What Makes a Great Digital Designer?
In today’s increasingly digitized world, designing for digital devices is more relevant now, than ever before. In the last decade no other role in technology has seen more evolution than the Designer’s role — From being simple pixel pushers who were brought in by engineers to add aesthetics to a new shining piece of technology they had built, to becoming one of the most valuable assets in any tech company, designers have truly come a long way.
What makes the role of a digital designer even more critical is the impact these products are having on our society — just imagine when a consumer app ends up in the hands of billions of people, it starts to shape our relationships with people (Facebook, WhatsApp & Twitter), guide how we shop (Amazon, Uber & AirBnB) or influence how we consume content (Google, Pinterest & Instagram). It becomes so ingrained in our daily lives that we become dependent on it (or rather addicted to it).
So what are the qualities and components that go into designing such impactful products that create new habits and change existing behavior?
First, designers must act as problem solvers and factor in people’s behavior, preferences, context, goals and aspirations to make sure they are solving the right problem. Next for a digital product that’s more than just pleasing to the eye and wins over its users’ hearts, it has to excel in four key areas, each comprising a number of components and deliverables:
The Look (UI Design, Motion Design),
The Interface (Interaction Design, Prototyping)
The Usability (UX Design, Information Architecture, Usability Testing)
The Objective (UX Research, Prioritization, Analytics)
Whether you choose to specialize and focus on just one area, or contribute in all these roles, the journey to becoming a great designer takes time and dedication and involves designing more “processes and systems” and less “screens and graphics”.
Designers also come from very diverse backgrounds, with fewer and fewer designers emerging from actual design school (myself included). So while most design courses are a great entry point, completing a degree should just be the beginning of their journey. Training with experienced designers, reading & observing a lot, looking at other people’s work and analyzing what works and doesn’t all contribute into becoming a top designer. In addition, knowing what’s going on in digital, how one approaches solving problems and geeking out over every decision you make along the way to the final product, is way more valuable than a fancy “portfolio”.
There’s another kind of designer that’s become very popular especially in the lean and dynamic startup culture of Silicon Valley — The unicorn designer. This is the rarest of designers — someone with excellent interaction design skills, visual design skills and coding ability. I can say with conviction that while unicorn designers exist, they’re few and generally can’t cover all the bases needed to design. If someone is hiring to cover that many skill sets in one person, they usually fail at building the right design team, in turn greatly jeopardizing their chances of building a great product.
But while digital designers certainly need not be coders, they cannot operate in a vacuum and need to be abreast with new technologies as they continue to emerge. As designers we play a central role in directing how people end up experiencing these new technologies; whether it is Mixed Reality, Artificial Intelligence or Voice Interaction. So being informed what a technology enables for the end user, why it matters to the experience and drive that value into the product is critical for every great digital designer.
As technology evolves, designers will also have to learn new ways to design. But the principles behind how we design an experience won’t change because great designers will always be designing for people and solving problems. Using skills involving psychology, statistics, economics, art and business, the best design teams come from diverse backgrounds and collaborate to solve this giant jigsaw puzzle of user needs, industry standards, creative ideas and business requirements to build successful products that solve real problems.
While no one can predict what new technology will emerge to shape our day-to-day lives and experiences in the future, it’s a given that the increasingly central role of the designer will continue in creating these experiences. This is the well-deserved growth we have been craving for — a seat at the table and being an important player in the chessboard. No wonder designers with the right skills and design know-how are not only some of the most sought-after talent, they are also building the next multi-billion dollar companies around the world (YouTube, Instagram, Square Space, AirBnB, Etsy, Pinterest and Kickstarter to name a new).
We are truly in one of the best times of the industry, at the intersection where the value of design, technology, and business meet. But with these increased superpowers comes increased responsibilities and as designers we need to be ready!
In the next post, we’ll start to look at the four core components of digital design, what those roles entail and what it means to excel in each of these.