May 22, 2019

My design philosophy

Last week someone asked me, "So... what's your design philosophy?" The question took me by surprise. I don't think anyone's ever directly asked me that before. In a bit of a stupor, I vaguely remember clamoring on about something that resembled more of a design process than a philosophy.

This awkward encounter led me to sit down and think through their question in more detail. I felt it was important for me to consider the fundamental nature of design and consider the parts that shape my approach to digital work.

The five tenants of my design philosophy

After some thought, I've come up with five points that, although not comprehensive, should serve as a launching point for more reflection in the future. My thinking on the matter will likely evolve more over time, but for now, here are the top-level ideas that make up my personal design philosophy.

1. Design is purposeful

Design solves problems—everything else is art. That might seem like a bold statement, but think of it like this:

  • Art is personal. Art is subjective. Art is emotional. Art doesn't care whether you like it or not. Art ≠ Design.
  • Design is objective and data-driven. Design loves numbers, metrics, and solutions. Design sees opportunities and iterates towards goals and outcomes.

But both design and art can (and should) be creative. The difference is that art uses creativity to express new ideas and thoughts. Creativity for creativity's sake. Design, on the other hand, uses creativity for purpose—to work within constraints and better solve problems.

2. The details are not the details

You may have heard the famous quote from Charles Eames that says, "The details are not the details. They make the design." If you've been a part of a team that builds products for digital, you know this to be true.

"The details are not the details. They make the design." — Charles Eames

Everything matters. From copy to interface to animations to onboarding—all of these (and much more) make up the user experience. Spending time to think through a user's path and empathizing with them through every step aren't details anymore—they're necessities.

We must think through problems deeply and whittle away clutter. Simplifying a product down to its essence and purpose is hard. But minding the details along the way will get you there faster.

3. Collaboration and inclusion over everything

The best work I've ever done has been on a team. It's simple: different viewpoints, different opinions, and different solutions typically yield better results.

Fostering a safe and inclusive environment will build trust, and the best ideas usually show themselves when there is space to explore without judgment. Humility and communication go a long way, too.

4. Keep an eye on the big picture

It's easy to get lost in the minutiae of the daily grind. But success isn't necessarily found in how many deliverables your team pumped out during the week. Sometimes progress is made through process, and that can mean taking a step back.

If the project is moving forward and your team is motivated and growing their skillsets—that's a win for all parties.

Keeping an eye on the big picture also means keeping an eye on expectations. Mismanaged expectations can lead to problems when trying to deliver—both professionally and personally.

5. Design must evolve

Design doesn't live in a vacuum. Especially if you're building a product or website. They are living, breathing, ever-changing entities.

You not only owe it to your users to listen to their feedback, but you owe it to the craft to evaluate, iterate, and evolve. If something isn't working or could be better, make it your responsibility to improve it. After all, the only constant is change.