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No, not “everyone is a designer”

Everyone can participate in design, but professional designers show their value as expert facilitators who drive the design process.

If we take design in its most basic form to mean “decide on the look and functioning of something with a specific purpose or objective in mind”, then everyone is a designer. We all manipulate our environments to serve our needs. We design our meals, our wardrobes, and how we want to be perceived. We design our schedules and our routes to work; our lives and careers. Everything we deliberately plan or arrange can be said to have been designed. Everyone is a designer in that sense.

But everyone is a designer has become a misused platitude in the UX/UI design world to mean that everyone can be a digital product designer. If designers finally have a seat at the business table, they have to accept that everyone else at the table now has a seat in their design process.

To some extent, that’s true. Involving more stakeholders from a wide range of backgrounds can be highly beneficial to the design process, especially in the earlier design stages of divergent thinking.

But not all of those involved are design professionals. Participation in the process doesn’t qualify you as an expert, just as preparing your lunch doesn’t make you a professional chef, or changing a tire doesn’t make you a mechanic. Experts have developed years of experience to call upon when making decisions, and we trust them to make decisions or perform actions we don’t have the skills to do ourselves. So everyone is not a professional designer.

Anyone can be involved in the design process, but it’s important to recognise who those stakeholders are, and in what stage of the project their feedback is most useful. A marketing manager may have very useful insights about branding and positioning goals, which help steer the early stages of a project. Yet that same level of feedback wouldn’t be helpful in the minutiae near the end of a big UX job.

Stakeholder involvement is only useful if you get the right input at the right time. Part of that is setting the right boundaries and expectations to ensure the input you get is focused and objective. It’s also about knowing when to cull stakeholders who’ve served their purpose, to keep your team tight around expertise needed for the task at hand. When thinking moves from divergent to convergent, you need the ability to separate subjective opinion from valid, actionable feedback.

Good designers are facilitators

When I say everyone is not a designer it’s not coming from an elitist point of view. I constantly experience situations where non-designer stakeholders have better design ideas than I do. I would be doing my clients a disservice if I shut those ideas out of the process to protect my own ego.

Designers aren’t reclusive geniuses who rely on random bursts of creative inspiration. We don’t have to own every design decision and fight any opinions that don’t align with our artistic vision. The best designers never fall in love with their work, so they don’t feel the need to resist suggested improvements.

Why good designers can never do their best work

Do you find yourself constantly dissatisfied with your creative endeavours? You’re not alone.

Kevin Richard describes this outdated, elitist design fallacy:

This idea that a designer possesses a certain higher knowledge and sophisticated skills learned from a small group of insiders, and presumably enjoys all-mighty powers allowing him to make the right decisions based on his own omniscient judgment and well-trained intuition.

These “lone cowboys” who, without necessarily realizing it, often behaves in a way which prevents knowledge to spread, therefore preventing shared understanding to be build. In such scenario, the team becomes depend of the “expert” who’s entertaining a certain obscurantism: lack of understanding and fear of uncertainty rarely leads to good results

Great designers act as facilitators, encouraging the best ideas to surface no matter who they come from. Our value is in knowing how to consolidate feedback into actionable points and having the skills to quickly translate that feedback into effective design solutions.

This is where our expertise is required. Not in making all the design decisions ourselves, but in making other people’s ideas integrate as smoothly as if they were our own. If you can facilitate that process of ideation and integration, you’re exponentially more valuable than the lone creative genius.

How to give and receive great design feedback

A comprehensive guide for designers and their clients to provide frustration-free feedback and create better design outcomes.

The value of design is in its process, not just its artifacts

That’s why design thinking is even a thing. The processes we use to explore and solve design problems can be valuable tools in transforming other parts of business as well.

As Andrea Mignolo points out:

It points to the activities of design as a source of value, instead of focusing solely on the products of design.

This illustrates that the value of a designer doesn’t lie solely in their personal talents, propensity for creative thought, or the deliverables they produce. That value is overshadowed by how good their processes are, and how well they manage them within their team of stakeholders.

We need to be able to repeat design success project after project. We do that by driving the design process in the right direction, setting clear guidelines and expectations for getting valuable input from stakeholders at the right times, and then transforming those disparate ideas into functional designs.

Only the last part in that process is a skill unique to professional designers. The rest is just good project management, common sense, and a big dose of effective communication. Marcin Treder summarises that

Everyone is a Design Participant, But You’re the Expert

Be the expert that can manage the design process, and your value will grow well beyond the products of your creative output.

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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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