Design Philosophy

What underpins everything I do as a designer and leader.

Design is fundamentally a practice and mindset focused on solving a problem. Designers are those who solve problems.

Good design goes a step further by treating each problem, people involved, and constraints at play as unique. There may be similarities between problems, there may not.

To be a good designer requires skill in the art of listening, seeing clearly, connecting, and communicating. A good designer has a large toolbox and and knows exactly when to apply the right tool to meet the moment.

Defining Problems Through Listening #

Being a good designer therefore immediately disqualifies forcing an off-the-shelf process or tool into the mix. Rigorous adhesion to design processes are the realm of amateurs and charlatans. One of these is excusable, but neither should be at the helm. An understanding of process is important, but it is principles which let us honor the aforementioned uniqueness while also doing our best work.

Consider a gardener tending to their garden. Each plant has its own set of needs and characteristics. One plant may need a certain type of soil, another a different amount of sunlight. Forcing the same regimen on every plant will yield, at best, mixed results. One skilled at tending plants understands which tools and regimen to apply so each plant can thrive. The plants tell the gardener what they need, their success requires a gardener who listens and adapts to their individual needs.

This, by extension, means treating those we work with as wholly formed individuals with expertise and actively seeking their input. Each person has knowledge that, when combined with yours, forms something greater than if one forced their way.

It necessarily means you do not jump to conclusions or solutions. You are a like visitor to their lands, telling its inhabitants what’s right and wrong is the motivation of colonizers. You are not a colonizer. You are a cultivator.

The inhabitants of this place have experience you don’t. They know the land in ways you’ll never understand. You will be most effective if you build a shared understanding together of what needs to be done. You do this by listening to what these people value, how they live, and how they work before jumping to what comes next.

But what if you just know what needs doing? If you’re right, good for you, but you should have worked with them so they can fend for themselves when you’re gone. But if you’re wrong, you’ve blown it. Not just for you, for everyone.

You’re RightYou’re Wrong
You ListenedEveryone benefits and shares in the win. People are bought into the idea and knows how to nurture it.Everyone knows how they misstepped and knows how to fix it.
You ForcedA short term win for you, but people are unlikely to care or continue to maintain what you forced on them.You’ve wasted time and trust and are unlikely to gain it back.

Suspending Assumptions #

It is natural that the more you solve a certain problem, the more you will see certain patterns emerge. That is knowledge you’ve earned and should not be discounted. What you are after here, however, is wisdom. Wisdom is an understanding of how, when, or if, to apply the knowledge you’ve earned.

To blindly apply knowledge is to mistake commonalities for certainties. Our brains are good at shortcuts and hate doing work. This helped us survive as hunter-gatherers and make quick decisions about what might be a tiger lurking in the grass or not. These days it mostly hinders clear thinking and results in shortsighted decisions. Another term for mistaking commonalities for certainties comes to mind: stereotyping.

To counter this, maintain a mindset of someone approaching a problem for the first time. There are no assumptions this person’s mind, as they do not know what they’re dealing with yet. In this way, it is possible to be fully present and unbiased when trying to understand a problem.

This isn’t to say you should be doe-eyed at every single problem. That’s still rigorous adhering to a process and treats everyone like they know nothing. Instead, use what you’ve learned to distill the problem in a way that doesn’t bias your results. One general way to avoid this is to use open-ended questions. They allow you to set and work from strong defaults, but don’t chain you to them.

Working Openly #

A designer is not in the business of big reveals. As a problem solver, you show progress and deliver your solution bits at a time. In this way, missteps are easier to correct than had you waited until the very end. It is imperative to remember that something working is better than something perfect, and nothing is perfect. Invite others into your workshop and show works in progress.

See feedback for what it is: a gift. Criticism and differing viewpoints are welcomed, encouraged, and actively sought. You cannot do an effective job if you sit alone in isolation. Fully formed solutions cannot exist in a vacuum, there’s too little oxygen for them to thrive. Expose them to the elements. They may change a little, but few things exist inside of tightly controlled conditions and enjoy a good existence. See also: lab rats with no immune system.

Negotiating Tradeoffs #

The business a designer is about, however, is that of negotiations and tradeoffs. You help your client understand what they gain by doing a particular task as well as what won’t be possible with their chosen path. You owe them both labor and counsel, not just mindless execution of a request.

Reducing Harm #

You cannot shy away from hard conversations about a decision’s impact. Nor can you only think about how it affects your client. Real humans, not percentages or “edge cases” will be impacted too, so ask yourself: who is going to have a bad day because of what you’re creating?[^ This is a conversation about accessibility, inclusion, sustainability, and equity. Yes, all of them.]

If you design something that will knowingly result in harm to them—or worse, those whom your client serves—you are as culpable as they are, if not more so. You knew better, but they didn’t.

There is no “just doing what I’m told” for you. Clients can and do see impacts and opportunities you don’t and sometimes they will not accept your counsel.

It is helpful in those circumstances to remind yourself that you are a visitor to their lands. Their decisions are out of your control, but not your influence. There is peace in knowing you do not carry the burden of a decision, because this means you are responsible for its successful outcome. Not carrying this weight frees you to argue fully and wholly for what’s right and best.

If you push against a decisions which has a high chance of causing significant harm and it remains unaddressed, take your tools and go home. You can’t stop someone from doing harm, but you do not have to participate or enable it. Some harms remain hidden from view until certain conditions are met, such as scale or time. This is true despite how thoughtful or diligent both you and your client are. This should not absolve either party of the duty to mitigate those harms.

In Sum #

To be a successful designer requires you to be a deep listener who suspends your assumptions. In doing so, you can concisely define the problem at hand and wield the right tools to address it. You do this openly, both seeking and offering input on a path which mitigates harm while ensuring success.

See Also #