There’s a ridiculous myth about good designers: they can deliver
higher quality work faster. That’s simply NOT true when it comes to
This post originated from a discussion between a friend and me about
designers and the “design field scene” in China. I wonder whether the
same or similar issue exists in all other countries. Comment!
Some people, probably decision makers, managers, or some ordinary
employees in a company, have the impression that, compared to
not-so-good designers, good designers can deliver higher quality results
faster. That bad designers simply deliver crap after wasting spending so much time.
When they’re complaining about it, they would say/think something
like “Ethan (a good visual designer) did that really cool logo in 3
hours and he (the bad one) just showed me this zillion-time-modified
crap after 4 days”. And gradually they form a belief that a better
designer literally spends less time to deliver greater stuff. Then they
use 3 hours as a static reference to judge all the designers they work
with or manage.
The problem, however, is not with bad designers. It’s in the way of thinking about how the good designers/designs come about.
One single issue that struck me most is that, many people, either bad
designers or other people, think about the “designer skills and
experiences” in a completely wrong way. Most people only see the results
of good designing, not the design process itself, as well as the
context/environment that affords that process.
A good designer has an accumulative “database” of “design thinking”
or “design activity” — patterns, paradigms, usage of materials,
familiarity with various means, etc. That database is accumulated during
a rather long period of time, by actually working and designing and
A good visual designer would consider a client’s requirements and
then think about what kind of patterns, materials, processes could be
used, what kind of existing stuff or methods could be applied here and
there, and what should be “invented” or brainstormed — a tightly coupled
combination of both the “creativity” and past experiences. So does a
good interaction designer, UX designer, or whatever designer.
Two most common problems I see in novice designers are:
They don’t have solid methods or mind set to analyze the design
problem — observing and communicating the needs or requirements, etc.,
They don’t have a large “database” for them to composite a “base” upon which the creative part is carried out.
A good designer usually spends a lot of time doing seemingly off-work
things — surfing around the web, looking at stuff, asking and/or
talking around, reading some wide-ranging books, creating something not
related or relevant to work at hand etc. That’s exactly how they
accumulate their own “databases”. If we take into account the time and
effort spent out there, then it actually takes so much more time for a
good designer to deliver good work (something like that 10,000 hour
rule, albeit it’s not necessarily true).
People usually don’t see that “accumulative” process which breeds
good designers and good designs, and all they see is the result, not
realizing that it’s not only the actual making/creating effort that
differentiate a good designer from a bad one. While it’s the process and
design thinking before actually doing it, and it’s the
context/environment that affords the designers to do so.
On one hand, designers should learn, practice, and accumulate — no
doubt about that; one the other hand, companies, managers, designers’
colleagues etc. need to be pushed to realize the context in which good
designers/design come about.
BREEDING GOOD DESIGNERS
When both the companies and the would-be designers have the wrong
idea of bringing about good designers, surely the former find it hard to
find and hire good ones, and the latter find it hard to become better
It takes personal efforts to improve, and it also takes an affordable
company culture to breed. The latter is tricky because company culture,
once established, is extremely difficult to change.
So what? Design education and the awareness of its complexity. In a
sense, design can not be taught, only its many integral parts can be
taught. And we need to make it clear to designer wannabes about that
complexity. In a business context, that could mean a lot of basic skill
building. In China, one of the most common issues I find in common
designers is their lack of awareness of improving their communication
skills and broadening their knowledge rather than their hard skills of
photoshopping or diagramming. They didn’t seem to realize that good
design is also about meeting goals and solving problems, creative or
not; and that getting to know more about the contexts of a problem
actually provides them more chances to be creative — they didn’t get to
know more because they didn’t think they should (sounds like
jack-of-all-trades etc.) while they should.
Thus design and its education lie deeply in the ideology of problem
solving, not merely being creative. And I wonder how it can be done.
One thing I’ve been constantly talking about during discussions is a
big picture “career path” and “database” map laid out for design
learners — they need to bare those in mind, so that they could think
deeper about their passions, life, and work. I’ve talked to many young
designers who were confused about their career and passion. And the
single most effective thing turns out to be letting them better
understand the big picture and what it takes to be a good designer
What breed good designers? A better design education, an appropriate
company culture, and more importantly, a deeper understanding and
telling of the effort of being a good designer.