Summary: Humility and design go hand-in-hand; it’s just in the nature of design. Because of this, it is important to recognize the impact that ego can have on one’s ability to receive feedback, properly attribute success and failure, leverage data to justify decisions, remain open-minded to new ideas, and collaborate with teammates. Designers should strive to be humble in their work and organizations should reinforce this in their cultures.
In my recent essay on design and art, I separated the two practices by discussing their different purposes, data sources, and creative processes. This was a really good exercise for me; it helped me to hone my definition of design. But it also allowed me to come to another important conclusion: that good design is humble. I didn’t expect to arrive at this when I started writing the piece, but in hindsight, it makes sense that I would. If we take a close look at the processes and measures of success in design, it becomes abundantly clear that design simply lends itself to humble creation.
Begin by thinking about the perfect design process. Where would you start? Perhaps with a problem. Maybe you’d perform a little research to see if that problem really exists and if it’s worth solving. Then you’d start to gather ideas and inspiration. What solution would you offer to this problem? You’d build something simple; just enough to run a few tests and get some feedback. Validate your assumptions. Then you’d iterate on it. You’d perform more research, gather more inspiration, and start to create something that you could really be proud of. You’d release it to a public audience and, in turn, you’d learn more about your design. You’d iterate again. And again. Rinse and repeat until you have something that you can truly call a product. Now think about this process. Did any of this involve some kind of a divine talent? Or would it be more accurately described as a calculated, creative, and humble approach to problem solving? I’ll put my money on the latter.
The Importance of Humility
Humility in design has always been important to me; I’ve baked it into my personal design philosophy as the most important quality that a designer can possess. But this was not the result of some kind of enlightenment that I experienced. Rather, when design is practiced correctly, this should come as a logical conclusion. But in some cases, it can be very difficult to find a designer that approaches their work with a humble attitude. Many seem to be overrun with the idea that through their own training, education, experience, or god-given talent, they’re able to always produce the most incredible designs.
Alexander is among the world’s leading designers. Achieving this prestige takes talent others can only dream of. Combined with bona fide commitment Alexander’s designs win award after award. His talent is rare.
That’s a direct quote from a Creative Director’s portfolio, where he speaks about himself in the third person. I find this problematic because, aside from the fact that this individual would be very difficult to work with, the introduction of this type of ego into the workplace alters the ways in which teams and individuals create. Why test your design when you have the expertise to know that it will work? Why perform user research when you already know everything there is to know about design? Why listen to the other guy’s idea when you know that you’re the more qualified designer? Decisions start to be made based off of intuition, opinion, or perceived aptitude. And when you think about design in this way, it kind of makes sense to adopt these practices. After all, why would you test a design if you just knew that it would work? Why waste the time and resources when you could be moving on to something else instead?
If there’s anything that design has taught me, it’s that my assumptions, while generally well-founded, are almost always wrong. No matter how much of an expert I become, I will never be able to represent the collective mass that is a user base. This is why humility in the design process is so important. It can be tempting to think that after going through a design program or gaining a certain amount of experience, we’re qualified to make design decisions based on intuition or expertise. And in a certain capacity, I would say that’s true. Intuition and personal experience do play major roles in design at times. But at the end of the day, intuition can never replace the value of a user test. This is because the designer is not designing for themselves; they’re designing for the user. It’s simply in the nature of design: whenever you’re creating for someone else, the creation can’t be about you. And as such, designers must take a humble approach to design, or risk being handicapped by their own egos.
Feedback and Emotional Attachment
I recently fell into a conversation with a designer who was creating a new calculator app. He felt that the standard Casio numerical keypad layout (which had originated in the 1960’s) was broken and outdated. So, he took a new approach and designed his app to have a circular keypad. He pulled some research and submitted an article about it to a popular design publication. It’s a special moment for any designer to see their work gain that kind of recognition on a grand scale. But when users started to see the design, their reactions weren’t quite so great.
Sorry, I don’t see the ergonomic benefit of your circular arrangement. The standard ten key arrangement allows the three strongest fingers on your hand access to all the digits very efficiently. The circular layout offers no such advantage, in fact I think it’s at a rather great disadvantage.
That’s a tough thing to hear. I would know, I’ve had my own fair share of direct and honest feedback. But what alarmed me even more was that, when confronted with this feedback, the designer became very defensive and immediately started offering arguments in support of his design decisions. This didn’t just happen once. Any time that someone would criticize the design or the methodologies through which the design was created, the designer would become defensive. And it’s not like this was a junior designer either. It was a 58 year old, college educated, published author with years of experience in design.
This was alarming to me. Even if the designer hadn’t properly collected qualitative feedback when originally creating the design, he was receiving it now. From real users. Why wasn’t he thanking the users and recording their feedback, instead of spending all of his time defending his design decisions over and over again? I see this as a recurring pattern in design. When designers don’t properly research and test their designs (and instead make decisions based on intuition or personal expertise), they’re much more likely to become emotionally attached to their work. After all, it truly came from them; it’s their personal creation, made from their personal opinions and taste. As a result, criticism of this type of design can be seen as a personal attack on the designer’s personal creation, rather than an opportunity to gain valid feedback. But if we think about it, this is the antithesis of design. When a designer creates like this, they’re not designing at all. They’re removing the user from the equation and simply exercising personal creative expression. And that’s not design.
By contrast, when we follow a structured design process and create using external information (like quantitative and qualitative research), it’s much easier to view criticism not as a personal attack, but as an opportunity to improve the design. When an outsider criticizes your design, they may be taking shots at the conclusions of your research or the visual styles that your users liked, but they’re not coming at you personally. Because much more went into the design than you. Sure, you trusted your gut at certain times and let your intuition guide you when appropriate, but you didn’t conceive the design entirely on your own. You gathered feedback, you worked with stakeholders, and you created something in collaboration with others. So when your design gets criticized, it’s not an attack on your personal creation (and thus you). It’s an opportunity to make your creation better. Removing ego and emotional attachment from the design process affords designers the clarity of mind to make decisions that better the product and increase its odds of success.
Attribution of Success and Failure
When we design based on intuition and opinion, we create products that are reflections of ourselves. When these products succeed, we attribute the success to our own genius or talent. And when these products face criticism, we ourselves feel criticized. If our product fails, we may feel that we failed as designers. But good designers don’t seek to create reflections of themselves; they seek to create reflections of their audience. The people that they are designing for. The best designs result not from a deep focus on one’s self, but from a deep focus on one’s audience. In this respect, design can be very humbling.
There are many factors that influence the success or failure of a product. Design is just one of them. Rather than simply attribute the successes or failures of a product to the competency and talent (or lack thereof) of its designer, we should seek to understand why the design succeeded or failed. Did it even have anything to do with the design in the first place? If so, what specific elements of the design had an impact and why? When we design based on intuition and opinion, we deprecate the value of data and the learning opportunities that it affords us. We should always be looking to understand why something worked or why it didn’t, so that we can apply that learning back to our product as much as possible. And the reason why often has very little to do with the designer’s taste or opinion, and very much to do with their ability to understand the product, audience, and business that they are designing for.
Data and Validation
The increasingly accessible nature of data has fundamentally changed the ways in which we design. It is removing negative subjectivity from the process almost entirely. I say negative subjectivity because there will always be elements of design that are subjective, and they should be. For example, visual design will always remain somewhat subjective. There are elements of it that can be tested for usability or KPI performance, but a significant portion also relies on the aesthetic preference of the designer and their fellow stakeholders. That’s totally fine. But the days of design decisions being made according to the opinion of the highest ranking person in the room are coming to a swift end.
Data is the great neutralizer. Matters of opinion need not be solved in the boardroom. We can simply pose the different designs to our users and let them tell us precisely which one is the best, using their behaviors and actions. This is extremely empowering for the designer. We can now understand which design is objectively best and we can measure exactly how our work impacts the businesses and users that we design for. And this is universal; from Junior Designers to Executive Creative Directors, all of our work can be put to the test on a perfectly level playing field. One of the beauties of data is that it does not discriminate based on a designer’s ego or reputation. It is not influenced by status or opinion. It just reports the truth, without bias.
Allowing designers to create their best work, regardless of experience level or reputation, requires an open mind that can sometimes only be afforded to us (or thrust upon us) through hard data. It can be difficult to properly appraise the value of work when we’re constantly taking into account its source. This effect is magnified when elements of innovation are introduced. We’re used to doing things a certain way. And when new concepts are brought to the table, especially by less experienced or educated individuals, it can be tempting to dismiss them. Ego does not help this, especially when one proposed design goes against that of another designer’s.
In this way, humility is the mother of progress and innovation. By allowing our teams to shake things up and put their ideas to the test, we’re able to foster creativity and ensure that innovation isn’t killed at the source, without receiving a proper chance to prove itself. This creates a healthy team dynamic where every individual is granted an equal chance to create something noteworthy; something that will see the light of day. And when the playing field is leveled in this way, political hierarchy and ego go out the window, and teams start working together. That’s when the real innovation begins.
Collaboration and Teamwork
From what I’ve seen, the most innovative and effective designs are those that are created through the close collaboration of multi-disciplinary teams. That is not to say that I’m advocating for design by committee. Rather, I’ve observed that when multiple skilled individuals from diverse backgrounds come together and agree to make something great, they’re able to offer a range of talents and perspectives that are greater in number and magnitude than any single individual could ever possess. The best designs simply don’t come from individuals, or for that matter, egos. They come from teams. They come from collective efforts.
Nothing is more effective at killing collaboration than ego. It builds false and ineffective bureaucratic hierarchies rooted in age-old ideology. It inspires a sense of unhealthy competition, where teammates put themselves before their team and the company. It silences communication, dissolves cooperation, and suffocates innovation. It utterly ruins the work environment. Teams have to be able to work together. If they can’t, they simply won’t be able to uphold even their most basic functions, let alone realize their true potential.
The Designer’s Handicap
Ego represents the greatest handicap that a designer can acquire and the highest risk that a design organization can assume. It possesses the power to slowly poison and render obsolete design cultures that were otherwise exceptional. For this reason, it is my belief that the most important quality that a designer can strive for and an organization can screen for is that of humility.
For designers in the field, I encourage you to take inventory of your understanding for what design is, what it means to be a designer, and how ego is inherently incompatible with design. And for those hiring designers, I encourage you to deeply screen for traces of ego and ensure that there is a cultural fit with every candidate that you hire. It only takes one bad hire to absolutely bleed a team of its essence and effectiveness. As design advances and evolves, it is critical for us to acknowledge the central role that humility plays, or risk letting our egos die in tandem with our careers.
I’m currently traveling and speaking about this topic