Books Design UX

I’m a designer. What do I know?

From time to time something comes along to give you a gentle nudge, prompting you to reassess your knowledge as a professional. Such an occasion came last month in the form of the ever-enjoyable UX Bookclub Belfast.

People are liars (apparently)

The book being discussed was “100 Things Designers Should Know About People” by Susan Weinschenk. Compiled from a series of blog posts, “100 Things…” features some eyebrow-raising revelations on the apparent true needs of users, versus what people say they want. The book prompted a number of comments along the lines of “I’m a designer. I knew a lot of this stuff already… but I’m not sure how.”

Is there a designer in the house?

Professional practice in any number of design disciplines, graphic and UI among them, is not absolute, differentiating them from law, medicine or accounting for example. However design should not be subjective. The weakest possible position a designer can adopt in communicating with a client is a “just trust me, I know best” stance. Any sense of the designer-as-artist can result in needless, subjective discussions. In other words, either have a good reason for deploying a particular colour or prepare for a discussion over who’s favourite colour is best.

The appliance of science

One of the many positive developments to have occurred during my time as a professional is the proliferation of scientific thinking in the industry. The influence and contributions of thought leaders such as Donald Norman, Alan Cooper and others cannot be overstated; what they have brought to the table is a shift in rationale from the old, instinctive design sensibility to a more effective, research-driven approach. So we have gone from arguing that a button with rounded corners simply “looks right” (instinctive) to stating that it has affordance and benefits from the Aesthetic-Usability Effect (scientific). What’s more, data supports the fact that attractive things work better.

That’s… logical, captain

Without question this type of approach demands more from the designer: craft, study, insight. It can also supply some much-needed constraints within which creativity can flourish, rather than relying on the artist’s muse. Arguing a point based on data and evidence is less likely to result in needless exchanges with a client over the amount of [insert client’s favourite colour here]. That’s not to say it will never happen, but our position as professionals is strengthened when we can actively demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the rules of the game.


We might assume to “know” so much gained from experience or absorbed from years of industry-related reading but regular reassessment of what we assume to be firm knowledge can only be healthy. Plus it is much more conducive to a sustained and successful career in design. Taking the opportunity has never been easier, with the web as a central hub for debates and discussions that lead to shifts in our industry and each of us with a front row seat.

Cliché, okay

Hackneyed it may be, but designers cannot afford to stop learning about the components of professional practice, particularly those of us who have had extended tenures in the field. Old thinking needs to be identified and regularly weeded out. We need to challenge accepted truths time and again, reassess our own subjective views and progress our work and contribution.

Gratuitous Star Wars quote

To paraphrase Yoda, we need to unlearn what we have learned – and then relearn it, sometimes daily.

2 replies on “I’m a designer. What do I know?”

Couldn’t agree more Rick. We should immerse ourselves in craft, study and insight NOT art. Because design isn’t really subjective, art is. There may be an element of art in what we do; the aesthetic expression; but even that should be based on decisions governed by who we are talking to and how we need them to respond.

Put simply, we cannot know enough. And as time and science move on, designers must keep up.

That’s just just it, isn’t it – we cannot know enough. Thanks Richard, and based on your comment I’ve amended the line on subjectivity to clarify that particular point.

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