Are You a Self-Limiting Designer?

self-limiting – an organism or person that limits its own growth by its actions.”

Do you want to make plans or decisions? There is no wrong answer, and perhaps you want both, but the question is rarely asked. The profession of design is rooted in craft, with one person working with their hands and ideas to make something. This is the way most design schools teach designers: that you will be in control of your projects. However in the working world to be a designer is often to be a plan maker, or plan proposer, where someone else decides the goals, and how the plan will change when it’s executed. This might be a project manager, an engineer, a VP or a client, but they have the power to change the plans and decide the fate of the real design that will go out into the world.

For many designers there is a a bright yellow line between work they think counts as design and work that doesn’t. The kinds that count often involve visual creativity, exploring ideas, using maker’s tools and refining work until it’s high quality. The kinds that don’t are often just about anything else. Since general decision making roles, like project leaders, aren’t seen as creative, many designers avoid them. And learning how to be persuasive is seen as equally uninteresting. The trap is that this guarantees the decision makers will primarily be people who know little about good design or its value. And it’s those decision makers who decide when designers get involved and when they don’t. This self-limiting situation gets set all on its own.

I’m not here to tell you to change your job or your preferences for what kinds of work to do. Perhaps you organization is fundamentally dysfunctional and you have every reason to just throw plans over walls and call it a day. Or you don’t mind following people’s foolish whims if they pay you well enough. However, I am challenging you to ask who set the boundaries for you for what counts as design work? What made you want to be a designer in the first place? Did you dream of making plans that are mostly ignored or was it to make decisions that define what goes out into the world?

If you are passionate about the outcomes then you owe it to yourself to reevaluate what design talent means. Many designers feel disappointment at the mediocre work that their organizations produce. They feel their talent is wasted. And yet when it comes time to develop their career what do they do? They invest in improving the same kinds of skills that are already being ignored. It’s another self-limiting trap. This one is failing to see that what holds them back are other skills, ones they don’t have, or don’t like, or don’t consider as part of design, that they need to grow to achieve what they want. Leadership and influence are skills anyone can get better at, including designers.

The only way organizations that produce mediocre work improve is when someone with design knowledge either becomes a decision maker, or improves their skill at influencing decisions. This means facilitation, persuasion and relationship building can be just as essential to good design as design plans themselves. But when these skills are frowned upon or stigmatized, the self-limiting idea of a designer holds back entire teams. Perhaps even more challenging is when the director of the design department is neither good at these skills (so can not set the example), nor chooses to make it a strategy for the future of design in their organization. Design managers can be a self-limiting force too.

In the end this means there may be clear reasons why you feel limited or that your organization limits you. The tough news is that it may only be you who sees the problem for what it is and can do something about it. And to get others to see the problem requires the ability to influence them.

If we want a better designed world, there are only two paths:

  1. Widen what it means to be a designer to include the ability to influence
  2. Encourage more designers to move into decision making roles

Is there another way? If so, help me see it. If not, help me spread the word. If you want to learn how to be more influential, get in touch.


6 Responses to “Are You a Self-Limiting Designer?”

  1. Maali Marvin Kenneth

    Hey Scott Berkun. I like how you sound so knowledgeable and non-bullshity about design issues.

    So here’s my pinterest board

    and I want you to GO THERE (pliz Mr. Scott, just go there) and tell me if I am worthy being hired as a designer (I’m self taught, I’m broke, and I have a passion for what you just saw).

    Just that. Just tell me if I am worthy.

    Also tell me what to do next if you don’t want me to keep bugging you with stupid questions and requests.

    Thank you.

    Otherwise, keep the emails coming.

  2. Steven Chung

    The problem with designers is that it’s hard to make them have skin in the game, specially… you can’t force blame on them when things fail. Designers can defer blame to other things like:

    1. “you didn’t implement it well”
    2. “we need more testing/money to get to the vision”
    3. “the market…”

    Engineers get blamed for 1. Managers and businesspeople get blamed for 2 and 3. If you can figure out a way for designers to get blamed for the downside, then they can also capture the upside, but also the responsibility for making decisions.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I wouldn’t start by calling it a problem with designers (although there are some problems there of course). Instead it’s more fair to to say that there isn’t much ownership to go around when engineers and managers presume to make all the decisions, which is usually the case since they are there are first.

      It’s not like when a designer is hired the team says “glad you are here. You have real power over the design decisions from early on and we will support you.” Instead it’s often an uphill battle where it’s presumed designers just make things pretty or are only useful at the end of the project.

      On the other hand, some designers really just want to be plan makers. They don’t want to have the stress, the meetings, and the negotiations that come with being the decision maker. And that’s OK.

      The problem, which is what I tried to express in this essay, is when they want to be plan makers, but are somehow mystified and angered that the decision makers make bad decisions. Someone at least has to teach them and if designers aren’t going to do it there’s little reason to expect anything different to happen.

      1. Steven Chung

        Okay, it’s not a problem with designers, but it’s a problem that the design profession has.

        I think it’s naive to believe that all we have to do is teach and ownership will be shared. The incentive structure isn’t there.

        Again, the skin in the game is not concrete enough. Unlike most places, design firms (maybe others?) have more responsibility for designers because they’re directly tied to revenue/blame. I’m suggesting finding ways for precisely target blame to designers, such that you can get responsibility/decision making. They go hand and hand.

        Ownership is not free.

        That’s the “other way” imo, but I’m not sure if you see the different frame.

  3. Aslan French

    I feel the problem here is that developing “people skills” doesn’t always mean that you’ll be able to successfully sway decisions any better. Sometimes there are simply brute force power dynamics that designers have no real control over even while being force to bear the consequences of those dynamics.

    1. Scott Berkun

      That problem is universal – I don’t know any way to guarantee one person can always convince everyone else of anything.

      I do think widening what skills we think designers can learn improves our chances.

      I offered this at the end. Do you disagree with these or have a third to propose?

      > 1. Widen what it means to be a designer to include the ability to influence
      > 2. Encourage more designers to move into decision making roles


Leave a Reply

* Required