Designers and Artists, and Hiring

A colleague pointed me to this good piece on “how to hire designers” today. Lots of good stuff there. My favorite line was this:

Great art workers, great graphic artists, certainly. But not designers.

Having been on both the hiring/managing side and the interviewee/employee side in Design, much of what he says resonates. There surely is a common misconception that “designer” = “artist.” In other words, if you are a designer, you must excel in visual design, more specifically graphic art/styling. The worst perpetuators of this misconception are visual designers themselves, from what I have seen (i.e., the artsy fartsy types who land in a career in business/software). The Dribbble debate certainly reinforces I’m not the only one seeing that.

(As an aside, I don’t really have any axe to grind with visual designers or artsy fartsy types. I actually like them a lot–some of my favorite colleagues and family members are numbered among them, and I have found they bring immensely valuable perspectives, ideas, talents, and skills to the table. So my critique on this small point is in friendship and mutual respect.)

“Creatives” and “designers” are words that people associate and use typically in relation to visual/graphic designers. The reality is that “creativity” is abundant in all sorts of disciplines, even in “boring” engineering, and certainly in other areas of Design. Because Design is more about creative problem solving than art. 

Design as a human-oriented activity is fundamentally about empathy. It is an invitation to others to come into your consciousness, to take up a certain residence there, and to become, to some extent, one with them. The designer is ultimately trying to solve problems for other people in a way that, while it may have never occurred to those people–once that way is realized–seems as natural (dare I say intuitive) as if those people had designed it specially for themselves. That’s the ideal, and all designs are progressive steps away from that ideal.

Art, on the other hand, is essentially an expressive endeavor. Rather than inviting others into yourself, the artist seeks to make him or herself known to another. It is a going out into, not a welcoming into. It is a “get to know me” rather than a “I want to know you.” It is “listen to what I have to say” rather than “let me listen to you.”

Now, it follows, to a degree, that someone that is very good at art, i.e., good at effectively communicating and evoking intended responses, will have some natural proclivity in the realm of Design. But such expression is only good in Design inasmuch as it is reflective communication, in a sense, evoking in people what they already desire, giving form and function to satisfy those desires in a way that speaks their language. Put another way, if each person had the time and artistic talent, the design would be a kind of art for them–it would be their expression of that aspect/extension of themselves.

But it does not follow that a good artist necessarily is a good designer. An artist must take their expressive talent and use it on behalf of others in order to bridge the gap from art to design. The skills, techniques, and talents used in design are distinct, however. And to a large extent, they are more learned than innate. 

This is why it is possible for a non-artist to be a good designer. Someone with low talent for self expression can learn the techniques and practices the skills needed to effectively design. Their designs may not be as wholly effective as someone with the same skills and tools who also is good at expression; on other hand, a talented artist who has not become as skilled at design–or who has devalued/allowed their design skills to wane–can often create far worse designs than a skilled designer who is a so-so artist. 

That I think is what the Dribbble concern is about. At its heart, that sort of thing is about self expression. It is art. A Design portfolio almost shouldn’t include beautiful, pixel perfect mockups. Certainly, it should not be the extent of such a portfolio. It is somewhat sad and distressing that the majority of portfolio in a box sites are essentially that–show some pictures with a few words.  

Again, this is not to say (by any means) that artistic talent in design is not important. Let me be clear: artistic talent is important and valuable. And depending on the design problem being solved, it can be very important and valuable. But if your motivation is to find a designer that can turn you into the next, say, Apple (a common businessperson desire), your first priority should not be to look for a “beautiful” or “kick ass” portfolio of graphic design (which are both terms I’ve seen in job descriptions).

TO HIRE A GOOD DESIGNER…

First, unless you yourself are a talented, experienced designer, you need to take a humble pill. You are probably not very qualified to judge whether or not someone is a good designer. Treat the people you are interviewing with mutual respect and acknowledge that you are not really the best person to judge their design skills, but maybe you are the “lucky” person who has to make the hiring decision. With that in mind, here are some suggestions that may help.

  1. Take some time to understand what went into any given design they share with you. You need to see evidence (or at least have a discussion) of how the designer came to empathize with the people she or he was designing for.
  2. Similarly, you would want to find evidence of how the designer came to an understanding of the value/desired outcomes for any given project. If you are a businessperson, you should be especially sensitive here–this is how they will interface with you.
  3. You would want to see things that show they are aware of common techniques in Design. You would want to see things like how they captured user stories, and how those flowed into their design process. You ideally would see multiple sketches, a progression of fidelity. You would see evidence of thinking in terms of interaction flow, not just pictures or screens–those only exist to support the flow. The flow should reflect upon the captured stories.
  4. As important, you want want to see evidence of execution–not their doing the coding, but evidence that there was a realization of their design intent. Is/was there attention to detail? How did the design evolve as the project progressed? If the design intent was not realized, why not? This is perhaps the biggest and most important area to drill into. It’s one thing to paint up some pretty pictures in Photoshop and show those as evidence of “design”; it’s entirely another thing to see the actual outcome. If the designer is reluctant to share the running implementation because “it didn’t turn out how I wanted it,” you need to understand why–because the outcomes are what matters, not the the pretty pictures and idealized intent in designers’ heads.
  5. Did the design succeed? How much did it change based on actual usage? How did it change? How was the need for change discovered? When was it discovered? It’s still quite common in software for significant changes to only be discovered after a release, and depending on the project/process used, that can be a really big red flag that the designer did not do due diligence to evaluate his or her designs with the people intended to use it. If the learning was after, you want to hear that this was intended and expected (such as in Lean-type processes).
  6. Lastly, you want to find out how they have dealt with teams where their influence was not accepted or respected. I can guarantee that if they are a designer with any experience, they have stories about their contributions/skills being devalued. It’s just a fact of life for designers, and it’s important to understand how they dealt with that. Did they just wash their hands and walk away? Did they find a successful way to integrate and have the influence they felt they needed? What did they learn from these experiences and how did they apply that learning in the future?

To sum up, if you are hiring a designer, and you let yourself be guided primarily by a beautiful portfolio, you are doing it wrong, unless maybe you are literally looking for a graphic artist for some static medium (and possibly even then). As a rule (despite its inverted importance in the industry today), a “beautiful”/”kick ass” portfolio should be one of the last things you consider, and the importance of that should be conditioned based on your needs.

You will eventually want to look at their artistic evidence, but not first or foremost, unless you are specifically hiring for artistic talent as the primary goal. It is far more feasible to augment great design talent with good artistic talent than it is to expect a great artist to be a great designer. And if you can find both in one person, hang on to them!  They are rare and valuable creatures. More commonly, you will find that people tend to excel in various areas (as illustrated in this post), so be cognizant of that and hire accordingly.

P.S. I intentionally avoided the “UX” moniker here. It is such an abused term that it is almost valueless in identifying good designers. Anyone can self-identify as a “UX designer,” from any number of backgrounds. And that’s okay, because people can come from many backgrounds to learn UX/Design skills. That’s also why, though, you need to consider the above suggestions as a way to suss out those who are just claiming the name. At the end of the day “UX” is, from what I have discovered, essentially the same thing as good ol’ Design (with a big D). But “UX” can help to at least identify aspiring candidates who want to make great software for people.

It’s hard to hire good designers–good luck!

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One thought on “Designers and Artists, and Hiring

  1. At Microsoft my team dumped a cool $mil into researchers hands to come back with “What is a designer” question and even then it came back with a mixture of “those who can design design..those who cant ask someone to design”

    I suspect the issue at hand isn’t so much the framework / methodology of choosing a “designer” is the fact that design in itself is still in a lot of stages of immaturity as a discipline (so it should be). We still haven’t connected the dots between Behaviour Science and Design, as to do so would probably require more deeper insights into what the incentive vs behaviour (cognitive dissonance) matrix means.

    We know a designer can push out a design (whether they did it themselves or via proxy) and we know there is an initial reaction that you could rate on a spectrum between “loved it to hated it”. We know we could take this study and see how this rating moves over time (ie say every week ask the same query but in a way that doesn’t create survey bias).

    I suspect over time you’ll start to see the behaviour of usage continue upwards but the incentive to use begins to decay approx 60-90 days out.

    What this can tell you is this – There is no such thing as unusable design, we have built in pattern recognition and humans can adapt to not optimal design choices. We know that humans like “new” or “fresh” concepts and are attracted to being different in patterns they see. We know that loyalty is really a currency that you can only bank on for a short amount of time before it becomes decayed and unable to replenish.

    All that combined to me a designer is simple – a tour guide to the incentive vs behaviour matrix. Someone who can use instincts and/or science to figure out what reduces decay in usage (design).

    As for why developers seemingly always game the designer out of the choices he/she has made around aesthetics is simply down to the fact they are working side by side as if it were a democracy. Smartest money is on the designer who works with Product Managers (Business Owner) in the discovery phase so that by the time the delivery phase kicks in the decisions have already been made and the designer has switched from playing the game of “UX Tetris” and is now focused on execution only.

    Agile is the best trick the industry has played on hiding bad product design principles – feature list in excel style spreedsheets or user stories with no visuals is a big first clue at an upcoming engineering win but design fail.

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