The unbearable variation of design skills

I frequently reflect how difficult it is to define what makes a good designer. And that’s no wonder, we find it hard to define good design itself.

It’s a bit like leadership, some people are definitely good leaders and some are surely bad ones. There is a huge variation in outcomes, skills and styles, yet there is no clear way to measure leadership beforehand, when you are hiring.

Similarly, design outcomes can show tremendous variation and it can be very hard to separate the effective designers from the rest, at first go.

Many people default to visuals, it’s concrete, it something you can see.

Few talk about it though. People who want design jobs say that they are good at research or ‘problem solving’, and how that’s way more important than visual design.

People who want to hire designers also say the same, that design is not how it looks, but how it works. But when actually looking at a designer’s work, they will not pick a person whose designs look bad, or even average.

This places designers in a tough spot. They won’t get in a company unless at the very least they can deliver great visual work, but as soon as they are in, they will be expected to do ‘design thinking’ because visuals are a given.

This is still OK with people who studied design formally, especially in their bachelor’s degree, but quite a few people are now moving into the discipline with other backgrounds, and they get caught between ‘design thinking’ skills and doing visual work.

If you are just researching, is your work even meaningful? Are there any actual results with all those interview transcripts and post-it’s? Who is going to look at those reports, not developers for sure? On the other hand, if you put energy into visuals, are you not just making ‘pretty’ pictures?

And this is not all, design research itself needs orthogonal skills – interviewing, that’s being good at connecting with people alone and in a group; and statistical analysis – being able to analyze data through a rigorous quantitative lens. And it’s hard to imagine someone being equally good in both of these, though of course many have both skills.

And I am not even talking about HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

I have no answers. I guess with time and demands of the market things will become clearer. UX is a relatively new field and it’s already breaking into components like UX writing and UX research. So maybe designers need to pick niches and master them, and complement each other in teams.

Because we need more and better designers, with all the skills they can bring to the problems we face.

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