Or: If Not Just a Pixel-Pusher, Then What Else?
These days, the latest technology goes in and out of style at light speed. It’s enough to make an interface designer wonder how she’ll be prepared for the future and stay competitive and competent in the job market. In fact, “The Future of Work” was the title of the panel I was recently on as part of AIGA’s San Francisco Design Week, along with Heather Phillips, Tyson Kallberg, Mario Delgado, and Dennis Field.
As designers we frequently talk about what “design” really means, and what’s the best tool for a design, but at the panel we all seemed to be hinting at the larger question of what the role of the designer should be. Is there a timeless definition of the prototypical digital designer? What should we aspire to be as new tools, techniques, and computing devices come and go? I would posit that there are 3 fundamental roles of a digital designer.
A digital designer is a…
- Facilitator, assisting others in refining and transmitting ideas.
- Steward, supporting and protecting empathy and the creative process.
- Connoisseur, maintaining a high bar of quality.
Designer as Facilitator
The first essential function of a designer is to facilitate others in refining and transmitting their own ideas. We can accomplish this is by designing compelling presentations and communications, which helps inspire others and rally colleagues towards a unified direction. The main way we do it, however, is by making abstract ideas concrete for others. This is an act of synthesis, it means coalescing knowledge of the medium, human behavior, stakeholder demands, and business goals into specific, actionable details.
We panelists all agreed: while every designer need not be a coder, every designer must be a hacker of sorts, mashing together whatever it takes to bring blurry, partially defined concepts into sharp focus. If you are wondering which tools to learn, simply pick one and get started. The choice of tool is irrelevant as long as the experience with the result conveys the idea and allows collaborators to distill their own thoughts. Put simply,
“Design is the intermediary between information and understanding.”
— Han Hofmann
A designer’s ability to imagine something in their mind’s eye with a high degree of detail and convert that to a realistic likeness removes the mental burden of having to visualize from others. This frees them up to apply their own domain expertise to the problem at hand.
“People understand what they can see. If a programmer cannot see what a program is doing, she can’t understand it.” — Bret Victor, Learnable Programming
Similarly, we support colleagues in evaluating ideas by making them tangible. Designers can support and encourage powerful ways of thinking by helping others see their ideas, and as our simulacra become more refined we provide a maps of the way forward for others to follow. We help collaborators decide what to do next and provide the confidence to act. Doing that mental heavy lifting for people helps a team hone in on the best possible expression of a given idea much faster than they might have otherwise.
Designer as Steward
The second fundamental role of the designer is to be a steward of a user-centered creative process. We should be ambassadors for empathy and creativity, using and extolling the virtues of what David Kelley calls “design thinking.” Here’s another gem from Bret Victor, again proving the not-so-large gap between user interface designers and software designers:
“Programming is a way of thinking, not a rote skill. Learning about “for” loops is not learning to program, any more than learning about pencils is learning to draw.” — Bret Victor
In the same way, being a user interface designer is less about knowing Photoshop or Sketch, and more about sharing and applying a way of thinking.
I am intentional about my choice of the word steward here, and its connotations of both assistance and protection. We assist people in seeing and assuming the perspective of others, to help create interfaces, products, and services that are responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties. Designers are also stewards in the other sense of the word, because we protect the creative process. We protect nascent ideas, and in doing so, move our company towards innovation. We know about what Ed Catmull, head of Pixar and Amy Wallace call “ugly babies”:
“Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films “ugly babies.” They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing — in the form of time and patience — in order to grow…Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly…If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to let it evolve, it could be destroyed.” — Creativity, Inc.
As a part of the small group that is expected to provide creativity on demand and on an ongoing basis, designers are well suited to champion and defend good ideas — whatever their source — until they are fully formed.
Designer as Connoisseur
The 3rd and final fundamental role of a designer is that of a connoisseur, maintaining and promoting a high standard of quality. Quality is somewhat subjective, but it boils down to being mindful during the creative process, making every choice a deliberate and intentional one. The connoisseur role is liekly the one that comes most naturally to those who choose design as their profession. A good designer strives to become a discerning judge of great work, honing their taste so that they can become appropriately critical of the right things in the right order.
“As with all creative professions, design included, you want to hire someone with good taste and a discerning eye, who can scrutinize and poke and prod through all the dusty corners of a design and emerge with a comprehensive list of what works and what doesn’t.”
— Julie Zhuo
With a sharpened critical eye, designers can share an appreciation for craftsmanship and conscientious execution with the rest of their team, pushing those around them towards excellence.
That Seat at the Table
By now you have heard about designers gaining a seat at the leadership table, alongside business and engineering executives. In light of these three fundamental roles, it makes perfect sense why that would happen.
“The ability to build empathy, connect the dots on complex problems, and help teams apply design thinking are crucial skills a designer can bring to a leadership team.”
— Phil King
By facilitating the visualization and transmission of ideas, stewarding the creative process, and contributing the discriminating taste of a connoisseur, designers can secure their place at the table now and in the future.