2).
I hate to break it to you, but if you don’t know how to communicate the work that you do, then I can guarantee you’ll have a tough time in moving your ideas forward, or even in landing a job as designer.
Has thick skin
You just presented your design work, brace yourself, now comes the toughest part for the majority of designers… feedback, more specifically negative feedback.
It’s all good if all you get is praise and cheers, but when people start to take apart your design and find something you didn’t consider, that’s when the shields come up and designers start become super defensive.
Same happens during user tests, when we see people not understanding what we’ve spent days refining. Then we put our shields up again and start trying to find excuses to cover up our failed hypotheses.
There’s not such a things as a dumb user, there’s only dumb designs.
A great designer has thick skin and knows that critiquing the work is not critiquing the designer. They know this is the only way to look at your own work critically, they also know how to take feedback and try to see whether or not it makes sense for the goal they’re trying to accomplish.
Last but not least, they listen, that’s the only way you can improve and take your ideas to the next level.
Wants to solve problems
The ultimate mission for a designer is to make the world better through their work, and to be able to actually achieve it they need to care about their user or audience more than they care about their ego. Why? Because very often the solution to someone else’s problem will not align with your personal preference as a designer.
This doesn’t mean that you have to settle for a solution that is not at the level that you would like it to be. A great designer doesn’t settle for good enough, they strive to find what can be improved, what can be the vision for the future and what problems might arise then. All this without forgetting who they are designing for.
This mindset when it’s ingrained, spreads to the designer’s experience with the real world. You can see this expressed by designers in two forms.
One, normally expressed by the majority, it’s all about instagram & tweet everything that is wrong with the world, kinda easy to do once you know a bit about design.
The other comes from a smaller set of people, that will actually come up with ways to improve things, rather than just pointing them out, because that’s what a great designer wants to really do, to solve the problem, not just complain about it.
Knows how to twists the rules
Working in the real world usually means a lot of limitations that will be in your way to deliver something great, that’s one of the reasons why you don’t find in the app store most of the great animations you find on dribbble, and this reality will tempt you to take the easy route and just deliver the very basic. This is where you can separate wheat from chaff, a great designer will get around the limitations, will question them, and will still push for the best possible solution.
This doesn’t mean that they will ignore all the limitations, it just means that they will try to get around them, and invest some time in something extra, let’s call it a a trump card they can use, next to a “basic” solution.
From my experience, having this trump card sometimes is enough to make some of the limitations being reevaluated. In other cases this might not make the limitations change, but it can be enough to inspire someone else to come up with a way to get it done within the limitations.
Remember, you’re job is not to come up with the solution but to find it. If you can inspire somebody else to come up with it, then you did it right.
Doesn’t pretend to know everything
Last but not least, what I consider one of the most important skill in a designer is humility. Knowing that they’re not the source of all of the the truth, and that they only have to gain if they work and listen to others, no matter their seniority, roles or area of expertise.
As a designer you are the expert when it comes to design and you should act like one, I’m not saying you shouldn’t. What I’m saying is that you should not automatically discard someone’s feedback just because it’s their personal opinion. Or just because it came from someone with no design background or even someone with less experience.
The same goes the other way around though, you should not take someone else’s opinion as source of truth, just because they’re your boss or because they have more seniority than you. You need to weigh in the feedback against the goals the design is supposed to achieve and then conclude if you need to do something with it or not.
Humility also means that you ask when you don’t know something, and you are not afraid of doing so. As a designer, asking questions should be in your DNA and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Without asking questions is a bit difficult to get to the answers, as already pointed out twice in this article, a designer is not paid to know the answers, they’re paid to find them.