Becoming a Designer Part 1: A Personal Path of Learning

Look backwards and there behind you, shifting and settling in your wake, is a sort of dot-to-dot composed of choices made and paths taken that add up to where you are now. Hindsight smooths any anomalies, of course. We prefer a pattern — our brains love them — because patterns suggest meaning.

— Lucy Davies, Introduction for “One Hundred Years: Portraits of a community aged 0-100” by Jenny Lewis

When I was in the university studying computer science, I never thought I’d end up being anything even remotely related to the role of a designer.

I thought C++ was going to rule the world for the rest of my life and I thought I’ve got a very good hand at it.

But I was young and naive. And I was discontent.

At the university, a good friend coerced me into using Photoshop, because he was the head of a communication unit and I was an easy target.

I graduated to become a software developer, crunching on Linux, early web, and embedded systems. I ended up answering requests on designing the splash screens for the systems developed.

I believed there must be more to life than that.

So I accepted an offer to become a technical editor for a publishing house, where I went on to become acquisition editor, layout and book art designer, assistant-editor-in-chief, and creative director. That was my first dip in what we now call service design, org design, and brand design.

I still believed there must be more to life than that.

With a close friend’s recommendation, I landed on a UX Designer job in a startup, who was using Adobe Flash as the frontend. I learned Adobe Flash one week before I started my first day.

From there I went on, through companies big and small, to become UX Manager, Product Manager, UX Lead, and lately, Service Designer and Strategist.

My parents were either annoyed or enraged by my decisions to pivot to uncharted career trajectories repeatedly and “irresponsibly”. Fortunately, they were supportive while grudging.

I evolved to become a designer, just like most of my fellow designers did. We became and are becoming designers only because we never stop learning.

Becoming a designer is a journey of learning, no matter where you happen to start.

“When you get far enough along the spectrum that you really know the difference between bad and good, and how much there is to know, and that you will always be surprised, and are convinced you’re nothing more than mediocre— that’s when you’re at your best. That’s when you get the best results. You’ve put in your 10,000 hours. You’ve become the person everyone considers a master. Conversely, you wake up knowing there is no such thing. You’re only a master because you never stop learning.”

— Robert Hoekman Jr., Experience Required: How to Become a UX Leader Regardless of Your Role

Not only is becoming designer a journey of learning, so is designing:

“Design can indeed be seen as learning: as a designer, you gradually gather knowledge about the nature of the design problem and the best routes to take towards a design solution. You do this by trying out different ways of looking at the problem, the experimenting with various solution directions. You propose, experiment, and learn from the results, until you arrive at a satisfactory result. For instance, when you are designing, you sketch an idea and then look at it with a critical eye. This fresh look often immediately shows you what must be changed in order to improve the design. So you change it, and then you again look critically at your work, etc. Design can be described as a process of going through many of these ‘learning cycles’ (propose-experiment-learn, propose-experiment-learn, again and again) until you have created a solution to the design problem. In this way, you learn your way towards a design solution.”

— Kees Dorst, Notes on Design: How Creative Practice Works

In order to make genuinely informed decisions when we design, we must understand a lot more than what’s on the surface.

So what’s on the surface? Design process, techniques and methods, tools of the trade, jargons, and fancy job titles.

But even regarding design as problem solving is not enough:

“Early hopes that by describing design as problem solving we had captured its essence were, in the end, not justified. The problem solving models of design are particularly helpful when you want to control a design process, or to make your design project run more efficiently. But the problem solving model is silent when we want to know more about design than just how to control and structure it.

This relative ‘distance’ from the way designers experience their work has long been a criticism by designers against the problem solving view of design. One of the early architectural design theorists, Christopher Alexander, is on record as saying that: ‘… [design theorists] have definitely lost the motivation for making better buildings… there is so little in what is called ‘design methods’ that has anything useful to say about how to design buildings…’ A damning remark, if there ever was one.”

— Kees Dorst, Notes on Design: How Creative Practice Works

If you ask me now whether I consider my self as a designer, I’d tell you that I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like one, other times not so much.

I know better now: there are probably far more great designers whose job title never contains the word “design” or “designer.”

When we talk about design as a universal human activity, everyone is a designer.

When we talk about design as a defined profession in industries, by “designer” we actually mean “professional designer.”

Maybe I’m still a professional designer, but I tend to think that I’m more of a designer. Just a designer.

(Read Part 2 here)

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2 comments

  1. Good morning Noah,

    Thank you for sharing this article with me.

    As an fyi, I flipped a copy of your article to John Buck. John is the CEO for the English speaking community in Quebec for Economic and Workforce development.

    In a former incarnation working with ESDC, I established some contacts at Canada’s Job Bank program.

    Would you be ok if I flipped your article and TC email address to Kelly Archer who is a senior Job Bank program manager. Her team may in fact have use for your skill set.

    Please advise. Bruce

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