The Selfless Designer

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Rick Monro is a designer and writer from Belfast, N. Ireland and Head of Design at design and development agency Tibus. He writes on UI design (and other … More about Rick ↬

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Freeing yourself of factors that might adversely affect your output begins simply by detecting self-imposed negative influences. In this article, Rick Monro looks at thoughts that are typically associated with these influences.

Becoming an effective designer requires embracing universal design principles and best practices. Over the years, I have come to see that reaching maturity as a designer is a continual process of reassessment and letting go of potentially damaging baggage.

This can include jettisoning your ego and dumping your assumptions, prejudices and even your own opinions. There can be no sacred cows when you try to become what I call a selfless designer.

Freeing yourself of factors that might adversely affect your output begins simply by detecting self-imposed negative influences. We’ll look at thoughts that are typically associated with these influences in this article.

“That last project turned out bad. I’ll make it right with this one.”

Each project should stand its own merits. Trying to compensate for something else that you consider substandard is to put needless obstacles in your way. There could be many reasons why a project did not turn out as you had hoped. But as with all work, assess the results from the perspective of the client and their end users. Of course, some things may not have been executed in the manner you would have liked, but if you followed any kind of credible process, then the outcome is likely not as bad as you think.

Learn from it, but let it go.

“That last project was an award-winner. I’ll make this one just like it.”

Learning from and building on both success and failure alike is the essence of experience. But it should not lead to a cookie-cutter approach, where one client gets the same deliverables as the last, short of a few tweaks. Each of your clients deserves a fresh approach, even if they happen to be operating in the same sector as another of your clients. Awards are transient, and the criteria for an award may not match the objectives of the project. Accept accolades with good grace and move on.

“This next project will be an award-winner!”

Like the thoughts above, forget this one immediately. If awards are what motivate you, then your focus is misplaced. Awards are welcome when they come, but to engage with a client with one eye on a shiny trophy is just another needless distraction. Perhaps you crave the acceptance of your peers, but then awards are not the answer to that. Community-oriented thinking is a faster route to recognition from your colleagues. My guess is that the vast majority of awards won have been happy by-products, not goals in themselves.

“I know exactly what the client needs.”

This is perfectly fine, if you have gone through a comprehensive process to understand the client, their objectives and the end user’s objectives and have agreed on metrics for success. If this is the case, then by all means stand by this assertion. But if this is your thinking from the outset, right after being awarded the job or having met the client for the first time, then your judgement is flawed. Stop and reassess.

“This project is going to be soooo cool!”

Nothing wrong with that as it stands. Indeed, a positive outlook on your contribution to a project is to be encouraged. Just keep a check on your definition of cool. If you mean that the project will be a reflection of the latest design trends or will feature as many CSS tricks as possible, then you may want to retract the statement.

As Happy Cog recently put it, what is the ROI on cool?

Remember: to clients, cool = effective.

Projects that you or your peer group consider cool will probably make up only 10% of your body of work over your career. If your imperative is cool, then the interests of your client are probably not at the top of your list of priorities. Try thinking, “This project is going to be sooooo effective!” Better, right?

If any of these thoughts sound familiar, you are not alone. They are perfectly natural. Even after years in practice, I’ll readily admit that these and similar notions invade my thinking. Each of these examples in its own way introduces a preconception and a degree of negative influence into your workflow. They can be so corrosive, tainting your work without your even realizing it.

Too often, the stereotype of the designer that the media presents is of the flamboyant narcissist who instinctively “knows” the solution. The quickest way to avoid falling into this trap is to stop designing for yourself and to adopt an alternative point of view, whether that of the client or the end user.

By becoming selfless, we lose the ideological baggage that can hamper our potential and instead open ourselves up more to influences that will lead to an effective project.

These are typical thoughts that I have been conscious of as I embark on new projects. What mental baggage have you been aware of that hinders your performing to your best?

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (al, mrn)