Design can be intimidating, and for many people, it’s intimidating by definition.
Even the word “design” suggests something of a “higher caliber”, something with ambition and aesthetic forethought. An amateur crafts, but a professional designs. It makes us think of the “designer”, and their imagined wealth of experience, exquisite taste… and even images of their amazing modernist apartment.
Just associating something with “design” is enough to give it cachet and a higher price. Like the words “handmade” and “artisan” (or “artisanal”, if you’re feeling really fancy), “designer” describes a superior product.
The concept of design itself is heavy with the baggage of expectations.
As a former tech journalist, I came to design slowly and, at first, purely out of necessity. A basic understanding of the fundamentals of design, though not strictly required, was an extremely valuable asset for an aspiring reporter in the digital age, hitting the job market post-2008.
Technology had vastly changed the modern newsroom, making traditional media both more accessible and jobs in it much harder to come by—let’s just say a proclivity for stacking up complementary skills was a good habit to form.
At the time, a gig as a hyper-local blogger meant juggling multiple hats—writer, editor, photographer, designer, even developer, for which I was ill (by which I mean, not at all) prepared. Every day was like educational roulette, forcing me to learn just enough HTML or CSS to patch up a Wordpress template that broke after an update, but never so much that I could have built it better.
For years my experience with web design was like Groundhog Day set in the world of Tron. The game was find the piece of broken code without any idea where to start, or how to fix it.
Even after I’d spent years working in the digital space, designing for clients and getting paid to do it, I was reluctant to call myself a designer. Why? Because I was used to perceiving design as this elusive, out-of-reach thing. And, of course, I was entirely self-taught, which did little to dispel that feeling.
For many years I carried with me the inaccurate idea that to be a “real” designer, I needed not just years of formal training, but also considerable artistic talent. And this insecurity was reinforced every time I was up to my ears in a project, and heard “But I’m SO not a designer” from a client, coworker, or even my boss. “Neither am I!” I’d think to myself. “I can’t even draw. And I don’t know ANYTHING about [insert design topic here]”.
This way of thinking didn’t solve any problems for me, and it certainly didn’t solve any for my clients. Instead, it kept me in a kind of stasis, stuck and unable to forward my career as a designer because I refused to really see myself as one—or even as someone who could be one.
But once I began to actually study design, I rapidly came to realize that I had more knowledge and experience of the subject than I’d ever presumed to give myself credit for. Many of the fundamentals—visual principles, for example—were already there. More than anything, it was creative confidence that I’d been lacking.
I was already a designer. I just didn’t know it yet.
Not sure if you have what it takes to become a designer? You’re probably closer than you think. Here are a few telltale signs that you’ve got the bug—and the basics—in spades.
1. You recognize the marriage of form and function
Just like designers, architects aim to create something that is both functional and beautiful. The best buildings meet our needs at the same time as providing an aesthetically or spiritually pleasing experience.
A perfect example of this is the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, designed by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He was given just one stipulation when creating a new building to house the museum’s collection of non-objective art: that it “should be unlike any other museum in the world.”
The result—a large domed structure with a long continuous ramp leading visitors through the spiraling rotunda and up to a precipice skylight at its center—did in fact turn the traditional museum form of interconnected rooms on its ear.
Now considered one of his greatest masterpieces, at the time of its creation Wright believed that his design would be “the best possible atmosphere in which to show fine paintings or listen to music”. The design addressed the museum’s function first, and forged an innovative and exceptionally pleasing form to serve that function.
Like architecture, design is functional—it’s about solving problems and meeting needs. And the greatest designs integrate aesthetic or experiential delight. You already interact with countless examples of designed digital functionality every day—whether it’s taking a picture, sending an email, or doing a spot of online shopping.
Take a look at some apps and websites you use regularly. You’ll probably notice that your favorites are those that not only allow you to complete a task, but allow you to do so in an easy, effortless, and beautiful way.
2. You’re not afraid to try new things
When I was a kid my mom used to tell me, “You can’t do everything.” For a while I bought into the myth that having an insatiable desire to try lots of very different things would keep me from ever excelling in any one of them.
When I tried to focus on just one thing, I would quickly burn out and lose interest, forcing myself to impulsively hoist all of my eggs into an entirely different new basket, repeating the cycle in an attempt to silence the part of me that insisted variety was a strength.
There has been much debate over whether it’s best to be a ”Jack of all trades” or a “master of one” in the workplace. While I see the arguments for each, I’m partial to the former (and in an ideal world, both).
Millennials take a lot of flak for their tendency to job-hop, but, ironically, this has become the new normal across the board, and many argue it’s even more valuable to your career and your employer than staying put.
And of course, when it comes to design itself, that instinct for trying new things is crucial. The best designers explore many possible solutions to a given problem, and then iterate repeatedly to get to the final product. Like an unflexed muscle, as soon as I identified my own dormant designer characteristics and began to exercise them, I found just how naturally it came.
It took me trying and failing through countless career paths to get to the point where I was ready to even try, but then I had that “aha!” moment: “Yes, this is it! Here there is space for a little bit of everything. This is the world you’ve been looking for.”
3. You’re a serial hobbyist
The reality is, in the ever changing landscape that is the modern workplace, your career longevity may actually depend how well you are able to take on new skills and adapt to new roles with changing demands.
I graduated college in 2009 with a career in—wait for it—print journalism. My planned career trajectory had all but disintegrated by the first day I hit the job market. To buffer my pay, I started turning hobbies into skills I could apply and use in my career—and it worked.
The line between hobby and career have already blurred. Being a serial hobbyist can be a great asset in your career, particularly at startups and tech companies, where it’s often valuable to wear more than one professional hat.
In the world of design, where a new client, project, or problem is always on the horizon, being a master of just one thing isn’t nearly as valuable as having a breadth of skills. Hobbies and side-projects expand your frame of reference, helping you to meet a wide variety of design needs.
In creative careers, hobbies create a “ripple effect” of learning that permeates your work, enabling you to achieve mastery in more than one area. And as for having a happy work-life balance, studies show that having hobbies not only enhances work performance, but also improves physical health and reduces stress.
4. You have a knack for observation
Having a wealth of hobbies and interests to occupy your mind and exercise your muscles does more than create “ripples” throughout the rest of your work and life—it also sharpens your eye for the little things.
Fundamental graphic design principles, like alignment, contrast, and hierarchy, often come intuitively to people with other creative pastimes. If you’re the kind of person who can’t help but see typos in books, horrible fonts on billboards, or continuity errors in movies, you’re already training yourself to see design.
And as someone who for a long time thought that design was beyond my reach, I can now see that no qualifications are needed to appreciate, understand, and critique design.
For example, even if you don’t know the detail of how your smartphone works, you can already recognize intuitive interface designs, critique too-small text, and even identify how the flow of an app could be improved.
5. You’re not afraid to listen—and get a little psychological
As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.”
Designers don’t work in a vacuum. They design with a purpose: to solve the problem given to them by their clients, and serve the needs of their users. Listening, like observation, is one of the designer’s fundamental habits, because it’s only through purposeful listening that the designer can properly understand those needs.
In his book The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman defines design as a process of communication—and just like in any good conversation, parties who are genuinely listening and engaging stand a much better chance of understanding one another.
That being said, even the most diligent listener has to read between the lines from time to time to paint a fuller picture of where someone is coming from.
A client might have strong views about what isn’t working with, say, their website. But they generally turn to a designer because they don’t know how to fix things themselves. It’s up to the designer to listen, analyse the true nature of the problem, and then advocate for the right solution.
Understanding people’s psychology isn’t just important in defining design problems—it even plays a part in making the right visual design decisions.
6. You really dig problem solving
There may have been a time when design and strategy were quite disparate roles, but today’s designers increasingly have a seat at the table when it comes to high-level business decisions. With this comes the opportunity—and the responsibility—to bring design insights to the earliest stages of the problem-solving process.
Importantly, getting involved at the start of a project means we are able to fail faster and fail better. Failure is an inevitable and essential pit stop on the road to success—there’s even a roving museum memorializing failed products and services from around the world. Samuel West, the Museum of Failure’s curator, explains that “it is in the failures we find the interesting stories that we can learn from.”
Thankfully, the days of understanding design as an exercise in beautification, to be tacked on at the end of a project, are largely gone. Companies have come to understand the business value of design thinking—and the fact that collaborative problem-solving increases the chances of getting to the right answer.
7. You’re a bit of a rebel
There’s a saying that we must learn the rules before we can break them. Design is no different, and there are certain visual principles—like hierarchy, contrast, and proximity—that it’s important to apply throughout our work.
But that doesn’t mean that design has to follow received wisdom all of the time. Design conventions themselves are constantly changing—both reflecting and shaping wider culture. Just take a look at the evolution of design through history.
Innovation is sometimes born out of sheer rebellion. But, as successful designers will tell you, knowing when to break the rules is something that can only come from real-world experience, not a classroom.
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