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What Makes a Great Designer? (Other Than Talent)

Designers are not artists. We focus on other peoples’ problems, rarely on those of our own inception. Michael Beirut put it well when he said, “I feel like I’m a doctor… I can’t just practice medicine on myself… I need patients who are sick, the sicker the better…”Successful solution of other peoples’ problems requires understanding them. Given the types of digital product design problems, projects, initiatives, opportunities, whatever our clients are asking us to address, understanding the full context is the key challenge. And only a part of that challenge is about design.

Real Artists Ship

Good designers focus on the design problem; great designers will do that plus, understand everything else that can go wrong. Product design initiatives succeed or fail for a number of reasons; poor design is only one of them. Great designers understand that, and are prepared to deal with it. Product initiatives live or die because of technical issues during implementation, thoughtless marketing strategies, poor user experience, or dysfunctional internal politics— to name a few. Great designers understand how these factors interact and how they contribute to both the problem and the solution. Great designers aren’t Technologists or Marketers, and there’s not much they can do about organizational politics. What they can do is design systems that optimize for manufacturability and consistency. They can design products that illuminate differentiating features, providing for a clear articulation of their value proposition. And, most importantly, they can execute design processes that are inclusive and consistently, appropriately communicate to a growing chorus of stakeholders with often competing motivations. This kind of multifaceted approach to developing solutions is challenging. And great designers understand it’s a necessary challenge. Steve Jobs said “Real artist ship” and I believe the same must be said of designers.

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