Opening the Design Aperture

Design is experiencing a phenomenal surge of interest, attention, and power. This is due in large part to the leadership of Steve Jobs who through the delivery of several game-changing Apple products proved to even the toughest critics that Thomas J. Watson Jr. was right when he said that "good design is good business". Apple's success led to a realization across many industries that they should pay more attention to design and to see design within a broader context than they did previously. 

This is all of course great news to designers. However, I'd like to suggest that with their newfound importance and power, designers also have much greater responsibility and in turn need to open the design aperture. Many experienced designers have learned to live within a world of severe constraint dominated by an engineering culture. If they took it upon themselves to mockup a total redesign of a product in the past, they would be informed that such a redesign wouldn't be possible due to time, resource, engineering difficulty or all three. Many designers have such mockups on their hard drives. Over time those designers learned to be more modest in their designs and, in turn, to severely limit the potential of applying their craft to make products great.

Those same designers now find themselves in a world of greater opportunity for design with fewer constraints on it. I found a Tweet by Michael Leggett, an experienced designer at Google, interesting in this regard. He was responding to someone who liked their new design and who had said "Google finally hired some designers". His response was "We've always been here - just finally being given the authority to do something bold".       

Doing something bold requires designers to open their design aperture, to take a broader view of the project they're working on, and to exercise design muscles they haven't used for a while. Here's a list of practical ways designers can hone their skills in this regard.

  • Empathize with and thoroughly understand the users of your product, their goals, desires, and preferences, as well as the experience they have in using the designs you create for the product they use. 
  • Observe design trends, your own use of products setting those trends, how well those trends are being accepted, how people are using your product, and whether any of those design ideas may work for your product design. 
  • Explore established interaction design patterns to see whether they would work for your product design. In addition to emerging design trends, it is often wise to be aware of and use design patterns that have been established for years because they represent what users have a natural expectation and mental model for.     
  • Sketch extensively and often so that you're ideating visually and capturing many alternative designs quickly and inexpensively. Resist the urge to move too quickly to a preferred design and also to a fully fleshed out high fidelity version of it.
  • Critique designs with other designers regularly to glean the benefits of their combined expertise, experience, and skill. Focus on the design (not the designer), start with what's good about it and should be kept, and then explore ways the design could be improved. All designers should get experience in both the presenting and critiquing roles.

It's a great time to be a designer. There's also now great opportunity to hone design skills and to open the design aperture in order to design absolutely awesome products. 

I'd appreciate any thoughts you may have on this topic communicated via the social networks I post this on as I no longer turn on commenting on this site. The social networks include LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. Thanks.