It’s a question I’m asked more often than I’d like. Yet every time I’m faced with it, I draw a blank, regurgitating a superficial answer that I’ve perfected over time. To this day, I’m still unsure of what constitutes a designer, or if there is a single label that I can use to answer this question more concisely.
Design is an incredibly broad field. Wikipedia defines it as “(the) creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object, system or measurable human interaction.” By that definition, everyone who makes a contribution to a product is a designer. Everything that we interact with on a day-to-day basis has been designed to some extent. Design is typically broken down into different disciplines, all of which share the common feature of creation for users and their environment. Personally, the ambiguous yet multidisciplinary nature of design work is what I love most about being a designer.
I don’t fit into a single mode of designer; rather, I wear different hats depending on the stakeholders involved. Oftentimes, I’m a graphic designer, who is tasked with using visual elements to communicate information and ideas. This can significantly affect a user’s impression of a product. Colors, fonts and iconography come to life and are tied into a visual identity. The initial pen-and-paper designs transform in the digital world of Adobe Creative Cloud and materialize through print, where the impact of my creations becomes quantifiable. Every page of The Michigan Daily that I create is an empowering reminder of the status I hold as a graphic designer, where even the slightest design decisions can shape readers’ reactions entirely.
On other occasions, I’m a user experience designer, where my job is to be attentive to the behavioral consequences of a user’s interaction with a product. Ultimately, my goal is to maximize the satisfaction of the user. This is often done through research on targeted users, identifying pain points in a product, exercising convergent and divergent thinking to find solutions and iterating upon prototypes to visualize different potential user pathways. These solutions should be robust and thoroughly tested by actual users. Across the entire process, visual appeal, cognitive implications and emotions of the user are essential to keep in mind. The design-thinking behind user experience is something I try to exercise as often as I can in my everyday life. In more general terms, I am cognizant of how my actions are affecting my interactions with others and how I can adapt my behavior accordingly.
Requirements and roles often change when I am working on a project. In these scenarios, I’m a product designer who oversees all aspects of a product from start-to-finish. This entails working with the intermediate aspects of a product such as psychological and social impacts, technical limitations in product functionality, and more. The baseline goal of a product designer is to create products that cater to a user’s needs by solving existing problems. Product designers have knowledge across disciplines; they’re capable of conducting research on user data, creating wireframes and prototypes for potential solutions, and devising strategies on how the product will solve a problem — all of which I’ve had the opportunity to do.
With this, I still struggle with finding a term that encompasses my collective design identities. “Designer” is far too open-ended, whereas “graphic designer” has specific expectations that constrain my creativity. However, finding a suitable label comes second to seeing my impact on the world. Design has the ability to shape a person’s emotions and experiences when interacting with something, and using that ability in a positive light gives me an unparalleled feeling of joy.
As a mostly self-taught designer, a bulk of my design expertise comes from absorbing other designers’ ideas and concepts into my own, and iterating off of those to discover my unique design style. Over the years, I’ve collected a variety of different tips and techniques that have helped me explore my design identity, some of which are below:
Being vulnerable. Vulnerability is closely tied with discomfort, which is an agent of change. This change can positive or negative; with proper guidance, positive change can lead to growth. Being in a vulnerable situation allows for the development of new ideas and perspectives.
Making mistakes. And not being afraid to make mistakes. Every designer starts from the bottom, and through mistakes, can learn to improve. Missing the mark has significantly more personal impact than perfectly handling a task. Lots of discoveries arise from experiencing failure.
Not letting fear hold you back. If you want to experiment with different creative approaches, go for it! The worst thing that could happen is failing the task, which is a small obstacle in the long run of things. Get creative by breaking the boundaries of design.
Be a good listener. Not just hearing feedback, but really listening and digesting someone’s opinion of your work. Feedback is super valuable and is essential in growth as a designer, so use it to your advantage in your iterations.
I’ve learned to be content with not having a solidified identity as a designer. If anything, it provides more opportunities for me to grow my design skills by applying them to different disciplines. The thought process that comes with being a designer has come in handy in all aspects of my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way; I hope to continue shaping my future and others’ through design.