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Ten More Steps to Becoming the Designer You Want to Be

An open letter to the next generation of designers, part II. design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of...


An open letter to the next generation of designers, part II.

design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine.

Part 1 of this letter was published last week. Here is part 2 and the second 10 things you ought to pay attention to as you build your design career.

1. Never stop learning

While I use most of my projects as learning vehicles, I find that this isn’t enough. You should never stop learning. What would you learn and how would your view change if you went to 1,000 meet ups? As designers, our minds need to be as flexible as possible. Learning something new helps us see more and more possibilities and make connections that previously weren’t there.

2. Be naïve (and believe in two-headed cows)

I was voted most naïve in highschool; as a designer, that means I believe anything is possible. That ability to suspend our disbelief is key to innovation and design. I remember a co-creation session with teenagers and their ideal group game. Somehow the topic of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory came up and the idea of lickable walls. Rather than discard that idea as ridiculous, the alternative is to use it is a catalyst for design possibilities. We use this type of thinking in our frogTHINK ideation as provocation. What do you believe is definitive and what would you gain from pretending it wasn’t? The only limits are in our minds.

3. Develop a personal brand

You may think this goes without saying, but I’m not talking about merely having a blog. Instead, you need to really understand who you are and what you bring as a designer. My favorite example of this is from an interview candidate we’ll call TC. TC knew what her abilities were, her best strengths, and her ideal roles not simply from knowing herself, but by asking 55 people the following questions, “What three adjectives would you use to describe me?” “Which of my skills provide the most value to an employer?” and “Finish this statement, ”TC, you should be…” The results were included in the back of her portfolio. Knowing yourself from others’ viewpoints will help you clarify your direction and help sell yourself to prospective employees.

4. Trust yourself

Know you are good enough now. If you don’t trust yourself, no one else will. This doesn’t mean be a prima donna, but it does mean that your opinions matter and your viewpoints are extremely valuable. Your design process, your design thinking and the embodiment of that (the end product) is your voice. Use it. I am most impressed by junior designers who reach out and ask for my input or opinion because just the act of reaching out speaks volumes—it is risky. Remember, if you don’t reach your hand out, there will never be anyone to grab it.

5. Get incredibly comfortable speaking

Join Toastmasters if you must (one of our creative directors did). Designers must constantly be able to promote their ideas—whether on an internal team, to a client, or on the podium. When I run through a presentation, I generally visualize the entire presentation in my mind. You need to get incredibly comfortable with the articulation of, the presentation of and the defense of ideas. I would also recommend improv training because nothing ever goes as expected.

6. Learn the art of wabi sabi

The art of “wabi sabi” is knowing there is beauty in the imperfect. We learn through trial and error, through mistakes. There is no such thing as “perfect” in design. There are different viewpoints, more than one solution and opportunities everywhere. Let go of the word “perfect” and focus on what really matters – designing for people the best that you can and the ability to be easy on yourself. There are no SATs for design (or the presidency, for that matter). If there were, every answer would be “D., All of the Above.”

7. Know the designer’s paradox: Hurry up and think

Every year, I see the design cycle shrinking. As a discipline (of design) we have reached the inner limits of our creative gestation – in other words, the minimum time it takes to innovate. Creativity = Area of Focus (Existing Knowledge + New Discovery) * Time. The time in this equation is used to think. We are often expected to do more with less time. While you may have had the luxury of time in school and occasionally in the design industry, get ready for a much faster paced process. And to keep the insanity at bay, read Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slowness.

8. Grok the idea of “sfumato”

Designers deal with lots of ambiguity. Not only in the actual process, but in allowing an answer to develop. Phrases like “creative juices” and “ideas percolating” describe the internalization we do to bring order and clarity to the chaos. When designing “the future of…” anything, you (and your team) need to be able to design comfortably in ambiguity—you may not have THE idea immediately or have a clear path or process to get there. The very act of design is the process of discovery. Allow yourself the time to discover. And yes, I realize this seems hypocritical to #17.

9. Try to find the most unusual or obscure angle. We call these outliers.

My path was set the day I received the “Anti-Coloring Book” for my fifth birthday. I started to really enjoy extremes and took creative risks in school. I’ve translated this into design, for example, by developing ideas for the WTC memorial through analyzing hundreds of photographs and the artifacts they contained. This obscure approach led to the idea of the largest blood bank in the world located at the WTC site. In research, we specifically look to outliers for unique thinking and things not considered. Here you’ll find your inspiration. Here you’ll find design.

10. Train Your Brain (to think like a designer)

In the last five years the concept of neuroplasticity (a malleable brain) has taken the medical field by storm. Experiments have revealed that playing the piano and imagining playing the piano have the same neurological effect. Additionally, rats in an “enriched environment” (toys and exercise wheels) have a substantially enlarged brain and more neural connections. We should strive to play the imagined piano, we should strive to be in an enriched environment. Buy Crayola’s 3D glasses (with chalk) and play.

P.S. One final, but important note: We are all designers. Without taking anything away from the design industry, we need more people in all industries to recognize the impact that comes from their “designs”—whether it’s a doctor’s diagnosis or a teacher’s curriculum or a government employee—every human is a designer. As a discipline, we are trained to creatively solve challenges, to consider the future implications, to consider those other than ourselves. Our world is by design and we need more designers than ever before to handle the evolving world. I ask one thing of you in closing—teach one child design thinking or empower an adult by telling them they are a designer. We can all make a difference.

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