If we all have the capability to solve problems, to communicate to others, and to make decisions toward a goal, it seems we all have the ability to design. What then, does it mean to be a designer?
A couple of months ago, I asked similar questions. I asked what does it mean to be a designer and whether or not we were all designers by virtue of being human. I also asked if there was something more needed to call yourself a designer.
The post was shared on Twitter for a week or so and drove some traffic this way. It also generated some good comments and they led me to think more about the topic. I want to thank everyone who commented. Thank you.
I thought I’d continue the discussion today with a few new thoughts and questions. I’ll lean on the comments from the older post throughout. I want to expand on the conversation with something I think is empowering to all of us, designer and non-designer alike. I think there’s a suggestion in all of this, that any of us has it within to lift all of humanity through our normal daily actions.
Everyone Can Design
Instead of reading through all the comments (again thank you for commenting), I pulled some words and phrases from them that can be used to distinguish between anyone designing and someone who is specifically a designer.
- Making good design decisions
- The care you put into it the work
A designer is someone who sees design. For example if you’re looking at a menu in a restaurant and thinking about the way the type was set and whether the typeface was a good choice or the measure is the right length, then you see the world through the context of design.
The comments were unanimous about skill level playing a role. Everyone, myself included, thought much about being a designer has to do with how well you design and whether or not your skills are above some minimum level of quality.
That does raise the question of where the quality line is and who gets to decide where the distinction is between designing because you’re human and designing because you’re a designer.
I think the conclusion we all came to was that everyone might be a designer, but in the end it’s more a question of how well you design than whether or not you give yourself the title of designer. I was asking the wrong question.
It’s all Scale and Matter of Degree
The consensus was it’s a matter of degree. That everyone probably does have it within them to design, but not everyone is a designer. We’re all at some point on a scale where one end is 0% design skills and at the other end is 100% design skills.
We’re all somewhere on the scale by virtue of being human, but the important question isn’t whether we’re on the scale, but rather where on it are we. I’ve talked before about everything being on a scale and not being an absolute. Why this should be any different and why I didn’t think of it originally is beyond me. For some reason I tried to force the question into a yes or no issue.
I suppose every profession, every skill, every ability works in the same way. Everyone is somewhere on a scale as to how much skill and ability they have and somewhere on that scale is a point where you move from amateur to professional.
It also means if one human being can do something, we’re all capable. Being human puts all of us somewhere on all of these scales. With each scale, most of us will never reach the level of talent or skill to make us a professional or to create what others would consider as good, but we’re on the scale somewhere.
If someone asked me today if I could perform surgery, I would say I couldn’t, to the obvious relief of the patient. But given the right conditions, the right teaching and practice and effort and interest on my part, it’s possible I could have been a surgeon had I dedicated my life to it for a reasonable amount of time.
I can’t know the result of that possibility, because I didn’t put in the time or effort (For the record I think I would have made a lousy surgeon, but who knows). Fortunately I know enough not to try to perform surgery now.
Still, if someone out there can, it means all of us have the potential to do the same. We can all improve on whatever level of skill we have to the point were we move beyond the minimum level of quality needed.
Aside: I found it interesting that no one talked about money as a measure of being a designer or of the quality of your design. I didn’t think of the question in terms of money and I’m glad to see no one else did either. It wouldn’t have surprised me if someone said you’re a designer because you make $X annually or something to that effect, but I’m glad no one did.
We Can All Lift Humanity
Everything above suggests that in theory any and all of us is born with the potential to be anything we want. We all have it in us to be designers, surgeons, entertainers, or whatever else we want to be. If we put in the time and effort to get better we can move above those points on the scale.
There are obvious exceptions and we learn quickly there some things we’re now likely to do well because of some limitation real or imagined.
For example I’m not the largest or strongest person on the planet. I didn’t need a firm grasp on reality to realize my chances of being a professional athlete were not good. I’m athletic, but I’m simply not big enough to compete on the professional level. Others my size have made it, though they certainly had to work harder to get there. They were faster or possessed a specialized skills that I also lack.
Exceptions aside, if one of us can do something, it’s proof the rest of us have the same capability within us. If one of us can do it then in theory so can the rest.
It also suggests none of us is inherently better than anyone else. We’re all capable of doing the same things. Most of us won’t, but we’re all capable given the right conditions and effort on our part.
Some, perhaps never get the right opportunity. Say I was the right size for a career as an athlete. My parents views on sports good or bad could easily have increased or decreased my odds of making it. Someone wanting to be a doctor might not have the means to go college let alone med school.
There’s a suggestion in this idea of “what one of us can do we can all do.” It’s the suggestion that when anyone reaches his or her best at something it elevates the rest of us. The best of one shows the rest of us what’s possible, what we’re capable of achieving. It elevates humanity by removing what we think are natural limits and expanding on what’s possible.
Forgive another baseball reference. I’ve been watching the game for a long time, long enough to see some patterns. When I was a kid I’d see someone make a spectacular play that defied belief. Maybe it was diving for a ball seemingly out of reach or leaping above the outfield wall to rob the batter of a home run.
Those extraordinary plays are often now somewhat routine. Once seen others were able to copy and improve upon the play. It took someone with the imagination to show everyone else it could be done. Having done something once it removed the self-imposing limitations others placed on themselves. It allowed everyone to believe in something new. It’s the same in all sports.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the X-Games, but it’s the spirit of the games. Everyone is pushing their sport. They all want to win, but I know of no other sport (I know the X-Games aren’t a single sport, but stick with me) where the competitors are as happy for each other and rooting for each other to do well. Winning is less important than pushing the sport to new levels.
Perhaps I’m stretching things a bit and the competitors want to win more than I think, but watch an interview with someone who loses out on a medal at the X-Games and compare it to the loser in another sport. There’s a huge difference.
In being your best you elevate humanity. You strive to do something better than all who came before. It lifts all of us because it shows everyone a new way. It shows others that what was thought impossible is actually possible.
In my earlier post on this topic I think we all decided that it’s not a matter of simply being a designer, it’s a matter of how well you design. I asked the wrong question previously.
It’s not about whether everyone is a designer, but rather about increasing your skills, developing a critical eye, developing aesthetic taste, and everything else you do to improve your design skills.
These things take time and before anyone embarks on learning them, they probably weren’t good designers. There are exceptions, of course, but for most of us, we don’t design well at the start. We learn and practice and get better. Maybe not everyone is a designer, but we’re all capable.
The same is true of everything. While there are always exceptions, if one us can do it, so can the rest of us. The ability is within us. It’s all a matter of degree.
That’s empowering to me. It means we can all lift each other by doing our best at whatever it is we do. Our best can push our industry into new territory and in doing so lift both the industry and all of humanity.
For example a few years ago Ethan Marcotte (and those he worked with) combined some existing technologies into what has become responsive design. They did their best and showed us a new possibility. Ethan lifted the industry by taking it somewhere new. How many sites today won’t be responsive. Someone did their best and lifted the rest of us.
I’ve asked in the past if design is a noble profession and if today’s web designers have a conceptual core as an industry. I now think everything can be a noble profession. You get to noble status by striving to do your best, by going beyond the expected and showing others what can be done and what’s possible. Even if you don’t quite get there yourself you can point the way.
It’s a very empowering thought. I’m no longer sure it matters whether or not everyone is a designer or a if everyone is capable of being a surgeon or an accountant, or copywriter, or whatever.
What’s important is doing what you do as best as possible. Show others the way. Show them new possibilities. You may not get there, but you can help others get there and in so doing you lift your profession as well as all of humanity.
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