The Digital Designer of the Future / by Gavin Lau

These days, the latest technology goes in and out of style at a speed approaching fashion’s twice-yearly “seasons.” It’s certainly enough to make a digital designer wonder how she’ll be prepared for the future and stay competitive and competent in the job market. In fact, “The Future of Work” was the title of the panel I was recently on as part of AIGA’s San Francisco Design Week, along with Heather PhillipsTyson KallbergMario Delgado, and Dennis Field.

As designers we frequently talk about what design is, and how we should design, but at the panel we all seemed to be hinting at the larger question of what the role of the designer should be. Is there a timeless definition of the prototypical digital “designer?” What should we aspire to be as new tools, techniques, and computing devices come and go? I would posit that there are 3 fundamental roles of a digital designer.

A digital designer is a…

  1. Facilitator, assisting others in refining and transmitting ideas.
  2. Steward, supporting and protecting empathy and the creative process.
  3. Connoisseur, maintaining a high quality bar.

Designer as Facilitator

The first essential function of a designer is to facilitate others in refining and transmitting their own ideas. The main way we, as designers, accomplish this is by making abstract ideas concrete for others. This first requires an act of synthesis, as we have to coalesce knowledge of the medium, human behavior, stakeholder demands, and business goals into specific, actionable details.

Facilitation next requires a mastery of an appropriate tool. We panelists all agreed: while every designer need not be a coder, every designer must be a hacker of sorts, mashing together whatever it takes to bring blurry, partially defined concepts into sharp focus. If you are wondering which tools to learn, simply pick one and get started. The choice of tool is irrelevant as long as you’re able to create an experience that conveys the general concept and allows collaborators to distill their own thoughts. Put simply,

“Design is the intermediary between information and understanding.” — Han Hofmann

A designer’s ability to imagine something in their mind’s eye with a high degree of detail and convert that to a realistic likeness encourages powerful ways of thinking. Designers remove the burden of having to visualize from others and provide maps of the ways forward. And this, in turn, provides the confidence to act. Doing the mental heavy lifting for people helps a team hone in on the best possible expression of a given idea much faster than they might have otherwise.

“People understand what they can see. If a programmer cannot see what a program is doing, she can’t understand it.” — Bret Victor, Learnable Programming


Designer as Steward

The second fundamental role of the designer is to be a steward of a user-centered creative process. We should be ambassadors for empathy and creativity, using and extolling the virtues of what David Kelley calls “design thinking.” In the same way, being a user interface designer is less about knowing Photoshop or Sketch, and more about sharing and applying a way of thinking.

“Programming is a way of thinking, not a rote skill. Learning about “for” loops is not learning to program, any more than learning about pencils is learning to draw.” – Bret Victor

But designers are also a steward in the other sense of the word, as protectors. We not only explain and offer but also protect the use of a proper creative process. We protect the perspective of the end user, which allows us to help create interfaces, products, and services that are responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties. And because we know about Ed Catmull’s “ugly babies,” we protect nascent ideas and by doing so, move our company towards innovation.

“Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films “ugly babies.” They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing — in the form of time and patience — in order to grow…Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly…If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to let it evolve, it could be destroyed.” — Creativity, Inc.

As a part of the small group that is expected to provide creativity on demand and on an ongoing basis, designers are well suited to champion and defend good ideas until they are fully formed.

Designer as Connoisseur

The 3rd and final fundamental role of a designer is that of a connoisseur, maintaining and promoting a high standard of quality. This is probably the most obvious role to those outside of design, and the one that comes the most naturally to those who choose design as their profession. A good designer strives to become a discerning judge of great work, easily distinguishing between the great and the extraordinary.

“As with all creative professions, design included, you want to hire someone with good taste and a discerning eye, who can scrutinize and poke and prod through all the dusty corners of a design and emerge with a comprehensive list of what works and what doesn’t.” – Julie Zhuo

By developing their critical eye, designers share their appreciation for craftsmanship with the rest of their team. Good designers know how to be appropriately critical of the right things in the right order and are especially capable of critiquing their own work. They can pinpoint exactly why a poor design isn’t working and what makes the best the best. They will push themselves, their own craft, and everyone around them towards excellence.


That Seat at the Table

By now you have heard about designers gaining a seat at the leadership table, alongside business and engineering executives. The world needs better designed products and services and the most successful startups are those that are built on well-designed customer experiences. Design leaders are able to bring new skills and perspectives to the table. They also ask questions and share proposals that demonstrate the importance of considering design earlier in the process.

“The ability to build empathy, connect the dots on complex problems, and help teams apply design thinking are crucial skills a designer can bring to a leadership team.” – Phil King

By facilitating the visualization and transmission of ideas, stewarding the creative process, and contributing the discriminating taste of a connoisseur, designers can secure their place at the table now and in the future.