Dear Designer, You Aren’t That Special

With all that’s happening in the world I find the design community a bit frustrating sometimes. Ok, maybe not so much the community, but a handful of people. In a great moment of success for a fellow designer we find ourselves trolling and upset about something very insignificant. In fact, it’s meaningless. Next week we’ll find another “squirrel” and be distracted by that. Meanwhile, historic things like WikiLeaks and an uprising in Egypt go on in the background.

There is a certain entitlement that we as creative people sometimes carry. It’s a sort of underlying attitude that –- whether or not we see it –- is there. We think that we know much better than everyone else. Our eye for design is untouchable. Our opinion of a designed experience is always right, since most users are “dumb.” We are the chosen ones; The design thinkers and the only creative minds that can impact the world.

Creativity isn’t ours. Just because you can draw better, doesn’t make you a better thinker. Design isn’t just aesthetics, it’s more than that. Even if the shiny stuff we do is what gets the most attention in our industry, it’s not what makes design what it is.

Everyone is Creative

There are many people that claim to be creative. How many times have we heard some mother doting on about her kid: “My Johnny, is sooo creative.” Hearing that we laugh to ourselves, thinking, “That means Johnny sucks.” If we try to identify what makes us more creative, or just better, we realize we are stuck in our own self-serving bias. We tend to accept the credit for the creative wins and when we lose we blame it on things that are out of our control like “having an off day,” or, “hitting a wall.”

This goes for what we as design community hold in our collective view as good or bad design. There are certain things that are passed around on Twitter with a fury and hailed as examples of amazing design and creativity. The reality is they all aren’t. In fact, if we were to go back and look at the design work we praised in the past, we’d find that our opinion was more of a result of group thinking and self fulfilling prophecy. This happens with popular music all the time:

“If a song is actually awesome and enough people hear it, it will be successful. If it sucks, same thing. But, if it is just somewhere in the middle, people will decide whether or not to like it based on the opinions of others. After about 10 years, you get your objectivity back, and you look back on what used to be popular and realize it was never all that great and you are not so smart.”David McRaney

Creativity isn’t always the result of skill of someone gifted with it. It also isn’t something just anyone can learn in a short time. It’s somewhere in between. There are 4 types of creativity as described by Susan Weinschenk, which she breaks down into: Thomas Edison, A-ha Moments, Eureka Moments, and Epiphanies.

On one side of the creative spectrum are people like Thomas Edison who are disciplined and consistently create. Edison would simply experiment and iterate as much as necessary before coming up with an invention. On the other side of the creative spectrum are artists and musicians that are more emotional in their creativity. There is no knowledge necessary. They just have a skill like music and they use that to spontaneously create.

Creativity comes in many forms and there isn’t one that is better than another. They all contribute in some way to world; From innovations like the light bulb to studied works of art like the Mona Lisa.

Design Rules

I’m not about to define design here, that’s another article for another time. However as a designer I think we can agree that we have to abide by certain principles/rules in order to create great design — Or, at least understand them so we can break them intelligently. In essence, design is not a chaotic expression, it’s a measured approach to creation. We cannot create a good design solution by shuffling elements randomly around a canvas until something happens to work. It takes study, experience, and skill to get to the level design where we can work out a proper solution to a problem within a given period.1

If we were to separate the visual/aesthetic side (aka emotional subjectivity) of design and only consider the rules of things like typography and balance or contrast, we can see a certain order. So, could someone that is not “artistic,” so to speak, follow those rules and get to something that is “designed”? I think so.

“When we’re talking primarily about good typographical rules and creating a balanced visual hierarchy, those things are not subjective. Those just are. You can guarantee that people will react a certain way to these things. And we’re not actually looking for an emotional connection where we might be with color and the more artistic layer if you will. That’s the nice thing about design. At its core level it’s not really subjective. It’s just a matter of good balanced decision making and not cluttering things, not overcrowding.”Dan Rubin

Many designers or agencies might scoff at the notion of a “non-designer” being able to learn and understand the principles to help them arrive at a design. This is out of fear of losing what they are selling. This is also feeding into the stigma of it seen as a decorative layer. There are many layers to design and what the quote above speaks to, is design that supports basic creative problem-solving.2

Kick(starter)ed Down

Design is both something you are and something you do. In many cases we forget about design being about people and not just this beautiful shiny thing. Design is empathy, psychology, and basically understanding how people think. We are creating something that pulls their emotional strings.

There are approaches to design like “Genius Design” where the designer does not include the user and relies on their wisdom and experience. A lot of interaction design ends up happening this way, many times due to lack of time and resources. Apple does this (it’s said for privacy reasons) and has seen great success, as well as great failure. Only the most experienced designers should do this. We can design in a vacuum or we can design with others being co-creators.3

Getting back to the design community and Frank Chimero’s Kickstarter project: There was a question of whether or not his humility (about taking money) was harmful to us as creative people. I believe that attitude feels more like someone afraid of their piece of pie being taken away by others.

Face it, there is always someone more talented than you. I believe that having some humility is an admirable trait. We are not entitled to anything. We have to earn every bit of it. After that comes the reward.

1) A Designer’s Art — by Paul Rand

2) Spoolcast: Visual Design Essentials for Non-Designers with Dan Rubin — by Sean Carmichael

3) Designing for Interaction — by Dan Saffer