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Why be a designer in the first place?

For us, it’s because we like creating things. From sewing clothes for our dolls when we were young, to drawing and painting in school, to now designing digital products, what we create change and how we create change, but we know creating something out of nothing is always what we enjoy the most.

What’s your answer?

For us, once we are clear that creating things is what excites us, then we can think about how to create and build better.

If our goal is to build amazing products, then design skills alone isn’t enough

Let’s zoom out to the basics.

A great, sustainable product needs to be:

  1. Desirable — people want it and like it;
  2. Viable — can be built with current technology;
  3. Feasible — makes a sustainable profit for the business;

To achieve that, different skills are needed.

A venn diagram of “Desirable”, “Viable” and “Feasible”.

Or, we can imagine a “connected brain” for the product team. Each person on the team contributes different parts to the brain.

An illustrated colorful brain representing different skills coming together to make up a whole brain.

Different products need different skills. Also, the skills needed change throughout the product development circle.

Three illustrated brains showing examples of “design-driven”, “tech-driven” and “business-driven” brains.

So, what does this have to do with designer growth?

3 different ways for designers to grow

Product needs differ, so the skills we contribute need to differ too. Those who stick to a static job description, and stay within the artificial boundaries of one job function will reach their limits quickly.

With that in mind, here are 3 different ways for designers to grow:

1. Grow within design

If we zoom into the design section of the brain, we can see there are usually different types of design skills needed. For example, system thinking, product thinking, visual, interaction and prototyping skills.

Unless a designer is super senior and experienced (which most of us aren’t), there are usually some gaps in a designer’s skills. For example, in my case, it could be visual design and prototyping:

A zoomed in illustration of the “Design” section of the product brain.
There are many different types of design skills and most of us have gaps in some areas.

The problem oftentimes, is even when a product needs certain design skills, some designers may not realise or be willing to grow these skills to make sure the product is high quality.

In my case, there were times when I resisted to grow my visual and prototyping skills. Why? Because early on, in my career, I was repeatedly told: “Design isn’t about pixels…”; “Function over form…”; “Product thinking and system thinking are required at higher levels…” So I associated visual design and prototyping with junior roles.

But what I have realised is that:

there are no inherently superior design skills. It all depends on what the product needs at that specific time.

What we have also noticed is that the ones who continue to progress beyond “Design Leads” are the ones who are the most versatile. When needed, they will get their hands dirty, and create whatever designs their team needs.

Here’s a diagram:

A diagram showing the progression for designers from junior, to senior, to design lead and to higher ups.

So, one way for designers to grow is to perfect their expertise in design. There may be fewer design roles available on the market right now, but those who have the patience and determination to be the best will stand out.

What matters is to focus on the product outcome. If the team needs more visual skills, provide more. If the team needs more prototyping skills, provide more. No skill or work is beneath anyone if the goal is to build the best products possible.

2. Broaden focus

Building a solid foundation in design is important, but there are limits.

The design leader, John Maeda, said back in 2019:

In reality, design isn’t that important.

Our interpretation of the article is that designers shouldn’t try to push for “design” and “design-led approach” regardless of the product’s needs and context.

If the product or the product stage needs to be business-driven or tech-driven, then designers should be good partners to the other functions. And, beyond good partners, we, designers, should forget the narrow definitions of “design”, and gain business and technical skills to contribute more.

For example, if a designer is staffed on a team where other functions don’t spend much time discussing the UIs and interactions (e.g. Ads products).

One way for the designer to react is to feel that design isn’t valued. They may go “fight for a seat at the table” by trying to educate the other functions about users, quality and craft.

But a more valuable way for the designer to react is to go much deeper — understand why “design” isn’t prioritised, and what is the key to the product’s success. For example, what’s more important might be the machine learning algorithm.

Then, the meaningful thing for the designers to do is to educate themselves about these algorithms and be creative in how they contribute. They can use their “design thinking” in completely new ways to help design the algorithms, rather than fighting for the traditional UI or interaction designs to be prioritised.

Again, the key is to focus on the outcome and gain whatever skills are needed to achieve that. Job functions are artificial and always changing. No one knows what future job functions will be like. But this much is clear, the ones who are the most versatile will prevail.

3. Build bigger things

Building better digital products is exciting, but what about building even bigger things — a team, a business, or a new way of living?

An image of different things designers can build, from a screen, a feature, a product, to a team, a business, and to a new way of living.

The unique skills we designers have are never “creating beautiful UIs”, but “finding problems and solving them in effective and creative ways”. So, what if we take those skills and apply them to much much bigger things?

Like many designers, we are huge fans of Julie Zhuo! She recently published an article on “Higher level design” (much of our content was inspired by her writings). She wrote:

My friends, to escape from the shackles of role definitions, we must pursue higher-level design.

High-level design means not limiting yourself to activities you do but rather outcomes you’d like to influence.

It means growing the scale of your ambitions on those outcomes. Maybe you start off designing a screen that converts, then a feature that enables, then an app that retains, then an experience that delights, then a business that sustains, then a way of life that fulfills. Maybe you design a way to change the world and it’s real and meaningful in the way you intended, not just some corporate jingo.

Isn’t that inspiring!?

We feel more excited than ever to expand our ambitions, learn more, and aspire to design and build much bigger things.

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