In my 2019 keynote on The Future of Design: Computation & Complexity, I called out the shift design is going through, and how this “will make much of our present skills obsolete, and demand we learn new skills, or become… irrelevant.”
It was a hard pill to swallow, as I systematically deconstructed what it means to be a designer. If you were in that room, and consider yourself a designer, I was challenging your identity. I was challenging what it means to design. [And if you are a designer, and you’re unsure what all this is about, do check out that talk—especially the ‘meat grinder’ exercise!]
What I hoped to do in that talk, while design is facing a seismic shift, was make sure we anchor to things that last. No, it’s not your Figma skills. No, it’s not a love of typography (not exactly). These are expressions of design. Tools change. Required skills change. Even the mediums we work in — print, web, XR — change. What I was after was something more fundamental and timeless. What made someone a designer in the early 20th century should still make some a designer in the late 22nd century.
This was the crux of my argument:
What designers do is changing.
But also: What designers have always done is not changing.
What doesn’t change in all of this is what has always defined us: A mindset.
While that talk went on to mention or reference a portions of this “design mindset,” that wasn’t the focus of that talk.
That is the focus of this post.
Today, I want to share 11 “ways of being” that describe what I think it means to be a designer.
This, to me, gets at what makes someone a designer. For all the stuff that changes, this doesn’t. While we may see ourselves doing different things, this is what doesn’t change in it all. This, is the design mindset.
These 11 principles seek to articulate how designers think, as well as common traits and characteristics to expect of designers. That said, these are prototypical. Not all designers will demonstrate all of the traits.
Why is this useful?
Before I list the 11 principles that form a design mindset, it might be helpful to describe a context in which this might be useful (at least for something other than navel gazing!).
We makes jokes and generalizations — all the time — about how engineers, designers, business people, etc, are all very different from each other. More broadly, we have similar generalizations about artists, engineers, scientists, politicians, architects, and so on. These are generalizations, to be fair. Not everyone fits these stereotypes. Or fits the stereotype 100%. But, there might be some value in rallying around particular ways of working that distinguish one profession from another.
What I originally (c. 2017?) set about designing was a small deck of cards, specifically for folks who do not identify as designers. The goal was to (a) identify these seemingly odd ‘designerly’ ways of working, and (b) describe these quirks as something to be celebrated. Again, the audience for this was non-designers who work in a cross-functional team with designers.
How would this work?
Let’s taking a principle like Make to Think. For designers, we make stuff all the time — if only to explore possible solutions.
The making isn’t part of a construction or building process — it’s part of a thinking process, Hence, “throwing away” something you made isn’t waste. But, to the uninitiated, this might absolutely be seen as waste. “You had a perfectly good solution — why did you throw it away? Why aren’t we building that?!” Teams may be surprised to see “perfectly good solutions” thrown away in favor of new, better ideas. What may look like waste to some, or perfectionism to others, is actually a thinking and exploration process made visible.
By clearly and objectively articulating this as a ‘designerly’ way of working, the goal was to get out ahead of so many intra-team conflicts that stem from little more than misunderstanding different ways of working.
Each card then would:
- Name the principle
- Offer a longer description
- Describe how this is similar or different for other roles
- Describe how this can be challenging or misunderstood
- Explain why this is a good quality (and not something to be rejected or corrected!)
- Explain what you can do (as a non-designer) to support, or in some cases manage, the associated behaviors
In effect, the cards (of which there would have only been 11 — one for each design mindset) would have formed a kind of easy reference manual for working with designers.
That was the intended application of this work, to explain or give context to common conflicts that result from competing mindsets, to help cross-functional teams gain a deeper appreciation of the competing mindsets, why each is valuable, as well as the considerations of each.
Priorities shifted, and I never finished this project. But… the idea is now here, in the universe…!
So then, what are the 11 principles of the design mindset?
The Design Mindset
Below, I’ve tried to identify those nuanced details that distinguish designerly ways of working from other professions.
[SIDENOTE: Each of these begin with a verb. As you read them, imagine the word “Designers” or the phrase “or “A Designer will…” pre-positioning each of these principles]
Here they are, in no particular order (numbers added for reference purposes, only):
1. Frame & Reframe Problems
Part of the design approach is to look at a problem through many, different frames, as a way of seeing new possibilities.
2. Make to Think (to Explore Possible Solutions)
Through prototyping, sketches, models and other means, designers give form to ideas, in order that otherwise abstract things can become tangible and can be thoroughly investigated.
3. Work from Principles & Values
Ideals, principles, and values are primary motivators for designers, ahead of other things like dates, adherence to process, or theoretical approaches.
4. Tame Complexity (by Seeking Out Elegant Experiences)
A designer is never satisfied with a complex solution. Rather, the good designer will seek out the elegant, simple solution buried within the complex problem.
5. Obsess over Aesthetic Details
Designers prize aesthetically pleasing designs, that bring pleasure and stimulate the senses. This includes how things look, feel, sound, taste, move, and more.
6. Think in Systems and Contexts
Designers look at the whole in relation to the parts; they see the big picture. When asked to think about pieces outside of the broader context, frustration typically follows.
7. Focus on Human Needs & Motivations
Designers care about people, and are natural advocates for what is right, from a human-centered perspective.
8. See Possible Futures (where Others See Present Realities)
It is natural for the designer to dwell on how things could be better, whether through incremental or disruptive means; expect dissatisfaction with present realities. Design is concerned with what could be, and not what is.
9. Thrive on Ambiguity
The zone of complexity, between chaos and boredom, is the preferred state where designers feel most useful.
10. Exude Positivity
A good designer tends to be idealistic, focused on positive, possible futures, rebounding from setbadcks with other possible options.
11. Show a Bias for Intuition
Designers tend to rely on intuition and instinct, over data. From the experienced designer, this can be a boon; from the junior designer, this is dangerous.
A here they are, in one handy-dandy page:
And… that’s it. What do you think? Does this ring true with your experiences? Is there something missing? Part of why I never moved forward with the card idea, was I never validated these 11 principles — I’d love your critical feedback on this.
If I’m being entirely honest with myself, I’ve gone in circles as to whether this entire exercise is even useful, or a waste of time.
→ If there is such as thing as a design mindset, I feel good about this list.
⬅But, there’s also a part of me that recognizes we’re all unique creatures, with unique ways of being and working — generalizations like this do a disservice to the individual.
→ Then I think about the use case for this — a language to help co-workers understand different ways of working, and this is valuable.
⬅ But then… we’re all so different. Even within a domain like design, not all designers fit this description. Why am I trying force people into boxes?
→ Yes, we’re all different. But what if these are the attributes that attract people toward or away from a profession like design?
And on and on… 🤪
At the very least, I do think this is useful as a conversation tool — maybe even just a conversation starter — to help co-workers understand each other and possibly understand ways of working common to a particular job group.
Credit where credit is due…
For all my doubts about whether there is such as a thing as a design mindset, I feel emboldened to share this work, if only because design luminaries and groups before me have proposed similar thinking. My work here is equal parts observation and prior art. The following, similar thoughts, informed and inspired my own conclusions:
- Designedly Ways of Knowing, Nigel Cross
- Why Designers are Valued, Dick Buchanan
- Attributes of Design Thinking (from Interaction Design Foundation)
- This list of 8 design abilities from Stanford D.School