The Myth of Good Designers

16 May 2013 - 5:11pm
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There’s a ridiculous myth about good designers: they can deliver higher quality work faster. That’s simply NOT true when it comes to design.

This post originated from a discussion between a friend and me about designers and the “design field scene” in China. I wonder whether the same or similar issue exists in all other countries. Comment!


Some people, probably decision makers, managers, or some ordinary employees in a company, have the impression that, compared to not-so-good designers, good designers can deliver higher quality results faster. That bad designers simply deliver crap after wasting spending so much time.

When they’re complaining about it, they would say/think something like “Ethan (a good visual designer) did that really cool logo in 3 hours and he (the bad one) just showed me this zillion-time-modified crap after 4 days”. And gradually they form a belief that a better designer literally spends less time to deliver greater stuff. Then they use 3 hours as a static reference to judge all the designers they work with or manage.


The problem, however, is not with bad designers. It’s in the way of thinking about how the good designers/designs come about.

One single issue that struck me most is that, many people, either bad designers or other people, think about the “designer skills and experiences” in a completely wrong way. Most people only see the results of good designing, not the design process itself, as well as the context/environment that affords that process.

A good designer has an accumulative “database” of “design thinking” or “design activity” — patterns, paradigms, usage of materials, familiarity with various means, etc. That database is accumulated during a rather long period of time, by actually working and designing and trial-and-errors.

A good visual designer would consider a client’s requirements and then think about what kind of patterns, materials, processes could be used, what kind of existing stuff or methods could be applied here and there, and what should be “invented” or brainstormed — a tightly coupled combination of both the “creativity” and past experiences. So does a good interaction designer, UX designer, or whatever designer.

Two most common problems I see in novice designers are:

  • They don’t have solid methods or mind set to analyze the design problem — observing and communicating the needs or requirements, etc., and
  • They don’t have a large “database” for them to composite a “base” upon which the creative part is carried out.

A good designer usually spends a lot of time doing seemingly off-work things — surfing around the web, looking at stuff, asking and/or talking around, reading some wide-ranging books, creating something not related or relevant to work at hand etc. That’s exactly how they accumulate their own “databases”. If we take into account the time and effort spent out there, then it actually takes so much more time for a good designer to deliver good work (something like that 10,000 hour rule, albeit it’s not necessarily true).

People usually don’t see that “accumulative” process which breeds good designers and good designs, and all they see is the result, not realizing that it’s not only the actual making/creating effort that differentiate a good designer from a bad one. While it’s the process and design thinking before actually doing it, and it’s the context/environment that affords the designers to do so.

On one hand, designers should learn, practice, and accumulate — no doubt about that; one the other hand, companies, managers, designers’ colleagues etc. need to be pushed to realize the context in which good designers/design come about.


When both the companies and the would-be designers have the wrong idea of bringing about good designers, surely the former find it hard to find and hire good ones, and the latter find it hard to become better ones.

It takes personal efforts to improve, and it also takes an affordable company culture to breed. The latter is tricky because company culture, once established, is extremely difficult to change.

So what? Design education and the awareness of its complexity. In a sense, design can not be taught, only its many integral parts can be taught. And we need to make it clear to designer wannabes about that complexity. In a business context, that could mean a lot of basic skill building. In China, one of the most common issues I find in common designers is their lack of awareness of improving their communication skills and broadening their knowledge rather than their hard skills of photoshopping or diagramming. They didn’t seem to realize that good design is also about meeting goals and solving problems, creative or not; and that getting to know more about the contexts of a problem actually provides them more chances to be creative — they didn’t get to know more because they didn’t think they should (sounds like jack-of-all-trades etc.) while they should.

Thus design and its education lie deeply in the ideology of problem solving, not merely being creative. And I wonder how it can be done.

One thing I’ve been constantly talking about during discussions is a big picture “career path” and “database” map laid out for design learners — they need to bare those in mind, so that they could think deeper about their passions, life, and work. I’ve talked to many young designers who were confused about their career and passion. And the single most effective thing turns out to be letting them better understand the big picture and what it takes to be a good designer through discussions.

What breed good designers? A better design education, an appropriate company culture, and more importantly, a deeper understanding and telling of the effort of being a good designer.

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This work by Noah Fang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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