Design Specialization and Why it’s Hurting You
by: Alex Blechta ∴ A Creative Human
Design is more than websites and posters, its most useful aspect is the thinking that goes behind it, more commonly known as design thinking. IDEO defines design thinking as “having a human-centered core. It encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes. When you sit down to create a solution for a business need, the first question should always be “what’s the human need behind it?” Design thinking is the research– it’s the human and it’s the empathy that goes into the design. It’s the pre-design before you even touch the Adobe products. Before you cook you need to layout and prep the ingredients first. Design thinking promotes research, methods, and processes. Although you’ll notice that many of these design processes have been branded by every large corporation, like Google, IDEO, and Stanford, etc, they all have the same steps in a similar order; start with research, synthesize that research, use that to come up with a concept, prototype that concept and then move on to the design. My favorite version would be the super simple squiggle sketch by Damien Newman. It’s simple and to the point but also oddly beautiful and relatable (I now have this printed above my desk in my studio as a reminder that design is allowed to be messy).
To take design thinking further, since most of these processes (which are different for each problem and project) start with research and user data the end product could amount to be anything. The problem is when we enter the beginning stages with an idea of the end solution. Design education is universal– it’s not about whether I am a book designer or a UX designer. At the core of it, it’s about creative problem solving and research. I can maybe specialize in one area of design but that shouldn’t limit me to only doing projects from that area. Limiting yourself to the same projects and the same outcomes exercises your skills in those areas for sure, but limits your ability to learn from doing new things and working with new people. Putting yourself in situations where you aren’t the smartest in the room allows you to always have someone and something to learn from.
Bruce Mau explains a similar view in his book MC24. In the book Mau mentions that he was once asked by a student at a conference about what kind of designer he was, Mau was stumped and answered with “I am a designer.” Which ultimately lead to the creation of his book.
One of the many things that make Bruce Mau a great designer is that he isn’t restricted by his “practice” or his preference of medium, really what all designers should strive for. Instead of honing in on a certain practice, whether that be designing books, carpets, social programs, typefaces, etc, design should and can teach you the fundamentals of problem-solving. A designer who has those problem-solving skills and isn’t restricted by their medium can thus solve a larger amount of problems with a variety of different solutions. If for example, a designer who specializes in designing apps came across the problem of world poverty in developing countries, how would that designer be able to solve that problem? It can be assumed that people in developing countries don’t have access to the same type of technology that a first-world country would have. It wouldn’t make sense to just build or design an app for that demographic. They would simply be out of practice and be unable to solve the problem because their solutions wouldn’t be viable. Now that’s not to say that the designer at hand couldn’t come up with an amazing solution regardless, using their preferred practice or not. I’m saying that classifying yourself as a certain type of designer can limit you to problems and solutions that only seem to fit within your practice. If you are an app designer you may begin the project with the idea or knowledge that you are going to end up with an app at the end of the day, even though an app wouldn’t be the best solution.
The same could go for design studios; ones that specialize in a certain type of practice would be restricted to this practice and further the clients that approach them would often enter the studio with the idea of an outcome. It should be the designers coming up with the outcome at the end of the day free of a preconceived notion and be able to experiment for the best possible result. I saw an example of this at a web design studio I worked at when a client approached us to update their website for them to improve the wayfinding in their mall. Because we were a web design studio there wasn’t much more to do as we were limiting ourselves to digital solutions. But the client expected nothing more than a website. In reality, a physical wayfinding solution might have been a more viable option.
I believe that design at its core is about how you think, how you can solve problems, and carry out research. The principles that Mau has outlined don’t constitute a certain practice or type of design but can be applied to all forms of design. If you limit yourself to a certain medium or practice you restrict your ability to learn and try new things.
One of Maus’ principles is to “begin with fact-based optimism” which he explains as the need to look at each problem as an opportunity to create a solution for improvement. As designers, we should look for the worst and do our best to improve it. Mau explains that our whole world is a designed one and our quality of life is determined by the quality of design. It is our responsibility to look and seek out the worst problems and to design a solution to fix them for the better. Stresses or problems in our life now are a result of bad or unsustainable design. It is our job now to look into those problems to fix them.
Mau, B., & Ward, J. (2020). Mau — MC24 Bruce Maus 24 principles for designing massive change in your life and work. London: Phaidon.
Alex Blechta is one of the graduates of the York/Sheridan Program in Design class of 2021. Catch Alex’s work showcased at the online graduate showcase on April 20–21. Visit ysdn2021.com for more details.