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Novices Design the Surface; Experts Dive Deep

The easiest way to tell a wannabe designer from a valuable pro.

The thing about design is that it can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. You control this complexity because the ecosystem expands the more you look and interrogate it. If you never look past the surface, you may not even be aware there’s more to discover. To properly define a problem and converge on a good solution you must understand a complex environment of crisscrossing variables. A great designer wants to dig as deep as possible into these details before coming up to manipulate the surface. A novice designer is content with studying the shallow ripples.

In my experience, the value of a designer is directly correlated with their ability to ask probing questions, think critically, and understand complex systems. A successful design process involves a series of expansions and contractions. Seeing the big picture while simultaneously considering the details. This gives us the agency to grasp complexity in a holistic way.

For a great designer, design is never done, because there’s a nearly infinite universe of complexities that can be discovered the longer they look. A project ends when time or budget runs out, not because a perfect solution has been achieved. It’s impossible to create perfection when variables expand to near infinity.

Expert designers spend 80% or more of their time diving deep to understand the problem, before using the final moments to craft a solution. Novices jump straight into a solution because they only care to see the top 20% of the problem.

Good designers have T-shaped breadth and depth of experience because they know that design must reach its tentacles into strategy, branding, content, and engineering — or it’s incomplete.

The best designers consider all the variables and fringes that might impact a design. They consider the ecosystem the problem lives within before looking directly at the problem. Poor designers think only about the design itself, failing to see the external forces at play.

Novices focus on the happy path. Pros consider edge cases. Valuable designers try to break things to make them robust.

Great designers worry about how something works before they consider how it looks. In fact, a designer’s value is often inversely proportional to their attention on visual style.

The best designers understand complexity before they refine a problem to its simplest solution. Poor designers artificially restrict their constraints so they can pretend they’ve solved it with false simplicity.

Novices produce unsolicited redesigns because they think it equates to real experience. Pros know that a redesign can’t happen from the outside looking in, or they’re starting off on a shaky foundation — understanding only a fraction of the underlying complexities.

New designers create what their clients ask for. Seasoned designers uncover what their clients (and their customers) actually need.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” — Einstein

The same complexity is also mirrored on the project management side: more stakeholders, more moving parts, more details to manage, more references and revisions to track.

Experienced designers uncover and manage that complexity equally well. As Merissa Louie says “Designer-Project Managers will be the new designer unicorns. The line between product designers and product managers will continue to blur as more designer-PM hybrids uncover new value for both users and organizations.”

You can’t be trusted with big, important design work if you don’t thrive in uncovering layers of detail and managing the myriad of complexities that entails. Novices avoid complexity because it makes design more difficult. Pros invite complexity because it makes design lasting and complete.

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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.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.