If you can design one thing, you can design everything.
~ Massimo Vignelli
Introducing the Fragmented Designer
The fragmented designer is a sorry sight. I have been the fragmented designer, so I know the condition well. The fragmented designer often starts out unsure of themselves. What’s the purpose of a designer? What skills should I have? What software should I use? Who should I be working for? What do I even call myself?
I worked with a fragmented designer who once told me:
I don’t make things look pretty, I solve business problems.
I wondered what made her feel she had to choose.
The first branding job most designers do is on themselves. They start out by marketing themselves like a product. And like any product development process, you first need to define the problem and then propose a specific solution. The consequence is feeling the pressure to view the horizon before you as a puzzle and, if not by choice then by chance, be forced to take a piece.
The problem is that you may be left wondering: do I have the most interesting piece of the puzzle? This question may follow a hollow feeling of unrealised potential through your career, or you may embrace your piece, championing it above all others. In either scenario, you have been fragmented from a potential whole, which I will argue is the natural and vastly more rewarding pathway for a designer.
Specialisation and Assembly-Line Thought
Like many things that achieve great success, Henry Ford’s assembly line also left us with some hefty downsides. Pre-Ford, the craftsmanship approach to production dominated, where one person had the skills to deliver the product from beginning to end. Post-Ford, industry has moved to ever increasing specialisation, and with its success the ideology behind it has spread, permeating the way we organise many spheres of society.
The resulting assembly-line thought is seen in the increasing specialisation in design. The obvious signs are clear as technology advances and we see ever more specific design roles proliferate. Different design roles fragment the true skill set of a designer by defining their role through a limited brief and the specific skill set needed to execute this tightly defined function. Through this process of specialisation, we are saying that a designer’s value is measured through the repetition of similar experiences and the narrow focus of skills. Ten years in the same role and the same industry will help you in a specialised jobs market, but what type of designer does that create?
This assembly-line thought in design is problematic on a professional, collaborative level as it appears to present different slices of the design pie that can be applied in isolation. Instead of seeing design as a practice and process that runs at the beginning (most critically), all the way through to the end of a project, and beyond into its evaluation. Other professionals working alongside designers will reflect the fragmentation they see, confusing the different terms and failing to see what the role and value of design(ers) is. The confusion, in its worst manifestation, will lead people to believe that design is some vague sketching exercise done before the real work begins, or ‘putting the skin on’ at the end of a project.
Labels and the Illusion of Difference
Compartmentalised into supposedly different fields or roles of design — print, graphic, digital, web, visual, UI, UX, mobile, exhibition, signage, brand, interaction, product, experience, and more — the reality is these fields overlap to a degree where many will often feel synonymous. The great majority of designers willingly accept their compartmentalisation, which is in fact often an illusion. Still, the labels we use carry power, and by calling ourselves X designer or Y designer, we constrict our scope of awareness and close ourselves off to new possibilities that can act as a catalyst for our development.
What labels me, negates me.
~ Søren Kierkegaard
While it’s not practical to go through life refusing any labels, the underlying message of Kierkegaard’s statement is powerfully relevant in design. The more specific we make our label, and the more we carelessly add to the collection of labels, the more we negate a greater potential for ourselves as design professionals that has fewer self-imposed limitations.
The design industry can seem like a secret society with its own codes that only seem to serve the purpose of confusing anyone on the outside, as well as adding a pointless sense of complexity. The carelessness of how we use these labels within design also compounds the problem. For example, the term UX is used to denote a designer who specialises in the user’s experience of a digital product or web application. Typically, the visual design is not attributed to the UX designer, but this has a massive influence on the user’s experience. The performance of the web application or product is also not considered; but if a web application fails to work in certain environments, then this too has an obvious effect on the user’s experience. Here we see that design, by its true nature, should be encompassing and interdisciplinary in its concerns, taking into account how the designs will be realised. This view is conflicted and muddied when we label ourselves into ever smaller boxes.
The Skill to Execute and the Ability to Ideate
There are many skills and abilities a designer can, and should, possess. An interesting way to view this is by looking at the the skills needed to execute ideas, and the abilities needed to create ideas.
The skills or knowledge to execute ideas cover universal subjects such as colour theory, layout and composition, typography, drawing, grid systems, principles of perception, information architecture, symbolism and iconography. Technical competencies in relevant technology can also be included; for example, programming languages, photography, print processes and design software tools.
When these universal skills are coupled with technical competencies their possibilities are so vast a designer can be forever lost in the pursuit of furthering these skills. Specialists in certain areas raise the bar and the expectations for what is possible, and indirectly apply pressure on others to either keep pace or focus their development elsewhere.
In the context of specialisation we see that designers are encouraged to focus on the skills needed to execute certain types of work. When you perform a specific task, it’s not important that you have a conception of the whole. It’s important that you can do this task as efficiently as possible.
There’s a dire consequence to focusing excessively on the skills needed to execute ideas — you will always be used as a tool, as an appendage to business or organisational needs. The ideas will come from elsewhere and when design is divorced from the definition of its work, it only represents a fragment of a real design process.
Gaining knowledge in the universal design subjects naturally opens the door to developing a higher-order skill set, which could be loosely defined as the ability to ideate or creatively solve problems. Non-linear thinking and the ability to find connections that may not present themselves in a linear analytical view, is encouraged by the many right hemisphere activities of the designer. Unfortunately, this natural pathway of development is prevented from being utilised in the most beneficial context under the pressure of specialisation.
Problems are not solved just with technical skills; the initial idea or vision is needed before moving to the execution phase. The ability to ideate and problem solve needs to be truly developed through the practice and experience of comfortably sitting in the grey areas of confusion that live across the boundaries of different disciplines. The truly valuable role for a designer traverses these borders and helps facilitate a solution that will stitch the seemingly opposed and disconnected needs of all parties. In order to do this they must reject the segregated view of the expert and seek out the broadest range of experiences, knowledge and skills in order to help push this ability to ideate.
If design and designers want to be concerned with tackling so called ‘wicked problems’, answering the big questions and solving the pressing problems of our time, then the ability to ideate has to be a key area of development for the individual, educational institutions and the industry at large.
An Integral Approach
In contrast to the fragmented designer, I propose an integral approach. A designer following this approach looks for the connections and their consequences. In order to better fulfil that role, she pursues a multi-disciplinary path in her career development. The broader the set of experience and skills, the better placed she is to make creative and meaningful connections in solving complex problems that cannot be solved by the narrow focus of a specialist.
The integral designer thinks in wholes and understands the parts. She has developed the ability to switch between the pixels and the broad strokes. An integral approach doesn’t necessarily reject the detailed skills needed to execute ideas that is necessary in a specialised skillset; but encompasses that mode of working and thinking, as well as being able to step back and place those concerns within a much broader and complete reality. By following a path of increasing specialisation, you negate the very essence of what it is to be a designer: someone who can approach a given problem and synthesise the disparate and disconnected parts into a connected, desired whole.
I believe the integral approach of a designer should be emergent: with every new experience you increase your potential to become a meaningful designer. And the newer the experience, the more it has pushed you from your comfort zone, the more value it has in evolving your design practice.
The Benefit of the Benefit
Abandoning the mental quicksand of a fragmented designer has longer-term benefits for the individual and the business community. Design professionals who progress the furthest in their careers will necessarily be those who have a more diverse set of experiences and skills, who can manage a team who are maybe less experienced or specialists in one area while being novices in others. Further to this, a fully realised designer is by their nature versatile and able to be successful in many different contexts; equally comfortable at a creative agency as they would be within a government department. (Read my post on Context-Centred Design.)
Further, specialisation creates the conditions for hierarchical organisation and top-down management. This is what we see in the majority of companies and organisations. If design and designers push out from all of their many boxes, they have the potential to foster innovative models of organisation while also facilitating bottom-up innovation. The startup success stories that we see today are led by companies who adopt design as a core business asset, and in this sector we see the the most experimentation and evolution in terms of different models of organisation.
The fragmented designer is the consequence of a reductive approach to the discipline. As a designer’s career progresses they are encouraged to become ever more specialised. But without the right focus and new challenges, complacency or burn out is the inescapable end result. Either you become increasingly isolated as technology advances and shifts the playing field; ultimately leaving your mindset inflexible and your knowledge out dated. Or you gear your focus to constantly honing your technical skills and keeping up-to-date with the countless technological possibilities in soft- and hard-ware.
In either scenario you lose, or fail to fully realise, the greatest strengths of a designer — creative, holistic problem solving.