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.

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