are designers born or made?

I read. A lot. It’s what I do. I’ve always read tons of books since I was a […]

I read. A lot. It’s what I do. I’ve always read tons of books since I was a kid. And When I’m puzzled by something, or want to understand something I begin by reading. Returning to management recently, I decided to read what they were reading (peek at your manager’s bookshelf sometime. Reading their books will help you dip your toe into their mind).

Two books leapt into my field of interest: First Break All the Rules and The Art of Innovation. The first states a simple pretext. In your early childhood too many nerons are firing, and pretty soon those settle into a pattern. This pattern defines your strengths and weaknesses. It’s a mistake to try to overcome weaknesses and be well balanced. Better to play to your strengths, increase them, and find a partner for your weaknesses, or avoid jobs that require your weaknesses to be strengths. This suggests designers are “born” or at least, they become designers very early on.

The Art of Innovation shows how bring creativity into your processes. Implicit in this is the idea that with the right methodologies, creativity can belong to anyone. And while I doubt Ideo would never suggest that anyone can design (they are consultants after all) the message is clear—follow their methods and you two can design great products.

This argument is a lot like the “are writers made or born” and “are artists made or born” and the x,y,z argument… it’s always about training versus raw talent. And usually when you are engaged in these arguments, you can come up with examples of each… they guy who never had a lick of training in his life who came up with a brilliant idea, and the gal who has two PHD’s and makes brilliant work.

Throughout my career I’ve met a lot of designers, both with the title and without. I’ve also met a few folks that probably shouldn’t be called such—people with brains suited better to engineering or marketing who never did get their head around design. But in the end I think the answer is training can cover for a lack of talent, raw talent can cover for a lack of training but if you want to be great, you have to have both. This is probably not shocking news. What I’ve found surprising is how little of design is talent, but how crucial that tiny bit is.

What makes a librarian an information architect, or an engineer an interaction designer or a artist a visual designer? I think it is an instinct for users. And I select the term “users” with some care… I really mean people who use the things we make. The great designers are always with the users, seeing them in their minds, know who are the key users and how to meet their needs, and always struggling to delight them with the design.
Training just adds a boost up for these folks. Personas are a crutch for people—like many engineers—who can’t get their head around who the users are. In the hands of a designer, personas take a good design to great. Classification methodologies help instinctive classifiers articulate many things they are probably already doing but also extend and refine their systems to be still more satisfying for the end user.

So what’s the point of this thought-wander? I guess if you want to be great, you get to make some choices. Do you struggle to make good design? Or does it come seamlessly? Does it energize you or exhaust you? When you watch users in a lab, are you thrilled at seeing them struggle or do you curse them as morons? Did you rush to Amazon when About Face 2.0 came out, or did you shrug and pass? If your passion and instincts aren’t with the act of designing you may wish to look elsewhere for employment. Or maybe you are happy to be a workman. Then you must force yourself to read the books, take the seminars and study and analyze the industry leaders to keep yourself solid enough to hold on to your job. And if you are among the lucky for whom each design you make is better than the last, watching user testing is like a day at Disneyland, your surround yourself with books and great design for the sheer pleasure of it well then your path is set. Learn still more. Study the things you don’t know are relevant, but catch your eye. And study the things you know you should know, fill in the gaps in your knowledge.

And what if you can’t tell? Well, why worry? If you love it, do it. If you care, work hard to refine your craft. And if you don’t care, it doesn’t matter if you are talented or not…


Add Yours
  1. 1
    Austin Govella

    I agree that a combination of talent and training can be potent, but I think creative, critical thinking skills are the one foundation no one can do without.

    As an avid reader, I might be biased, but I find that avid readers possess better creativity and critical thinking skills. Despite their visual expertise, “designers” who don’t read (or even read what they’re designing!) are unable to advance their skills.

    How do you *manage* people to transcend, to learn more, to be better. How do you inspire mediocre designers? How do you entice SUACers to Talk More And Think?

    I’m leading horses to water, but they won’t drink.

  2. 5
    L. Goffin

    As a very famous cabaret singer was saying in the early 20’s and 30’s (i think it was Josephine Baker) : “my success is 25% of talent and 75 of work…”

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