It’s a golden age to be in the business of design. Various companies and start-ups have embraced design thinking as a methodology for problem-solving.
I count myself fortunate having chosen the craft of design as my calling a long time ago. I’ve found a lot of meaning and satisfaction in my journey, since the time I started as a design team of one, working as an individual contributor on various design teams, and eventually leading teams on digital transformation programs.
Some tips have stood the test of time in my design career that helped me grow (some that I learned the hard way by failing) as I helped clients adopt a digital mindset and solved their challenges using the power of design. I hope that these will help other design enthusiasts lead an enriching design journey if consistently imbibed into their existing design tool kit.
So here we go.
- Use the art of inquiry as a means to define the problem you are looking to solve.
Often, we assume we know enough and get too excited to start creating solutions without engaging with the problem at hand. Take time to first engage and toy with the challenge you are working on. That’s where the art of inquiry will help you. Develop the art of asking questions as a natural way to process, define, or refine your client’s challenge at hand. The more you ask, the more you will learn about the challenge at hand.
- Use sketching as a means to explore the potential of the problem and possible solutions.
There are those of us who think we draw well and those who think we are better off with tools. Despite your self-conclusions, I urge you all to use sketching as a way to map your thoughts, ideas, explorations at the onset of your work. Use sketching to demonstrate a concept. Use sketching to communicate a concept to someone. Use sketching to map your thoughts. Some of my best work and ideas have been discovered during the time when I used sketching as a way to collaborate, co-create, or discuss a train of thought.
A misconception that exists today is the sketches need to be ‘nice’ looking. This gets compounded when many designers share only those sketches that ‘look nice’. Let your sketches be messy. Remember it’s a process, so it is not meant to look like a deliverable. Use it as a tool for exploration or mind mapping your nascent ideas. The inexpensive exploratory nature of sketching will serve you a long way in your design career whether you are solving a small aspect of a UI-interaction flow or sketching big picture conceptual ideas. For those who are reluctant to adopt sketching as a part of their design process, there’s are plenty of e-courses that will help you build your technical confidence in sketching.
- Letting go of your ego.
Oftentimes, we get hung up on our solutions or artifacts and resist any feedback coming our way, by being defensive. Getting defensive about your designs can be quite limiting in terms of the possibilities of where you can take your solution. So, don’t be defensive, be open to feedback from other designers and your stakeholders alike, as that may be a window to a new insight into your problem-solving process. Consider it as an opportunity to improvise your designs.
- Pen down a narrative and rehearse it before you present your work.
Oftentimes, as designers, we spend all our designated time simply creating the artifact, such that we run out of time to reflect on how we arrived at it and how the solution solves the challenge at hand. A good way to externalize is to write down a narrative of what you are looking to solve, and how your design can solve it using certain design tenets as you go about designing. Another way is to make little notes of your eureka moments during your design process. This is where you could also include anecdotes from your user research, scenarios from your personas’ life situations, and your findings from concept testing that can help correlate the decision making behind your ideas. Don’t forget to rehearse your narrative. Your narrative needs to be conversational.
- Exploration and collaboration are key to problem-solving.
Your initial design drafts are likely not going to be the most effective designs. Designing is an organic, iterative, and collaborative process that requires one to first diverge into a lot of explorations, by engaging in dialogues with your stakeholders and team members before you reach a tipping point, to then start converging the good ideas across those explorations and coalescing them into the optimal solution.
- Be curious, open-minded, and dispel your deep-rooted beliefs.
Growing up, we get conditioned about things and the people around us. Some of this conditioning and our habits become a part of our belief system—often to an extent where we assume notions about people. Those preconceived notions sometimes come in the way of being truly empathetic towards our users. You may need to unlearn some of those rigid limiting beliefs. As an individual, the more I travelled, the more I read about other cultures, the more life stories I heard, the more I spent time observing people, the more books I read, the more movies and shows I saw across languages, the more empathetic I became. So, make time to learn about different cultural contexts. To truly empathize with who you are designing for, you need to absorb yourself into the cultures, environments, emotions, situations of your users, and the extended stakeholders in that ecosystem who will be affected by your solution. Consider delving into your users’ preconceived notions, their life stories, their coping mechanisms, and their preferences. Be genuinely curious; be insatiably curious.
- Be prepared to fail.
We are often obsessed with doing the right thing and creating the best design and despite our best intentions, sometimes we fail. Failure is a natural part of life and it applies to the craft of design as well. Occasionally, we miss the point, or the design just doesn’t scale well or find its footing with product owners. In moments like these, recognize that you did the best you could in what was in your control and leave the rest to the universe. What matters is you reflect on what you can change or tweak and learn from that failure. Make peace with it and try to avoid the same mistakes if possible. Adopting a growth mindset will help you recover and learn from your failures in your design career marathon.
- Be vulnerable with your ‘work in progress’.
In the early stages of my career, I often waited for my designs to become ‘perfect’. One aspect I learned in design school and then forgot to apply, which I learned the hard way in the corporate world was to show your work early and often. Learn to embrace your vulnerability. Be your authentic self. Play to your unique strengths as a designer. The next time you have the chance to share your work, don’t be afraid to raise your hand to show your work in that design critique session or schedule time with your peers or your client stakeholders to open it up for constructive criticism. Strive for timely and frequent feedback so that you do the right thing to solve the problem instead of perfecting your design artifacts early on. Remember the artifact is just a part of a bigger whole that is meant to make someone’s life easier, brighter, or fun.
- And that brings me to my next point, don’t forget the big picture.
Oftentimes, we miss the point of how our work contributes to the bigger whole. Spend time reflecting on just that—take moments to reflect and see the ‘why’ behind it all. Take joy in the process of designing towards that bigger whole than rushing toward the outcome or simply being myopic by obsessing over details that may not truly matter. Take a moment to reflect on what worked well, what could be done better the next time, and what you could avoid in the future.
- Start somewhere.
Another trap to avoid is analysis paralysis. Often, we are so curious to know everything there is to know that we delay starting somewhere. You will never know everything that you need to know when you start on a project. But you need to start somewhere and fine-tune your work as you learn more. So, start somewhere. Make decisions with whatever data you have at hand through primary and secondary research and improvise as you move along.
I hope these tips will give you a good starting point and help you on your journey as a designer as they’ve helped me in mine. Happy designing!