A framework for Great Designers

For years now, a nagging thought has kept me up on sleepless nights:

Am I a great designer?

The answer to this question matters – to me, and to everyone else.

First, it’s deeply personal. I don’t think many people aim to be mediocre, and this question is the yardstick by which we measure our professional life.

Second, in the vein of Cennydd Bowles’ excellent closing plenary from the IA summit, being a great designer involves having a huge, positive impact on the world. We should all strive for this, and if the field is to realize its full potential, we must. We cannot settle for mediocrity, for focus on profits, for improving the short-term at the expense of the long-term. We cannot use, as Umair Haque puts it, yesterday’s ideas.

So how do we measure it?

The thing is, it’s very hard to even understand the question. What is a great designer? We can judge someone by many metrics: respect, pay, book sales, twitter followers, users of their products, revenues of their products, or any of a million other things. My gut tells me that these things may be a result of greatness, but that they don’t strike at the heart of the issue. One doesn’t need to be popular or rich to be great.

With that in mind, I’ve set down a simple list of things that I think I must do to even begin to enter the realm of greatness. It’s a draft version; let’s collaborate on making it better. I can only claim to check a few of these items off my list, but it’s obvious that trying to fill each of these areas will make me significantly better. I hope you find it equally useful.

A Framework

Using this guide is simple: Answer the questions honestly, and strive to fulfill each one completely.

1. Are you working on something truly important?

You should be able to answer this unequivocally. You are increasing happiness on this Earth, and can prove it. In the future, when you look back on what you are doing right now, you will say “yes, I was working on the right thing”. You are tapped into that youthful, driven sense that the world needs saving and you’re playing a vital part. The most important decision we make as designers is not within a project, it is what project we choose to work on.

The guy who codified planned obsolescence was a very successful marketer. He helped sell billions, even trillions of dollars worth of product. But I don’t call him “great”. I call him a bastard, responsible for untold landfills of cheap, discarded consumer goods.

2. Are you learning something new?

You are actively learning a new domain of knowledge. This involves at a minimum reading, being taught or mentored, and practicing in this domain. No matter your age or experience, there are many things to learn. Stagnation does not make a great designer.

3. Are you a mentor?

You periodically meet with a designer more junior than yourself, providing them with guidance, feedback, and inspiration. Mentoring or teaching is one of the most powerful ways a person can use their time. A few hours of your time can have an lasting, sustained impact on the future of both your students and the world. Every great designer should take the time to pass their invaluable wisdom onwards.

4. Are you a mentee?

You periodically meet with a designer more senior than yourself, who helps you continually improve yourself. The most successful people in history have all had mentors. Leonardo da Vinci had Andrea del Verrocchio. MLK had Benjamin Mays. Not only do mentors have answers to your questions, they tell you which questions you should be asking.

5. Do you contribute to your professional community?

You blog, speak, write, evangelize, organize, or curate within your own niche of the design community. Everyone, from the youngest fledgeling designer to the lifelong thought leader, has a unique and important perspective on the design profession. We are lucky to call ourselves members of one of the most flexible, forward-looking, wide open professions in the history of the world. Your contribution is important, and while creating it you shape your own unique expertise.

6. Do you feel ownership of your work?

You endure the unbearable bad feedback that throws your passionate work into a trash can, and bask in the radiant glow of good feedback while staying humble. You champion your designs and the ideals that created them, through unending hurdles and teams and budgets and whatever else can be thrown in your way.

Creating beautiful designs, handing them off, and walking away is easy. Long term ownership of a design is hard. It makes you take heroic stands as well as accept brutal compromises.

7. Are you proud of your day-to-day efforts?

There are many ways to define good work, from quantitative results to qualitative feedback. Here, we take a self-reflective approach: You do great work so long as you feel that it is great. You have produced your very best effort given the constraints and needs of the project. You have battled and danced with these constraints until they made you bleed, and you have left the design room with something to be proud of.

8. Have you ever created anything timeless?

You have made something that even your kids would someday be proud of. This thing has longevity – its effects will last beyond the next version, the next redesign, the next generation. It has impacted the future in a noticeable way, large or small. Someone in the world has benefitted greatly from this thing, and would thank you from the bottom of their heart if they ever met you.

9. Do you empower your team to be better?

You make a conscious effort to improve the dynamic of your team. You are a source of positive energy, selfless in your efforts to help your teammates become great themselves.

Our ability to bring the best out of everyone around us results in better products, smarter people, and happier colleagues. Even when we must fight for our designs, it is with respect and shared optimism that we approach this “fight”.

10. Are you happy?

This is a difficult question, but it pierces the heart of the issue: Your overall happiness is a subconscious yet powerful evaluation of how you’re doing. If you do crappy work and are mean to people, you will be unhappy. Buddhism teaches that attaining happiness is forgetting the self, and this applies profoundly to our work. If we care deeply about what we do, we can lose ourselves in it, become vulnerable to it, grieve when it fails, and experience real bliss when it is successful. This question can be alternatively phrased: Are you vulnerable to your work? Thus, if you have done great work, you are happy.

How many of these can I check off? Not enough! I argue that we should all be scoring 100% on the first nine questions, and doing our best on the tenth. If our entire community can hit this stride, we are well positioned to change the future for the better.

  • http://www.bradsramblings.com/blog Brad Nunnally

    Hi Loren,

    This relates to a blog post I wrote a long time ago -

    Regarding your framework –

    1 is a tough one because sometimes that isn’t an option for some people. Personally, I would love to work on something truly meaningful and impactful. But, I have a wife and kid to provide for so at the end of the day I need a job, any job. That takes priority of what I’d LIKE to work on.

    6 is another tough one because again it might not be an option for someone. If you are working for a major corporation, any sense of ownership is at the end of the day very “loose”. At any time, the higher ups could decided that your project is no longer bringing the company any value and kill it. What kind of ownership can a designer really have over something like that?

    Everything else looks great and spot on. I personally love number 10. I tell people all the time if you aren’t happy, in general, with what you are doing, then it’s time to do something different.

    This is great stuff, keep it up.


  • http://twitter.com/johannakoll Johanna Kollmann

    Hi Loren,

    I agree with Brad. If I find the product or service that I truly believe in and care about, and get to work on it, 1 and 6 would be positive answers.

    6 probably only works if you’re in-house. However, if my message stuck with my client, if I saw a launch through with them, and if I see that they are continuing to use the design framework with the principles I’ve championed, that leaves me with a sense of ownership. Championing design thinking internally is hard. Shipping a product is hard. Good designers ship.

    Thanks for bringing in mentoring on both the giving and receiving end. Teaching what we do is hard, but makes you a better designer.

    Looking forward to hearing further thoughts from you on this. Conference submission?

    On a sidenote, Shai Idelson gave a talk at IAS11 on career decisions, and I think your questions can be a good addition to Shai’s when considering what to do next (http://www.slideshare.net/shaidelson/creating-a-navigation-system-for-your-career-7500159).


  • http://colinharman.com Colin Harman

    Great framework. I definitely agree there is need to score well on many of these areas. It has given me some categories I hadn’t considered that I need to give more of my learning away, and seek some real life (not just on the internet) mentoring from someone near me, thankfully I know just the person.

    If I were to add anything to this, I would add a need to maintain some sort of exposure to relevance in trends, culture, and technology. Knowing what is happening around you whether for inspiration or for relevance is crucial. Knowing the styles so you can stay on top of the wave or ahead of them is a lifestyle that is forever progressing. Failure to do so will have you designing things for the trend you just missed.

    Again, thank you for writing this. Keep it coming.

  • http://acleandesign.com Loren

    @Brad: Thanks for the feedback, I see how having kids really changes things for people. That’s not a part of my life yet, so it’s hard for me to understand the different focus that your life takes at that point.

    Something that’s hard for me to swallow in my own life is that having kids would be an excuse to no longer shoot for “greatness”. Maybe it’s that many choose to be a great parent at the expense of reaching greater heights in their career? I don’t know, but am really interested in the effect that raising a family would have on my own path. Definitely scared of it, too :)

    In some sense, #1 is advice to myself: never make excuses.

  • http://acleandesign.com Loren

    @Johanna: I definitely want to pursue this further, thanks for the tip.

    That’s a fine insight about how one can feel ownership even as a consultant. My own experience has been tainted, and that probably comes through in the article. You and Brad have helped me see that #6 needs some revision for sure.

  • http://acleandesign.com Loren

    @Colin: I have definitely based #5 on the assumption that you’re participating and staying up to date, but you’re spot on that this is important in its own right.

    Staying up to date is half the fun in this field :)

  • Steve Henty

    Like Brad, I struggle the most with #1. My wife and I both remember the days when “changing the world” in some way was the highest calling. I feel the calling no less now that I have kids, and like Brad and a host of others, need the job at least as much as the world-changing. It’s just harder to balance.

    We as UX/CX designers in particular must remain champions of humanity – not just the user. I include as part of my personal/professional mission statement the following guidance:

    “Enable the creation of technology and other artifacts that are easy and satisfying to use, that empower human agency, and that improve the human condition.”

    The last phrase more than any other, “…improve the human condition,” serves as a litmus test for which jobs or projects I’m willing to avoid on moral grounds. It’s the phrase that keeps, “…empower human agency,” from being applied too narrowly to a small group of people at the expense of the masses.

    And of course, as anyone with kids knows, the focus on “changing the world” easily shifts from direct actions taken oneself to the indirect action of raising conscientious, responsible citizen/humans who are equipped themselves to “…improve the human condition.” Both attempts are important, and there’s nothing wrong with making your mark in one or both ways.