A reflection on my 3-year work anniversary as a designer.
When people find out I’m a product designer, I get the same question over and over again — “oh, so do you draw stuff every day?”
After I try not to roll my eyes and politely respond, “not really, I do user experience design”, they seem even more puzzled.
To a majority of people, designers’ job is to make things look beautiful, but they overlook functionality or pay little attention to the big picture. Granted, how a product looks matters a great deal. Apple has earned its reputation for delivering beautiful and polished products. And yet, is the look and feel the only concern of designers? Do we draw every day to make products prettier?
In a broader sense, designers do draw — but unlike painters, we usually “draw” — or materialize — our ideas by a different set of tools. Instead of using pens and brushes, we use Photoshop, Sketch, and other software to communicate our concepts and ideas. Thanks to the democratization of design tools in the last decade, anyone can pick up a piece of software and design something in a day or two. If anyone can design, what’s the use of designers? What are the skills product designers strive to master that non-designers usually fail to appreciate and deliver?
“Design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one. Observe there is no relationship to art.”
— Milton Glaser
1. Deep understanding of users
To start with, designers create products for a specific audience, and the ultimate success lies with end users. Designing without empathy for users is like sailing without a compass. And mastering any design tool or knowing how to draw won’t help much in this regard. It is years of experience in understanding users and practice of what’s learned that set great designers apart from the crowd.
2. Knowledge about technology and products
Like a woodworker would study the characteristics of wood, a designer should have a fair knowledge of the technology behind her product; such as front-end development and data. It also helps to look at projects from a product manager’s perspective. What’s the goal of a project? How does a multi-functional team collaborate? Although designers won’t create great work with this knowledge alone, it ensures design is rooted in solid ground before it grows and flourishes.
3. Ability to visualize ideas
Perhaps the most underrated ability of a designer is envisioning and concretizing the future. Design helps others to touch and feel an idea in context before the team decides whether or not to pursue a specific path. And a great designer not only knows how to translate other people’s ideas, but also sheds light on ill-defined problems while offering valuable solutions. After problems are defined and goals set, everything else can follow more or less naturally within the boundaries.
4. Relentless creativity
For designers, it’s not enough to be creative from time to time. Relentless creativity is what we strive for. It drives designers to search in the dark until light shines through. Having a “brilliant” idea doesn’t make one a designer. After 100 trials and failures, could you still possess the same passion and energy to keep searching for the perfect solution? Being creative is a skill to practice and master. That’s why we bounce ideas around, find inspirations from the most unexpected places, and always keep tuning, improving and starting over again and again.
5. An eye for beauty
Beauty is not just about the look. Sound, motion, and interactions are also big parts of a holistic experience. Furthermore, design cultivates the relationship between users, product, and the environment. Designers are always on the lookout for improvement of all aspects. We observe, reflect, explore, improve, and then repeat the process. Although sometimes designers seem to be fastidious about details, it’s our attention and dedication that pushes boundaries and opens up possibilities.
Next time people ask if you draw every day as a designer, tell them something they don’t know about our job. A better understanding of our role will make our life much easier and happier. In return, our teams will unleash the potential long overlooked in the past.