The life of a designer

Design is not easy. Sometimes the process of research, analysis and turning that into a design specification for a product or service can be relatively straightforward, but often it’s not. Often we walk into a new project and we have no idea what we’re doing.

And that’s one of the reasons I love design.

Design is not some airy fairy artistic profession where we sit around waiting for inspiration to pop into our heads. Design has more in common with engineering than painting or poetry. Design can be a hard slog. Design is methodical and has well-defined techniques, activities and outputs that we select and apply as we see fit.

But that doesn’t diminish the fact that at the start of a new project especially in a new domain or industry we don’t know where to start, and that’s both terrifying and exciting.

At the start of a new project with a new client I don’t yet know what I don’t know, I don’t know what I should know and need to find out, and I don’t know if what I know is credible.

I have to throw it all up in the air if I’m to have any hope of getting to the core problem and properly scope out the design challenge space. I have to assume that my assumptions are wrong, that the information I have does not accurately represent the priorities and objectives of my client.

I have to assume that what my client thinks they know about their customers and users is flawed, obsolete or just plain wrong. To go along with flawed assumptions and just work with the information your given without further inquiry is unprofessional and will likely lead to a poor quality outcome, an irrelevant product or a missed niche.

Designers have to feel comfortable working with abstract concepts; empty boxes the contents of which they’ll figure out later. Designers have to get up to speed with new domains of knowledge overnight in order to ask intelligent, informed and profound questions and to avoid being dismissed as ignorant … although there is a valid argument to asking stupid questions.

Design can be philosophical as you question and challenge the boundaries of knowledge, what people tell you needs to be done, how people think something needs to be designed. Professional designers must dig deep until the real problem is uncovered, the real opportunity, the actual start of the path rather than some detour or distraction.

Designers – who often might say “It depends” and “How long is a piece of string?” – must be able to provide clear direction and information without appearing to be flailing around aimlessly, even though we don’t want to commit to a solution prematurely.

Design is not for the faint of heart. It requires confidence tempered with humility, leadership that is always listening out for where to go next, an ability to navigate oceans of new information and use the tools of research, analysis, synthesis and design to arrive at the right port. Which port? You probably won’t know for sure until you’ve finished the journey.

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