Why Good Designers Are Like Crocodiles

Crocodiles adapt. They learn the movements of their meal and strike at just the right moment. It’s this mix of immersion in scenarios, research of their environment, and instinct, that make them the perfect analogy for a good designer.

However, while crocodiles aren’t known for being particularly empathic, for a designer, empathy is crucial.

Finding empathy through experience

Books or running on-screen interviews aren’t the only way to establish empathy. As a designer, I’ve found the best way to do so is through experience, which means working with a broad range of people, including people outside the design community. Most of all, you need to experience uncomfortable scenarios and put yourself in situations that may be way outside of your comfort zone.

The true value of design is found through experience

I’m a UI designer with a background in visual, branding, and graphic design. When I started at Envato, I was so far out of my depth I was bordering on drowning. I had no tech or product references to draw on – but it was the experience from my design career and the somewhat daunting role at Envato that ultimately shaped the way I now work on product interfaces and guidelines.

I had previously worked in local government, which moves at a fraction of the pace of a tech company. However, in government I learnt how to design for brand, wayfinding, digital, print and even experience design, for audiences who, no matter their background or situation, should be able to experience our services equally.

Working with community, indigenous and disability groups allowed me to design with respect and sensitively for the region and users of the services, meet accessibility requirements, and still strive to maintain high quality and creativity.

All design experiences impact how we make our critical decisions, how we structure our feedback and think about design as solving legitimate problems for everyone, as well as being beautiful to look at.

Design is allowed to be beautiful

Design should be delightful. People respond to good design. It communicates passion, inclusion, coherence and clarity of brand. Beautiful design shows that we care about our brand, our products and how our customers perceive us.

Aesthetics play a huge part in a designers process, just as much as interviews, budgets and business needs. It’s the aesthetics that attract people in the first place, and by balancing beauty with informed research we are able to create something attractive without detracting from our purpose.

It’s not all about you

Designing is not just about you or your customer. Design is finding the balance between what the users wants, what our authors want (in Envato’s case), what the business wants, what our design standards require, as well as the limitations of technology and timelines.

As a designer you need to learn to accept that most decisions are out of your control and that designing is a negotiation process, one that you can own and influence or one that you can shrug your shoulders at and just roll with – its important to instinctively pick your battles.

There are plenty of projects where days or even weeks of work have been wasted once the creative disappears up the corporate chain of no return. It’s these jobs that make you feel like a hack, constantly questioning design decisions no matter how much insight, feedback or research you have. But these are the projects that create resilience and build the designer instinct where with or without the insights you learn to trust your own decisions. In the end, design is about standing by your work and owning the results, whether award-worthy or dumpster fire.

Projects that create resilience and build the designer instinct where with or without the insights you learn to trust your own decisions

Muddled methods of a hack

Double diamonds, design sprints, lean startups and all the rest of the formulated design processes may never fit your mould. (I for one only learnt about these frameworks at Envato – furiously reading a stack of books after miraculously getting through the recruitment process).

Design doesn’t have to mean a prescribed process. Understand them sure, but establishing your own way of working is where you find your true happy place. Working next door to a pub like I do is also a designer’s place but anyway… Defining your own style and path will allow a greater understanding all aspects of design, not just tech or product or UX.

Design can be fluid, design can be messy and design can rub people up the wrong way. Hack, sticky tape and bleed your way through various jobs, experiences, styles, mixed teams and clients. Make a lot of mistakes, break things, drink more than you should and a lot of the time wonder why you’re doing it in the first place.

Somehow I’ve scraped through 20 years adapting and applying a mix of loose processes to what my current project requires. Its made for a hell of an interesting journey and I’ve been able to learn equally from terrible bosses who crush your creative spirit and from inspiring industry-leading mentors who make you love what you do. It comes down to learning what not to do as much as what to do. And I’m still learning.

Instinct won’t get you all the way

At Envato, we use a design framework that relies heavily on research, and with a massive community of customers and authors, why wouldn’t you? Our UX team create stories and research documentation that within the UI team, we use to inform style guides and libraries with the intention of reuse of core patterns between products.

Without the research and ability to test ideas and concepts with our community, we would base a lot of decisions on gut instinct which relies on biases, both emotional and cultural. I’ll admit, trusting your gut isn’t always the right decision, but I believe a balance of instinct and research will get you further than either alone.

Future designers

How will designers adapt to future design challenges? How do we think about designing outside of pages and screens? How do we take the experience we have in interface, UX and visual design and apply them to voice, VR or ever changing social platforms and still create beautiful and inclusive design experiences?

We swim, crocodile.


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