What Makes a Good Designer

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus discuss rhetoric and what it is that makes one a good speech writer. To make his argument Socrates begins by talking about other fields: medicine and music. He asks Phaedrus whether someone that claims to know the individual techniques of medicine is a doctor, or someone who knows how to produce the highest and lowest notes is a musician. Of course in both of these cases knowledge of the specific skills does not make one good at the actual profession these skills apply to. What does though is knowing exactly when and why to use them. When a patient experiences this or that symptom a doctor will know which technique to use to heal them, and in the same way a musician can compose notes together in such a harmony that a beautiful melody begins to emerge. The individual techniques and skills are only preliminaries to learning a discipline, but you must also learn its core elements–the things that will help you know the when and the why–in order to be any good at it.

As for speech writing? Socrates suggests that knowledge of the soul is the key. In the context of the book what he means is probably psychology–that is, having a deep understanding of human nature so that you can use this or that rhetorical device to influence your audience in a given context. I think this idea can be applied to design just as well for it is not the individual techniques that make a designer good at their craft but the knowledge of when to use them, and this knowledge is governed by the designer’s understanding of psychology. It’s all about knowing how people react to the different ways that content can be presented, and working to present this content in a way that guides the user along and helps them make sense of the information. At its core design is about communication, and to be able to communicate effectively you must first acquaint yourself with your audience. You must understand your audience.

Ben Bleikamp wrote a post on hiring good designers, where he argues that specialized designers just don’t cut it–i.e. WordPress designers, iPhone designers, OS X designers, etc.–and that you should not search for such specialized designers when trying to fill a position, just good designers. He is essentially right, and it is easy to demonstrate this with a simple question: Are you hiring a designer for their knowledge of WordPress functions or Photoshop filters, or are you hiring them for their understanding of human nature–i.e. user experience, interaction design, usability, psychology? Of course you want somebody who can deliver the latter, since the tools themselves aren’t the end product. One is a prerequisite for them to be able to do the job, the other is prerequisite for them to do a good job.

You will need both of course and because of this the argument made isn’t particularly interesting since if you want to get anywhere you’ll need to find a designer who is both good at the craft and who knows the specific tools or the specific context of the implementation. The prerequisites will of course also vary, for example, how much code is the designer going to write (and web designers do code)? If they’re working on a WordPress theme, are they going to code the PHP too or simply produce the HTML markup and CSS and leave it to someone else to do the rest? Having some experience with WordPress is then beneficial if they’re going to do most of the theming work, just as having logo design experience is beneficial to those working on identity design.

The fundamental idea of Bleikamp’s post though is that specific skills do not make a good designer. Knowing Illustrator will help you produce logos but it won’t make you into a good identity designer, just as having worked on iPhone apps before won’t ensure your iPad designs are effective. Effective design relies on understanding the audience and using this knowledge to communicate how your website or product works. If you’re doing advertising work, it’s not about how beautiful your poster is but how effective it is at getting people to buy your product or sign up to your event. Knowledge of areas like user experience, interaction design and psychology help the designer understand the when and the why, and this is the sort of knowledge that isn’t tied down to specific techniques–the sort of knowledge that can be applied in a wide range of contexts and industries.