The Humble Designer

One of the (arguably few) benefits that comes with having some gray hairs is the maturity to reflect on what you have learned over the years, and how you have learned it.

The early years of my career were not distinguished. I lacked direction and was not particularly interested in developing myself. I eventually woke up around eight years in. Those lost years often give me the uncomfortable feeling of playing catch-up all the time.

For the last 15+ years I’ve worked persistently at personal and professional development. I cringe now when I think of the younger me; the lack of interest both in my profession, and in others. It is this same sense of shame which helps me feel more qualified to answer a question I am asked increasingly often: what qualities make for a successful career in design?

For the last few years, the answers I’ve given have been, simply, humility and curiosity.

For the purposes of this piece I’ll restrict the definition of ‘design’ to the field of human-centred design. But I firmly believe these can apply to any number of disciplines.

As a junior designer, it’s easy to feel pressure to have all the answers ready and waiting. This tends to be reinforced in meetings as the question “So, what are we going to do?” comes up. Heads turn to the designer. “Well? You’re the designer – what’s the answer?!” is a question to haunt designers throughout the early years of a career. The subsequent scramble for easy answers can lead to any number of tragic outcomes.

A humble designer has the ability to say “I don’t have the answers. But I know the questions we should ask.”

Two books in recent months have left a huge impression on me: Humble Consulting and Factfulness. To my great delight, both books stressed the importance of both qualities.

‘Facfulness’ is a compelling and optimistic look at how much the world has improved during the 20th and 21st centuries, and how far humanity has developed. Very much against the current zeitgeist of everything appearing to be awful, it supplies data which undeniably shows that life is getting better for the majority of humankind. We are far from utopia, but the book stresses the importance of dealing with facts to understand the world around us.

“Most important of all, we should be teaching our children humility and curiosity. Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right. It means being realistic about the extent of your knowledge. It means being happy to say “I don’t know.”

In ‘Humble Consulting’, Edgar Schein presents humility as a strength in approaching complex challenges, and something which nurtures the kind of collaborative relationships required to achieve breakthroughs and desired outcomes. Early in the book, Schein describes three types of humility, one of which – Here-and-now Humility – “results from our being dependent from time to time on someone else in order to accomplish a task that we are committed to. This will strike some readers as academic hairsplitting, but it is the recognition of this third type of humility that is the key to humble inquiry and to the building of positive relationships.”

The humility to accept that you don’t know – and the curiosity to fill the gaps in your own knowledge – makes you not just a better designer, but a better colleague and a better professional; one more capable of working within a team to achieve shared goals.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The casual arrogance that comes with partial knowledge is ruthlessly conveyed in the early peak of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Knowing where you sit on that continuum, through a capacity for self-awareness, is essential. The best designers will know themselves to be somewhere in the dip, but working hard to ascend the other side.

I’ll listen to anyone with an opinion on the qualities of a good designer. There’s room for all kinds of approaches and skillsets. However I will say this: the absence of humility and curiosity may not deny a designer a successful career. But absence of those qualities will deny them a truly fulfilling one.

UX Belfast 2019 is go

UX Belfast 2019 got off to a tremendous start with two prominent practitioners of human-centred design.

Kate O’Neill, author of Tech Humanist, joined us from New York, taking questions from the Belfast audience and expanding on the ideas put forward in her book.

Rebecca Walsh CEng gave us valuable insights on the discipline of service design, and the work that she and Big Motive are involved with.

Both guests highlighted how UX and CX are only subsets of the larger concern of human-centred design. As Kate has put it: “a dignified, respectful relationship with all the human stakeholders in the economy goes a long way toward creating a sustainable, successful future for us all”.

On a personal note, it’s been gratifying to watch UX Belfast grow from its bookclub roots into a regular fixture in the Belfast design calendar. Much more challenging and stimulating content is planned throughout for 2019. Sign up for updates at uxbelfast.org

Thanks to all who came along, to Kate and Rebecca, and to Puppet Belfast once again for their hospitality in such an ideal venue.

The selected charity this time was Code Your Future. Learn more and donate at codeyourfuture.io

Top 5 books 2018

A little late maybe, a handful of books I took a lot of enjoyment from during last year. This is a general list, rather than strictly professional but I’ll make no apology for that 🙂

Technically Wrong

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

One of two books on my list which are selections from the UX Belfast meetup. Technically Wrong is a catalogue of technology failures, highlighting where ethics and basic human standards are often absent from the tools and services we create. While publication preceded the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story, Facebook is firmly in the book’s sights, along with many other luminaries in the world of social media. This is a short but alarming read, and one I would suggest as essential for anyone working in technology today.

Humble Consulting

Edgar H. Schein

A relevant read for any number of professions and disciplines. The author emphesises the need of asking basic, fundamental questions about purpose and – most importantly – creating a culture where this is welcomed. Schein presents humility as a strength in approaching complex challenges, and as something which nurtures the kind of collaborative relationships required to achieve breakthroughs and desired outcomes. Lots of case studies are offered from a distinguished 40+ year career consulting with organizations large and small, by a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Living in Information

Jorge Arango

Another selection for UX Belfast. Jorge Arango is a qualified architect who made the move into Information Architecture. He presents a thoughtful but powerful call to action for technologists to make better choices about the ‘places’ we create with online services and tools. Drawing parallels with physical spaces, Jorge urges us to build sustainable, nurturing places which are capable of benefitting society as a whole. The book is one of a number published this year that attempt to stimulate debate around ethics in technology, and how those ethics work their way into our creations.

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst

Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall

In a nutshell, the true story of a man slowly going mad while attempting to fake a solo circumnavigation of the globe. Crowhurst was a fantasist who managed to get enough to buy into his self-delusion to the point where he couldn’t turn back – literally and figuratively. The book documents Crowhurst’s journey from keeping accurate logs, to faking position and logs, and ultimately into hopeless rambling as the pressure of maintaining a lie to the world overwhelmed him. Both tragic and riveting.

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock

Paul Tremblay

First point: this book has a terrible, pulpy title which belies the subtleties of the storytelling. Paul Tremblay has a distinctive skill of being able to suggest weird and unsettling events, without describing them in detail. What actually occurs is open to the reader’s interpretation. But what we are left with is a compelling drama of a family trying to deal with tragic, highly unnatural (and possibly supernatural) events. Genuinely haunting.


That’s a cross-section of everything I got through during 2018, tempting though it would be to focus on professionally-related books only. As a compulsive book-buyer, I was forced to begin recording all of the books that were in the waiting list. Prompted by this, for a couple of years I’ve been tracking my reading on Trello. That system is worth a full separate post!

Founding principles

Quite a number of Monday evenings this year were spent working alongside Big Motive as a design coach on the Catalyst Co-Founders programme.

For those with even an inkling of a product idea, Co-Founders offers invaluable early validation (or otherwise), outcomes can be entry on to fully-fledged incubation programmes, a pivot on the original idea, or abandonment. The latter outcome can still be termed a ’successful’ outcome. Some folks who could have poured months or years of their lives into something that simply had no inherent value learn the harsh truth much earlier than they otherwise would.

Based firmly around the d.School design thinking model, and led by Big Motive, Co-Founders takes small teams through a process which forces them to examine the essence of a product idea. Using tried-and-tested tools a set of tools, they deconstruct the problem they are trying to solve, then reconstruct their solution with greater clarity and objectivity. It may have its critics (and let’s be clear that all successful frameworks and processes do) but design thinking, when fully committed to by stakeholders and teams, the process simply delivers.

I’ve been amazed at the resilience and inventiveness of the individuals and teams. Participants tend to be full-time professionals, with an idea they just can’t let go of. It may or may not be related to their day jobs; but in each case they want to find out if their idea can play out in practice the way they have developed it in their heads. Watching teams go from being at a loss to what they can possibly do next, to becoming resourceful and forceful in progressing their product idea is so rewarding.

I’m not overly familiar with Yogi Bhajan, but my word is he a great source of quotes:

“If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.”

I have lectured and coached increasingly over the last five years, and I’ll vouch for this. In many cases, I’ll agree to these engagements because – selfishly – I know how much I will get out of it personally. I’ve been integrating design thinking techniques into client work, and more recently in Puppet, for the last decade. But teaching it, and seeing the enlightenment it brings, continues to inspire me.

Looking back at the year of 2018, I’m filled with a lot of gratitude for all kinds of experiences. Yogi Bhajan has my back again:

“An attitude of gratitude brings great things.”

I attempt to surface this very feeling in all that I do, again for selfish reasons. Gratitude is, I believe, the most sustaining and affirming feeling available to us. We can encourage it and cultivate it. Working with Big Motive is a pleasure and I’m thankful to them for inviting me in as one of the coaches.

Running the UX Belfast meetup has provided me with a number of transformative encounters during the year, not least with attendees who come from all manner of organisations and businesses. Book authors we have spoken with have been utterly fantastic in terms of the amount of time they have been prepared to lend to offer to a small group of designers perhaps halfway around the world. The insights and knowledge they have been prepared to share with us has been similarly impressive.

Most recently, Jorge Arango was particularly inspiring while talking about his book ‘Living in Information’. He has since become another key individual I follow and look up to as I continue to develop as a designer and a professional. I heartily commend his newsletter and blog for its sheer quality of content. And of course the book itself. In keeping with the original topic of this post, here’s a piece from Jorge in November 2018 where he puts forward a model for teaching (and learning).

I’ll cut this short of a comprehensive 2018 retrospective. Suffice to say it was another year in which I was conscious of growing and developing. Thank you to everyone who offered me inspiration in the last twelve months, whether in person, in writing or on video. The experiences of 2018 have given me ideas and new inspiration for 2019. You can’t ask for more from a professional year.

UX Belfast, October 2018

October’s UX Belfast saw the mesmerising Jorge Arango take questions and talk us through his new book ‘Living in Information’ – a compelling mix of practical advice and thoughtful reflection on the responsibility of designers to create what Jorge terms ‘generative’ online environments.

To thank Jorge for his time, the meetup made a donation to his selected charity, The Long Now Foundation. For more information visit http://longnow.org

Puppet Belfast once again provided food and drink in what was our largest meetup to date.

Plans are afoot to evolve UX Belfast to better serve and represent the UX community in Belfast, offering talks and insights into the work of local professionals while keeping one eye firmly on books, learning, and professional development.