So, you want to be a design thinker…
Everyone can be a designer, but not everyone is a Designer. What’s the difference, and why should you care?
Design thinking is everywhere. Corporations are tripping over each other trying to adopt it; consulting firms are in a race to acquire design shops; universities are adding it to coursework; and the Facebook group I moderate that started as a few people interested in social innovation design floods my notifications with activity and join requests.
On one end of the design spectrum are the students, innovators, and entrepreneurs reading about this design race, and attending online courses, in-person bootcamps, and design sprints. They’re trying to figure out how to apply design thinking to their work, or how to get a job in it.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the trained Designers. They’ve dedicated long careers to visual, experience, industrial, product, and other forms of design. They have MFAs and BAs in a Design discipline. The thing everyone else is scrambling to learn more about and do, they live and breathe every day, and they don’t add “thinking” or “human-centered” to it to make it real. And no, their job is not just about making things look good.
That difference between these “Big D” Designers and “little d” designers — a distinction I learned from my friends at MFA Design for Social Innovation— is an important one anyone interested in this space needs to recognize.
Design is “the rendering of intent,” as Jared Spool explains. Design is an ethos — it’s a way of iteratively and creatively working, aligning teams, and creating invisible experiences and visible things for the needs and context of real people. It’s an intangible feeling and way of working, viewing, and changing the way we interact with the world. And it’s also something that professionals are trained in.
When people reach out to me interested in careers in design thinking, I’m enthusiastic. I believe design matters, and makes a difference for the better, so the more, the merrier. I’ve dedicated the last few years to essentially evangelizing design thinking — for social enterprises and schools and for government and corporations. I’ve taught myself methodologies and I try my hardest to live the ethos in my work. I train others in design thinking, and work with teams to understand how to embed it into their culture.
As a designer, I always immediately tell people I work with that I’m not a Designer. When it comes to UX and ethnographic interviews, data visualization, user interfaces, and more complex design projects, I know there’s a limit to my skills and knowledge.
As more of my peers become interested in design, the first thing I always tell them is to recognize the difference between design and Designer jobs, and figure out where they want to fit in. While I want people to adopt design into their work, I also want them to realize that it’s complex — and there’s much more to it than doing some one-off post-it note exercises.
Here’s some other things you should know if you’re interested in applying design thinking to your work.
Learn more. In educating yourself about the space, look at multiple resources, methods, and perspectives. Explore the breadth of the field and the different roles Designers play. Read articles or books on design, attend conferences, talk to people doing this work, and don’t silo your learning to one resource or perspective. Hint: Those popular online HCD courses are a fine place to start, but not sufficient.
Look everywhere. You don’t need to be at one of the famous design firms to do design. In fact, you don’t need to be at a design firm at all. There are Designers and designers all over the world in companies large and small. So, designers should look beyond the big name design agencies and find opportunities at boutique firms, and regular companies and non-profits too. Or better yet, introduce it to your organization or team. Find design jobs on company websites, sector or freelance-specific job boards, or make your own job. If social change is your jam, here’s a new book on social innovation design career paths that might spark some ideas.
Get trained. Are you really interested in one of those Designer roles? Don’t be disappointed if you’re a designer not getting a call back. If that’s the case, respect the training and skills that Designers require, and invest in your career by paying for courses, or going back to school, to gain those skills and credentials. You won’t be competitive without this training and experience, and one course alone probably won’t cut it. Here’s a fun flow chart for the types of design work you could do as a Designer, and how the field might change in the future. If training’s not possible, at least learn how to fake it.
Practice. Whether you teach yourself everything you can, learn design methods with your team, or attend a training, design is ultimately about doing. You can read and watch videos about design all you want, but the best way to learn is to experience it, and to practice, practice, practice. And remember that design thinking isn’t a spectator or individual sport, it’s a better experience and outcome when done with a team.
Have a portfolio. Whether you’re gunning for that design or Design job, don’t apply without a portfolio. It’s not necessarily about visual artifacts, but telling a story about how you approach your work, the methods you use, what you learned, and the diversity of your unique skills and experience. Bonus points if you share your accomplishments by keeping the story and outcomes user-focused.
As IBM’s Phil Gilbert has said, “Design is everyone’s job. Not everyone is a Designer, but everybody has to have the user as their north star.”
What other tips do you have? Leave them in the comments!
P.S. I get asked a lot how a political science major with no Design training or exposure got involved in the space. Here’s my story.
I learned about the design thinking ethos from the team at ThinkImpact in 2012. When I moved to India later that year, I participated in a design thinking session, and was eager to apply the co-creation, user-focused approaches to my work. A report we wrote on education technology in India kept the user perspective front and center. This led me to MFA DSI, where I supported designers and social innovators training full-time to become social innovation designers. Confession: By this point, I was starting to get the ethos of design down, but I was rarely practicing or facilitating it.
It wasn’t until my public policy grad school internship at the Pentagon, with amazing friends on a unique team, that I learned design facilitation methodologies by observing and researching, and got to practice using them. I started looking for any opportunity I could to practice facilitating, first for free — for friends and school projects — and soon after, for paid gigs. Now, in my full-time job at a tech company, I have the privilege of using aspects of design thinking with my team every day, and the honor of helping my colleagues learn how to apply design to their work. I wasn’t hired for design, but I was lucky enough to join a team that’s adopted it.
If there’s a lesson in my path thus far, it’s that even though I’m not a Designer, there have been opportunities for me to contribute and to apply design to my work. It’s taken recognizing the limits of my skills and learning new ones; lots of practice, experimentation, and independent learning; making my interest in design clear to anyone willing to listen; and frequently raising my hand for opportunities. Of course, there’s a lot left to learn. This is only the beginning of my career, and my career with design, making it one big, long prototype.
I hope this post helps anyone interested in design opportunities. Happy prototyping!
P.P.S. Thanks to my Designer and designer friends for engaging in this topic of conversation with me over email chains and lunch chats and happy hour. Your perspectives are invaluable. And thanks to the awesome Facebook group contributors for sharing design opportunities and ideas.