Why designers need to remove themselves from the design process in order to create their most meaningful and genius work.
Austin Knight, a senior user experience designer at HubSpot, is at the airport getting ready to board a flight to Atlanta when we speak. The 23-year-old international speaker is currently travelling to present his take on an age-old debate with a very strong point of view: design is not art.
His thoughts on the topic first came to light during an episode of his podcast UX and Growth when he was discussing the death of creativity in web design with co-host Matt Rheault. It prompted listeners to write in, a blog post to be published, and a speaking tour that hits numerous digital summits in America (and a few in Brazil, where he spends half his time).
In many ways, Knight’s theories on how design isn’t art echo his original claim to fame: his advocacy for Lean UX processes. Both require designers to eliminate ego.
The Lean UX Process
Knight’s early work concentrated on Lean UX, a process that involves quick cyclical iterations designed to get product out the door faster and with more value. The process is an adaptation of Eric Ries’ famed Lean Startup methodology, which in itself is based off the lean manufacturing process. Designer and agile practitioner Jeff Gothelf first applied the concept to UX with help from Josh Seiden in the book Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience.
All of these methodologies are based on some version of think, build, measure, repeat, with Knight’s personal process following a cycle of think, make, check.
This method leaves little room for a designer to focus on his or her own aesthetic aspirations, instead shifting the crutch of the design back on the user.
“It’s basically introducing a bunch of cycles into the same timeframe with the goal of allowing the user to drive the design forward rather than internal stakeholders or designers,” Knight said.
Rather than following a more conventional waterfall process that depends on approvals and deliberations at a more internal level, lean UX processes are about “pushing things live even if they aren’t perfect instead of pushing nothing at all while striving for perfection,” Knight said.
“It’s a much more efficient and informed, and in a lot of ways removes the subjectivity and ego from design.”
Design vs. Art
This subjectivity is where Knight’s current theories on design and art come into play.
“Classically, people have always viewed design and art as overlapping and similar to each other, and some designers may even call themselves artists,” Knight said. “If we really look at design and art, we find that they diverge from each other in three critical ways.”
Knight identifies the three main differences as:
- Art is about the artist. Design is about the user.
- Art is subjective. Design is objective.
- Art expresses creativity. Design leverages creativity.
“Art has intrinsic and independent value. It can exist solely on its own, it can stand on its own for the purpose that it serves for the artists to express themselves and for the audience to appreciate what the artist is expressing. All of that can come from the artist’s personal experiences, ideas and perspectives,” Knight said.
“Design by contrast is extrinsic and has dependent values. It depends on the context of its use. If I have a door handle attached to the door, I can use that door handle to open the door, but if it suddenly becomes detached from the door, I no longer can use it to open the door and thus that design becomes useless. Designs are dependent on the function that they serve in a way that art isn’t.”
The Perfection Hang-Up
The issue for designers in both adapting a Lean UX method and accepting the idea that design is not art, according to Knight, is that designers have a natural tendency to chase perfection. They often have a desire for things to look or perform a certain way, or to reflect a certain aesthetic, before launching the product.
“They want to introduce their own style to a design. A lot of the time what they’re doing is they’re designing for themselves and not the user,” Knight said.
“One of the first things that designers need to do is to remove themselves emotionally from the design process as much as humanly possible. Of course, intuition, opinions and experience will come into play, but if they can take themselves out of it, look at things a little bit more objectively and focus on the goals that were given to them by the users or their stakeholders and say okay, what we need to do is look at producing real, measurable results and design a creative process that actually provides value to people.”
How to Reveal Genius in Design
One concern that stems from removing ego entirely from design is removing a designer’s unique expression along with it and thus eliminating the qualities that make them genius.
However, Knight says many designers have a backwards idea of what genius in design actually looks like. He says designers often take on the role of a creative intermediary that takes in information and feedback and uses this to empower them to create genius designs.
“The genius does not rest in the design organically. The genius comes out in how they interpret the design,” Knight said. “What we find then is the most important quality that a designer can possess is humility.”
According to Knight, kill your ego and genius will emerge from the ashes.