Chances are that if your job title contains the words design or designer, you often ask yourself what is it that you actually do. Or are expected to do. You might be a graphic designer who’s expected to transform people’s perception of a brand, or a retail designer who’s supposed to rethink public spaces, or a service designer who needs to redefine how governments work for their citizens, or a typeface designer tasked with changing people’s relationship with written media. As if that’s not ambiguous enough, you are often stuck in an infinite loop of trying to explain to your mum what you do for a living and defending your integrity in front of your mates who think you’re full of BS. You still start your presentations with “change is the only constant”, so you’ve probably come to terms with it and accepted that uncertainty is now deeply embedded into your life. No wonder you are always torn between saving the world and doodling on tote bags.
Being a designer is a knotty business. This Anglo-Saxon, witty-tongued, fast-paced, youngish discipline has no widely agreed-upon definition and no formal textbook to turn to when shit hits the fan. There are hardly any roadmaps for making it through, and most success stories teach us that those who made it to the top figured it out as they went, carving out their own space as their careers advanced. Perhaps a reflection of that, many of those who call themselves designers in 2020 didn’t come out of a University of Designers. Instead, they made their way through from art, marketing, engineering (hi 👋), architecture or so many other degrees. Design is in many ways a discipline still in its i̶n̶f̶a̶n̶c̶y̶ adolescence. Trying to not be awkward, gain visibility, legitimacy, and authority, beyond the conventional “oh that’s a pretty colour” and “can you help me pick my bedroom wallpaper”. Prove it’s grown up.
Over the past 12 years I did my fare share of pingponging from one design discipline to another. I’ve worked with incredibly talented designers and incredibly inspiring non-designers, in all sorts of organisations, in various countries and cultures, applying design methods to all sorts of challenges, mostly as a supplier of design services, and most recently as a client. In my current role I’ve had the chance to meet dozens (couple hundreds even) of designers, and witness — from an unquestionably privileged standpoint — how they approach their craft, their work, development, and collaboration with their teams and clients.
The thing that has baffled me the most is how all of us designers still scramble to grow. And how necessary hierarchies still seem to be to express personal and professional progress. I often wonder if I’m still a branding person, or a design strategist, or if perhaps my experience allows me to put something else in my job title (what??). Or to what extent the number of years I’ve been doing design stuff entitles me to advise others on how to do their stuff. Or whether claiming I helped solve a certain problem makes my profession sound any less fluffy.
Truth be told, uncertainty and global unrest make building a career path for yourself challenging regardless of the business you’re in. Perhaps that of a lawyer, an engineer, a software developer, a doctor, a scientist, a teacher, an athlete… tends to be somewhat clearer.
But a designer? What does a growth path look like for someone who operates on a daily basis with stuff that literally changes overnight? Software updates. New algorithms. New media. New hardware. New industries. New geographies. New life forms. There’s a certain expectation that a designer should just get on with whatever it is that they’re designing even if the very tools, rules and object of their work change.
Yesterday you designed app interfaces. Today society-wide, behaviour altering digital services. Yesterday you designed car dashboards. Today brains for autonomous vehicles.
One thing is clear. As the complexity of the stuff — businesses, products, problems, crisis, systems — that require design solutions grows, so should the ability of the designer to tackle it. Complex problems require complex thinking. A beautiful visual identity for a brand, a picturesque space, a cool app interface — these are no longer enough to be considered solutions to problems.
Designers now need to look beyond the immediate artefact they design and see the big picture around that design. To put it in a context. To view it as part of an ecosystem. To connect it with the world. To make sense of it in a complex social, economical, political context.
As the complexity of the stuff — businesses, products, problems, crisis, systems — that require design solutions grows, so should the ability of the designer to tackle it.
For some reason, designers now take on challenges that are way bigger than what they were trained to. And they’re not only expected to, but also feel legitimate to solve problems way bigger than their job titles say they do.
So how do you prepare yourself to become the kind of designer that solves the kinds of challenges we want to be entrusted with? Where do you begin? What step do you take next? That is what keeps me up at night.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of how the industry is constructed — you start as a barely-paid intern, then move into a junior position, then middleweight, senior, lead, head, director, executive, partner, chief, life coach, barista. But I don’t mean going up the ladder, I mean growing. Becoming. Making a dent.
Intuition is often quoted as the secret sauce. Many of the superstar designers we all look up to talk of that je-ne-sais-quoi they listen to when faced with (design) adversity. They just know what needs to be done. Of course, it takes a ton of work to get to the point where you can rely on your gut instincts to evaluate and question design — either yours or that of others. Honing your craft is a lifelong endeavour — deepening your knowledge of tools, sharpening your artistic techniques, learning to better express yourself.
But no matter how much instinct you managed to acquire, being a specialist is no longer enough. It’s just one side of what being a designer means these days. The craft — or the specialism — is the vertical stroke in what they call a T-shaped designer. The horizontal stroke is the ability to connect with ideas, processes and people beyond your immediate discipline. It is what it takes for a designer to grow beyond their craft and apply themselves to those kinds of challenges that require an ecosystem approach. The zooming out. The contextualisation of your work. The understanding of the world design will live in and the diverse points of view it needs to appease to. It’s a transversal intuition, if you were waiting for a fancy concept.
Going back to the question I began with, I believe there is no formula to growth hack yourself as a designer (despite heaps of books promising otherwise, don’t even get me started on that). And if you made it all the way here waiting for an answer (thank you for your patience) I must inform you there is no recipe. But I believe that exploring that horizontal stroke is the right starting point. And that’s the journey I’d like to take you on in my future articles.
Let’s explore how a designer can build that robust transversal intuition that enables them to tackle current and future problems, beyond their immediate craft. To begin with, I’ll be looking into topics like:
- Roles and responsibilities of various design disciplines
- And collaboration between different design disciplines
- Collaboration with other non-design disciplines
- Design Ecosystems
- Making design work in non-design organisations
Would love for this to be a dialogue between us. Do you ever think about growing beyond your craft? Do you ever feel stuck in this process? Do you ever wonder how to build your growth path? Do you have any idea of where to start from?
So grateful for the help I got in shaping this piece (and overcoming my dread of public scrutiny) from my fellow writers-in-arms at On Deck, particularly my Delta group — Bea, Jamie, James, Anand, Nich, Nivi, Varun, Matt, Akash — and our brilliant mentor Natalie, and from my fellow design nerds Alina Pîrvu and Laura Ristea.