Is there too much to know to be an effective designer?

Design is a full-bodied discipline. We’re letting new entrants to the profession just scratch the surface.
When I was an undergrad, I took a class with Randy Pausch called Programming Usable Interfaces. One of the first things he did was give us all a free book called Usability Engineering. It’s a terrible book, but for a 19 year old, free stuff really stands out. It made it really clear what Randy wanted us to learn: that it’s critical to make interfaces that are usable.

At a similar point of time, I took a class with Dick Buchanan, and one of the first things he did was ask us to reflect on and explain the differences between design and art. 20-something years later, I’m still not sure I can offer a crisp distinction, but that doesn’t change the fact that his question also shaped my emerging perspectives on design.

And underscoring all of this, I was taking the fundamental classes of most art and design programs: 2D design, 3D design, color theory, figure drawing, and so-on.

The way this played out for me, and for many people who grew up in this era of computing and design, was to highlight places where a design solution could make things usable, useful and desirable. As Don Norman’s best-known work The Design of Everyday Things pointed out, shower dials turn the wrong way, doors push when they should pull, the stove burners are mapped haphazardly to the buttons that turn them on, and the world is generally out to get us because of “bad design.”

This idea of viewing the world as a series of human-made problems also came to light when examining digital interfaces, which – unlike annoying doors that push instead of pull – actually had the ability to cause material problems. In school, I learned to find usability defects and propose interface and system solutions to make software easier to use. It was a maturity of usability, as we were taught not to focus on “user friendly” but instead to advocate for usability as a fundamental in software development.

For me, and for a number of those who graduated with me from at my school and other schools at the same time, this was our view of the profession of design: I had a design hammer, and the world was full of nails.

This was my formative view of our profession. It’s unique because of when I learned design, and whom I learned it from.

Formative stages

What I learned is not what everyone learned, and how I was taught to see the world of design was not consistent across schools, teachers, and students. I think there have been nine (and probably more) formative stages for designers.


The roots of design are in the arts and crafts movement, and what most of us would consider the first examples of truly mass-produced design came in the form of furniture – industrial design – and posters – graphic design. Designers growing up with this generational focus embraced a relationship between what a material can do and what we can do with it.

Form and function

Emergent from the Bauhaus was a generational focus on what things did and how they appeared. “Form follows function” became the colloquialism for utilitarian, decorative-free design, and designers learning and practicing in this generational space embraced a minimal aesthetic. A result of this perspective was a casting of designed things as utilities – thing that had a function and a purpose. Simplistically, a pencil sharpener sharpens pencils, and so it should look like it sharpens pencils.


As computation started to creep into culture – in business, first, and then in our homes through a personal computer – a generational focus emerged aimed at making the complexity of digital technology understandable. Human factors – anthropometric measurements related to the physical limits of body – shaped a philosophy of putting a person at the center of the design of things rather than leading with either aesthetics or utility. This generational focus was on usability engineering and human-computer interaction, on observing people to see where existing tools failed them, and on testing the things we made before unleashing them on the world at scale. It’s this focus that shaped a large part of my initial understanding of design.

Problem solving

Another formative place of design was the observation that designers, focusing on beauty, form, function, and usability, approached problems in a unique way. There was a process that seemed more organic or fluid than a top down, rational approach. This flexible approach emphasized, among other things, sketching and iterative exploration as a means to an end. This process was so flexible that, while it was being used to design objects that were useful, usable and desirable, it also became apparent that the process could be used for complex system, service, and organizational problems, too. This generational focus shaped the other large part of my understanding of design – that I could leverage this process in such a broad, flexible manner.


In parallel to, and in some respects, in rejection to, a business trend of operational optimization and measurement, a generational focus of design as innovation emerged. Designers, using their magical abilities of watching people, were able to identify opportunities for companies to introduce new products and services rather than simply improving existing ones. Designers emerging during this period chased newness, and with this focus on novelty also came a mantra of “failing forward.” Innovation was, as GE’s Jeff Immelt described, an escape from commodity hell; yet innovation also introduced business risk. This generational focus on design made it acceptable to take chances (although the chances Immelt took at GE turned out to be a shit-the-bed sort of failure, not a fail and learn type.)

Experience and Service

While “experience” has no intrinsic relationship to digital technology, the proliferation of tiny, cheap computers created a generational focus on the relationship people have with designed things over time. These relationships, often emotionally charged, are behavioral and phase-based. We change, and the things we use and live with should change with us. Designers who gained experience during this generational focus expanded on the notion of usability to introduce pleasure – the idea that a digital product can be more than just a utility, and that services “count” as first-class citizens of design, even without any digital component at all.


Design has a strong history of being a service profession – a profession “in service” of people’s wants and needs. Usability is, simplistically, about easing the pain of everyday interactions introduced by technical complexity. As a generational focus on impact emerged, designers began to see how their problem solving and innovation abilities could be applied not just in the context of capitalism, but also in the context of large-scale social problems. Instead of addressing problems through policy or funding, designers emerging in this generational phase saw the creative process of design as a mature way of normalizing social inequities.


Building on the relationship of design as a driver of innovation, and as a source of power for cultural change, a generational focus emerged of design as a way of thinking strategically – of planning what an organization should do and when they should do it. Design as strategy is about showing a north-star vision and plotting a course toward that vision. Unique to design is the ability to show, not just tell, and a generational focus on design strategy means making a future feel so powerful and optimistic that others can’t help but follow a leader in that direction.


Value has traditionally been considered transactional – I see this particular product or service as providing that much value, and that’s precisely how much I’ll pay for it. This is overly simplistic (and often wrong) in the context of experience. A generational focus of design as value sees value as emergent, instead of fixed: something that changes over time, and that isn’t simply about monetary exchange – it’s also about the exchange of attention and emotion.

Is the profession too big to know?

This model of design through generations is a way of explaining how our field got to where it is now, and it’s a simple, reductive history lesson. But what makes our field – and any other field – extraordinarily complicated in practice is the additive and often exponential nature of accumulated knowledge as a field matures. If we consider the industrial revolution to be more or less the beginning of the discipline of design, our field is about 250 years old. Each one of these generations introduced new ideas and concepts that built off previous generations’ contributions. And unlike a “movement” or “trend,” the knowledge introduced during each of these generations isn’t really optional. It’s hard to argue that, now that we’re in the strategy generation of design, we shouldn’t think about aesthetics or innovation. They aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. This really means that, to do design, we need to do and know all of those things. And to do design well, we need to do and know all of those things well.

This feels hard. There’s a precedent of that difficulty – medicine:

“To give you some idea of the extent of medical information overload, it has been estimated that about 560,000 new medical articles are published every year and 20,000 new randomised trials are registered. That’s equivalent to 1500 new articles per day and 55 new trials.”

(Glasziou P, Haynes B. The paths from research to improved health outcomes. ACP J Club. 2005;142(2):A-8–10.)

Intellectually, it’s unfair to go to a neurologist and expect them to be experts in the functions of the brain, eye, or any other part of the body. But emotionally, we do just that – most of us simplify “doctor” into an archetypical expert in medicine and a “lawyer” into an archetypical expert in law. And what’s more, there are real pressures on members of those professions to be experts in all aspects of their discipline. If a neurologist does something to a patient that negatively impacts their vision, it’s not sufficient to shrug and say, well, vision wasn’t their specialty.

This is not the problem of a “unicorn” – someone who can make beautiful screens, code, make wireframe flows, and win MMA fights. It’s a problem of broad professional expectation.

I don’t think anyone would argue that nurses don’t provide tremendous service and value, but also, it would be hard to argue that nurses and doctors provide the same level of service and value. The same can be said about design: if a “nurse” equivalent is someone with a shorter education, fewer skills, and smaller expectations, a “doctor” would be someone who can do all of the things above, and the expectation would be that they have a depth of training, broad and deep skills, and great expectations placed upon them.

But the nurse and doctor separation are mostly non-existent in design.

I speak with hiring managers who are perpetually frustrated with this. They aren’t frustrated with the fact that junior designers don’t know as much as senior designers. They are frustrated with the expectations that those designers have about their work contributions. These freshly-minted designers have been led to believe that they can focus on some of the later things in the evolution I described above – impact, strategy, and value – without ever gaining competency in those earlier things. “Freshly minted” in this case doesn’t mean fresh out of school, as there is an influx of people coming from other parts of business who woke up one day and were told that they were now experience designers.

Just because the discipline is harder to master doesn’t mean we can just ignore most of it.

When there’s too much to know, it feels like something has to give. It may be depth of knowledge in any one aspect of the profession – we may sacrifice depth at the expense of generalism. Or, we may sacrifice breadth at the expense of specialization; we may start to educate and hire people who can do only one of those things described, but do it extraordinarily well.

The parallels to medicine may be forced (and overly arrogant), but one thing we can learn from that world is the idea of specialization as a pathway on top of generalization, not instead of it. Practitioners need to study a broad and deep overview of medicine before focusing – with even more depth – on a specialization. I would like to suggest that this approach, which is valuable, should push a large change in expectation through organizations and schools.

To overextend the analogy one last time, the majority of people who become a nurse don’t do it with expectations that, after several years of nursing, they will grow into a doctor. Yet that’s the message we’re telling people who are emerging from short-term programs and bootcamps, or people who have been reorged into UX roles from program management or BA roles, or people who have attended a conference and taken a workshop. These folks are entering the profession with the intent of moving into a doctor role without ever taking the training to get there. And that’s a fundamental problem for the future of design.

We’ve swung the pendulum too far to the side of “let’s get you a job,” at the expense of “let’s make sure you are equipped to do that job.” That equipping requires running back down the ladder of generational themes, and making sure designers can perform with confidence down the entire stack. As a profession, we either need to embrace a “nurse/doctor” expectation (and communicate that expectation through our training programs) or decide that we all need to be doctors.

It takes an awful long time to become a doctor. It’s expensive. And it’s elitist. I don’t know if we collectively have the patience or interest in that approach in our field. But I know that “become a nurse in 10 weeks” would never fly.

A later thought

As a post-text-reflection, I wonder what the next generational phase is characterized as. It might be ethics. Ethical discussions aren’t new in the space of design – we’ve been struggling with the ethical implications of introducing domestic products that solidify gender norms, producing silly novelties that almost go directly into landfills, and eating up natural resources in the name of household convenience. But the conversation of ethics has been pushed into the forefront of conversations of data privacy and ownership, predictive analytics, robots, and the dissemination of large-scale misinformation.

These aren’t technology problems as much as consequences of how we’ve used that technology – what we’ve designed, and how we’ve designed those things. If that’s true – if ethics really is the next generational phase of design – we’re going to need to move quickly beyond what is emerging as a vapid conversation. With few exceptions (notable is the work of Cennydd Bowles), the discussion starts and ends with the trolly problem, and presents ethics like a series of guidelines or rules. Like all of the other generational chunks I described above, this one too requires an understanding of all that came before it. Ethics of design are not new (See Papanek and Ehn as starting points), and are embedded in the craft of making. Picking up the end of the story without the front is, for the most part, just conversation.

Jon Kolko

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