From showcasing a digital portfolio to re-defining a e-commerce mobile app, I have been challenged with different design projects. Some more complex than others but all precious lessons. Here is a concise list of what I have learned as designer. (Images courtesy by Jeff Sheldon)
1. Design is … to solve a problem
Even a genius like Leonardo did not design his work for a mere recognition or to please the ego of his rich and powerful patrons or to leave a legacy to posterity. Although we cannot exclude that this was part of his extraordinary career.
The real designer has a social and ethical vision of his work: his job is to come with solutions to problems of different nature in an innovative, intelligent and creative way. Whether it’s a site restyiling or the refurbishing of an interior space, the designer identifies critical issues, defines easier paths, find right materials and in doing so he follows his inspiration and sense of aesthetics: something unique that requires years of experience, application and hard work. From this point of view, a designer is a craftsman who combines art with utility.
2. A good designer knows how to listen and communicate
In my personal experience, there have been moments when I have witnessed the difficulties in dealing with colleagues and clients with different ideas and opinions – not so eager to be “convinced”. Since in design the emotional component is very strong – everyone has his own personal sense of aesthetics – misunderstandings or even conflicts are always at the corner. Most often due to the inability to listen and communicate.
It’s up to the designer’s intelligence and expertise to understand the issue, by bringing valid reasons to support the proposed solution, by incorporating and shaping the other’s point of view. In defending his position, he does not confine himself in a sterile academicism or a cryptic technical language. Nor will try to assert his superior sense of aesthetics. Rather he will support with data, examples and clear evidence the proposed solution.
3. The design has its own rules
Perhaps only our Leonardo could dare to improvise, relying on his immense talent. In fact, he never did. In all of his work it is not difficult to find the principles which are the core of visual language: unity, balance, hierarchy, proportion, emphasis, similarity and contrast. When one or more of these principles are missing, the result is never satisfactory because our eyes and our mind cannot find the visual references which they are used to.
Unless we know how to justify this choice. Cubist painters like Picasso have deliberately distorted the rule of unity (using multiple perspectives or inserting external elements) in order to represent the object from different views. In Conceptual Art by contrast, the content or idea is more important and precedes the aesthetic form and its perception.
4. It’s all a matter of practice and experience
I must confess one thing: I am not trained as a designer…but I am relieved by the fact of being not only the only one to become a designer by passion. Although I must say that my humanistic background in sociology proved to be of great help in understanding a visual project and – above all – communicating solutions.
I believe that to succeed as a designer you don’t need academic letters of reference. The crucial lesson for a designer is to be able to implement what he learned – in the classroom as well as on the computer or on the drawing board. A potential client or employer will be more impressed by our portfolio work rather than the name of the attended school. In addition, Internet provides a huge archive of knowledge free and accessible to all, it’s up to designers to use it and to express their talent: I am always impressed by the quality of works published on Behance and the fact that many of these come from “non educated” designers like me
5. Inspiration follows random and unexpected paths
One the biggest challenges for a designer – perhaps the biggest one – is to find inspiration for his work. A journey, a synthesis in this various and chaotic kaleidoscope of images and visual stimulations where we are immersed. Ideas are endless, directions are contradictory.
While frantically searching for the solution, the designer dive into specialized magazines to find a starting point, a suggestion. He spends hours by visiting sites and portfolios. He follows tutorials and mingle with peers during design events. Although all of these activities are vital to stay up to date, they are not strictly useful for the inspiration.
It happened to me more often that I start a project by getting inspired by a design seen somewhere and then completely diverging from it. Or to be “contaminated” by other ideas. Or more simply to distort it with the external contribution. Other times the inspiration came when I was not working on the project although I was thinking about it: a swimming in the pool, a visit to an exhibition, an advertising billboard on the street.
Sometimes – if not often – moving away from the computer gives unexpected results.
6. The mediocre designers imitate, the good ones reinvent
The designer wants to leave its sign in order to be distinguished. Often you cannot do anything but following the footsteps of those great predecessors. Or those contemporary designers who have achieved success. But there is a thin line between pure emulation and reinterpretation. And it is what distinguishes a conventional – albeit technically valid -work from a truly original and innovative work.
In the making of the famous painting Guernica, the aforementioned Picasso made no secret to be “inspired” by old photos of the Alinari archive in Florence, during his Italian trip of 1917, featuring a late Middle Age fresco, The Triumph of Death. But the result that followed was unique and very personal.
Sometimes, sadly, the desire to emulate encroaches openly in plagiarism: the chinese company Xiaomi was indirectly stigmatized by the chief designer Jonathan Ive of Apple for reproducing its industrial design (see the brushed aluminum chassis with engraved logo, the smooth flowing lines) even the similarity of products names (iPad / MiPad, AppleTV / MiTV) and the site layout (see the color combination, the menu navigation, the extensive cropped images) clearly “inspired” by Apple’s. From this point of view, we are not facing a good design nor an original design.
7. The design is a collaborative work
Any design requires the right maturity and it is always the result of revisions, corrections, stops and gos involving different actors: stakeholders, product managers, users and clients, designers, developers. The contribution of each one of them must be taken into consideration in order to achieve the best results, especially when it comes to digital services and products – where many variables are playing due to the complexity of human-machine interaction.
It is therefore important that clients and stakeholders clearly define the goals to be achieved. That potential users test design prototypes to identify critical points. That developers provide data and information to skip technical obstacles. With regard to digital products, more and more project teams are adopting innovative, shared working approaches like the Lean UX design.