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Fast design vs. quick design

Do you struggle to match the speed of your more experienced design colleagues?

I recently collaborated on a UX/UI design project with a much younger and less experienced designer playing a supporting role. He’s very talented for his age (way more than I was at the same point in my career!). Despite just graduating university, he already has a few years of part-time freelance experience under his belt. We were satisfied with his deliverables, but noticed that he struggled to deliver work at the pace me and my client were expecting.

After a recent debrief about the project, he admitted the same thing:

I was surprised by the speed of your progress, and struggled to keep up. How can I work that fast without sacrificing quality? I worry if I speed up I will have to forgo experimentation time and will fall back to lazy design habits.

He makes a number of good points. They demonstrate reasons why experienced designers provide better value.

Design school teaches you fundamentals & software proficiency

If you’re fortunate enough to have a formal design education, you’ll have learned the fundamentals of design theory: colour, shape, balance, rhythm, and typography to name a few. And you will have learned proficiency in popular design software: perhaps Illustrator, Photoshop, or Sketch. Maybe InVision, Trello, or Asana.

You’ve started exploring the arsenal of tools that will help you practice design in the future, knowing when and why to use each one. You’ll have picked up an understanding of many basic design patterns and common best practices that are prevalent in your craft. And, importantly, you’ve learned the skill of design critique — offering methods to gain feedback humbly, and improve your work collaboratively.

But your focus rarely extends beyond this foundation, because you simply haven’t had the real-world experience to grow into higher stages of design thinking.

In The 7 stages of the design craft, Fabricio Teixeira outlines how the skill and focus of a designer changes as they progress through their career. I’d recommend reading the whole article. As a junior designer, fresh out of school, you’ll have a great start on stage one (Mastering the tools) and hopefully a step into stage two (Learning good practices). You may think you’re in stage three (Forming a point of view), but so early in your career that’s rare. You’ve spent most of your design time emulating other people’s styles and solutions, not developing your own.

At stages one and two, you’re first trying to build speed (getting faster at executing design) and quality (learning what makes better design). Yet you often have to trade off speed to increase your quality. Finding better design solutions takes research and experimentation, which add more time to your process.

The value of a design education

Design fundamentals trump software proficiency. Timeless design triumphs over trends.

Work experience teaches you how to arrive at good design solutions more quickly

When you have years of design experience, your focus shifts away from fast execution. You’re more concerned with higher-level design thinking: storytelling, collaboration, trust, and business growth.

That’s not to say that speed and quality no longer matter — they both remain extremely important parts of your value equation. But your perspective of speed changes, and it’s no longer at odds with producing quality work.

Here’s why.

As you practice any skill enough, you get better at it. Which means you can accomplish the same tasks faster than you could before.

Performance = Talent x Effort²

My life experience tells me hard work is more important than innate ability. My professional design experience validates it.

In the profession of digital design, this increase in efficiency isn’t limited to your practical execution — drawing pixels on an artboard. It also means efficiency in design exploration, assessing strengths and weaknesses of competing solutions, an empathetic perspective on user needs, and an understanding of which KPIs to measure the success of your work.

It means drawing the RIGHT pixels on an artboard.

Your value isn’t how fast you can execute a design, it’s how quickly you come up with the best design solution. The quality of your output and the speed of your work both increase together.

Design quickly, not fast.

The execution speed of a junior designer and senior designer may appear the same. Or, the quality of their design output may be similar, except the senior designers took half the time to produce it. The junior designer will rarely achieve the same speed and quality because they require more experimentation to reach the same conclusion. The value of the senior designer is in how quickly and consistently they can produce quality work.

If you find yourself in a team with far more experienced designers, you will almost certainly struggle to match their pace. Your first reaction might be to try to work faster to keep up, but you let your quality slip as a result. Never do this. This is the opposite of what everyone wants.

Your second reaction might be to practice the hell out of your tools to get more efficient at using them. This may help a fraction, but it’s not the best use of your time. No amount of software proficiency will make up for not knowing the right thing to do with that software.

Your goal is to focus on learning how to arrive at the best design solutions more quickly. How to eliminate trial and error, and costly experimentation, and still arrive at the same result. It’s producing a single, focused, design concept and getting it 90% right on your first attempt. Because you understood the design problem so intimately that the solution came with little deliberation.

It’s knowing, without even have to test it, why one solution will perform better than another, in each unique context. It’s learning how to adapt inspiration abstractly — calling on the best ideas you’ve experienced over years of design work, and informing your new designs with past successes — to make your design progressively better. It’s knowing how to justify your design decisions to your team and project stakeholders.

The frustrating reality is that these things come from experience, so there’s no quick shortcut, except to ask questions frequently. Be a sponge. Soak up these design skills from mentors. Commit yourself to learning the art how to design quickly, not fast.

Quick Qualityᵀᴹ

Quick Qualityᵀᴹ is the recipe for maximum design value. It’s the reason why an experienced designer may cost twice as much as a junior, but offer significantly more value for money. It’s the assurance that on the Venn diagram of Quality, Speed, and Cost, you’re going to land in the sweet overlap of all three. Because you consistently produce quality work quickly, you ensure your cost-to-value ratio remains unbeatable.

That’s invaluable design.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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