Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way first:
- I am not a designer.
- I am a product lead, and in recent years, primarily a business lead.
- I’ve worked with many web and digital product designers over the past 25 years.
- I’ve hired many designers during that time. (Nowadays, design leadership at Postlight does most of the hiring.)
In other words, you can safely say I’m a non-designer. It’s a title I don’t take lightly. Finding, recruiting, and working with designers is no easy feat. But there are a few defining characteristics I’ve observed time and again in the most effective designers I’ve worked with over the years.
Good designers keep it moving. Designers make a living listening to people tell them that their creations aren’t quite there just yet. Good designers don’t take that criticism personally. They understand how to take in feedback, respond to it, and move the design forward. Great designers do this without creating tension or stress for everyone involved.
Good designers invent. In design, user research is invaluable. But on occasion, a great design innovation is not born out of user research or usage data. It’s the result of a flourish of creativity and risk-taking. (Case in point: Pull-to-refresh.)
Good designers fixate. Designers are problem-solvers. They love puzzles. If they haven’t solved the problem, they can’t let it go. They utterly obsess over a challenge until they unlock it.
Good designers are deeply empathetic. This one is obvious: Great designers internalize the needs and challenges of their users. But also…
Good designers are occasionally unempathetic. Users defend bad habits because they’re familiar. Great design introduces new ways of doing things that people want to embrace because they’re obviously better.
Good designers understand constraints. A good designer grasps what will work in a particular environment and what won’t, and why. They understand technical and business limitations, and know how to work within them.
Good designers push some of the limits. Yet, good designers also propose solutions that go beyond conventions and what is “allowed.” Usually this leads to pushback from business stakeholders (too costly) or engineering (too complicated). But, a good designer chooses these battles wisely, and their passion and advocacy for the user can sometimes lead to an exceptional outcome.
Good designers eliminate steps. “Let’s get rid of it and see what happens…” Good designers are willing to take the risk and throw that widget out. Rather than solving every need with yet another button or lever or setting, they constantly seek to simplify things further.
When you’re evaluating a designer, don’t make the mistake of looking only at their portfolio. A designer’s portfolio is visual and tells you a lot about the work they’ve done in the past. But when you’re looking for a good designer, there’s much more at play than just work output: Great designers are great collaborators.
In fact, great professionals of all stripes are great collaborators. Clear communicators. Risk-takers. Problem-solvers. Passionate advocates for their users and stakeholders. These are the traits that lead to great work, and more importantly, great teams.