The Myth of Good Designers


There’s a ridiculous myth about good designers: they can deliver higher quality work faster. That’s simply NOT true when it comes to design.

This post originated from a discussion between a friend and me about designers and the “design field scene” in China. I wonder whether the same or similar issue exists in all other countries. Comment!


Some people, probably decision makers, managers, or some ordinary employees in a company, have the impression that, compared to not-so-good designers, good designers can deliver higher quality results faster. That bad designers simply deliver crap after wasting spending so much time.

When they’re complaining about it, they would say/think something like “Ethan (a good visual designer) did that really cool logo in 3 hours and he (the bad one) just showed me this zillion-time-modified crap after 4 days”. And gradually they form a belief that a better designer literally spends less time to deliver greater stuff. Then they use 3 hours as a static reference to judge all the designers they work with or manage.


The problem, however, is not with bad designers. It’s in the way of thinking about how the good designers/designs come about.

One single issue that struck me most is that, many people, either bad designers or other people, think about the “designer skills and experiences” in a completely wrong way. Most people only see the results of good designing, not the design process itself, as well as the context/environment that affords that process.

A good designer has an accumulative “database” of “design thinking” or “design activity” — patterns, paradigms, usage of materials, familiarity with various means, etc. That database is accumulated during a rather long period of time, by actually working and designing and trial-and-errors.

A good visual designer would consider a client’s requirements and then think about what kind of patterns, materials, processes could be used, what kind of existing stuff or methods could be applied here and there, and what should be “invented” or brainstormed — a tightly coupled combination of both the “creativity” and past experiences. So does a good interaction designer, UX designer, or whatever designer.

Two most common problems I see in novice designers are:

  • They don’t have solid methods or mind set to analyze the design problem — observing and communicating the needs or requirements, etc., and
  • They don’t have a large “database” for them to composite a “base” upon which the creative part is carried out.

A good designer usually spends a lot of time doing seemingly off-work things — surfing around the web, looking at stuff, asking and/or talking around, reading some wide-ranging books, creating something not related or relevant to work at hand etc. That’s exactly how they accumulate their own “databases”. If we take into account the time and effort spent out there, then it actually takes so much more time for a good designer to deliver good work (something like that 10,000 hour rule, albeit it’s not necessarily true).

People usually don’t see that “accumulative” process which breeds good designers and good designs, and all they see is the result, not realizing that it’s not only the actual making/creating effort that differentiate a good designer from a bad one. While it’s the process and design thinking before actually doing it, and it’s the context/environment that affords the designers to do so.

On one hand, designers should learn, practice, and accumulate — no doubt about that; one the other hand, companies, managers, designers’ colleagues etc. need to be pushed to realize the context in which good designers/design come about.


When both the companies and the would-be designers have the wrong idea of bringing about good designers, surely the former find it hard to find and hire good ones, and the latter find it hard to become better ones.

It takes personal efforts to improve, and it also takes an affordable company culture to breed. The latter is tricky because company culture, once established, is extremely difficult to change.

So what? Design education and the awareness of its complexity. In a sense, design can not be taught, only its many integral parts can be taught. And we need to make it clear to designer wannabes about that complexity. In a business context, that could mean a lot of basic skill building. In China, one of the most common issues I find in common designers is their lack of awareness of improving their communication skills and broadening their knowledge rather than their hard skills of photoshopping or diagramming. They didn’t seem to realize that good design is also about meeting goals and solving problems, creative or not; and that getting to know more about the contexts of a problem actually provides them more chances to be creative — they didn’t get to know more because they didn’t think they should (sounds like jack-of-all-trades etc.) while they should.

Thus design and its education lie deeply in the ideology of problem solving, not merely being creative. And I wonder how it can be done.

One thing I’ve been constantly talking about during discussions is a big picture “career path” and “database” map laid out for design learners — they need to bare those in mind, so that they could think deeper about their passions, life, and work. I’ve talked to many young designers who were confused about their career and passion. And the single most effective thing turns out to be letting them better understand the big picture and what it takes to be a good designer through discussions.

What breed good designers? A better design education, an appropriate company culture, and more importantly, a deeper understanding and telling of the effort of being a good designer.

{E N D}

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This work by Noah Fang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Good design is about communication. It involves having something to “say” that is [intelligent, creative, inspiring, innovative, elegant, stupidly-obvious-in-retrospect, …]. It mean *having* something to say. The “aha” insight comes from that understanding of context, and its place in successively larger contexts. And in its relationship to unrelated contexts. And…

    All of these require an awareness of the outside world. This is a critical requirement for a good designer. However, it is not sufficient in and of itself. Good design is the skill required to effectively utilize this additional knowledge and apply it to the problem domain. While there appears to be a strong correlation between good designers and this global awareness, I don’t see a causal relationship. Neither causes the other. Both, however, draw from a common personality trait — curiosity.

    Which, when put another way, means that good designers are curious people. Heh.

    PS The exact same discussion can be applied to software development, by the way. Along with the same lack of understanding by [clients, management, peers, users, family and friends, …] as to what it is that one “does” in their job.

    1. Indeed! The same with software development. Programming is and should never be about programming, but about solving problems. Too many developers seem to “stuck” in the field or certain technologies themselves, rather than zoom out to maintain a big picture of problem solving.

  2. Sorry its so long but I wanted to do justice to your comments. Thank you Kingofark for raising this topic. I have noticed that in discussions online of the the roll of graphic designer usually is very different from my experience as a graphic designer and a manager of creative departments. There is a lot of movement to re-invent the wheel.
    I think that the problem you have identified in China is faced in many countries but I would also add that China may have more of a cultural component than others.
    I have a problem with your use of good / bad in the discussion of visual design in a graphic design context. In all my 30 + years of design and manage experience time was never an issue, and if it was quality was still met.
    I started graphic design prior to the introduction of the computer and the prevalence of design to make pretty. I was trained and educated to be a problem solver like so many of my peers of the time. With the computer everyone now became designers. The best illustration of this fallacy came about when working for a CBT training company the project manager allowed the client to postponed a critical decision on colour choice. By not knowing the production process this created a tremendous extension of time for project completion. But what was also critical the project manager let the client make the choice. The client was not capable of making such a decision for they were ignorant of the issues such as colour blindness of the end user. A graphic designer knows design and production.
    The problem with graphic design is that those who manage and hire designers from my experience do not know what they are really looking for. To often all they want is to have someone design something “nice” not a problem solver.
    You have touched on some very good beginning points. From my experience in working as a designer and manager I have developed some ideas that I think work.
    For any creative department to work effectively first there must be trust where the designer knows they can be themselves and not some corporate cog. Secondly the manager must know what type of designer he wants and why. Thirdly, understand your own prejudice and use what works. Having to select many excellent designers over the years for me one of the best indicators I used to help in the selection process was to ask, what do they do in there off hours. In this line of question have in mind what the answer many indicate. If they mentioned they listened to CBC I knew they were interested in ideas and showed they have a curiosity and can work comfortably in ambiguity in gary areas.
    In hiring make sure you know the skill level and interpersonal skills the designer is coming in with. What do they offer and what do I offer.
    Most department heads that are responsible for design department do not fully understand the design process or production. Therefore their criteria of what makes a good designer is very skewed and problematic.
    You’re right to make the assumption that non-visual designers do not know what the roll of a designer is. Now with computer everyone is a designer. But like you mentioned process is a very important if not the most important part of visual design.
    The accumulated database of design understanding is always on going and it is not always just thinking about visual design. As a visual display specialist in my early days I watched people more than I studied design. But being aware of design, interaction is always on my mind and always asking the question why this. The database is always building and readjusting.
    A good or bad visual designer would always benefit from direct eyeball to eyeball with the client. It can not be understated how important having a good client is in the creative process. In many ways maybe more important than the designer.
    It is understood that a novice designer does not have the database yet, but I would expect that they be open to add to their database (you can get a sense of this in the interview process). A novice should come with the basic intellectual ability to analyze the design problem as taught in their schools but with all individuals each will have their unique approach. Not all designers have the verbal communicating skills that is where the manager must assist with training.
    Good and bad designers spend a lot of time doing things that outsiders consider frivolous but as you say this is building the database and as managers should be encouraged.
    I agree that companies must learn how to get out of the way from the design process and let it happen. As a manager of creative departments I always saw it was my responsibility to set in motion the conditions to have the environment where the designers could successfully create the designs that meet the target. Many time to the point of defending their work. But this only works when top management respects the process and out comes.
    Maybe its a semantic difference but I do believe design can be taught (but then I have taught design), it is a thinking process. Yes of many, many parts but interconnected. What needs to be understood by all practitioners, managers and wannabes is that to design you need to have a reason. Design is not pretty.
    In the design of a curriculum for graphic design communication skills are always of great importance but they may be absent in the Chinese culture. In many cultures the individual has learnt to keep their head down and not speak out. So how do you encourage this basic skill in speaking out. Another way is ask the question how do you develop trust in a hostile environment.
    At one time I had to train some indigenous individuals in design. As you have mentioned communications was important to train. Rather than impose my cultural values of a white southerner on to the group I adopted theirs. Instead of our department meetings around a board room table, we went on the land. We talked about what I had to tell them and I listened to them as we walked on the land. We shared values and ideas, they showed me what was special. It took about six mouths to develop the trust where we could look each other eye to eye and have the trust to express our ideas.
    As a design generalist (jack-of-all-trades) I believe training begins in the schools and is a very important part of developing an attitude where the individual can being to understand the roll of the visual designer.
    You are so very right in seeing design education deeply immersed in the problem solving process. A suggestion on how this can be done is this: open up a discussion on what does design mean to them and how can they take that knowledge into a career. What is a “career path” and should my database be the same database as yours’. I would suggest to the students to look at graphic design history in China and then graphic design history in the West.
    I am not clear on what you mean by big picture. Some companies want someone who is compliant and play the company game that is a good designer while others will tolerate someone who’s more of a contrarian. How do we define a good designer.

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