Social sciences are a huge mess, truly. You finish a Sociology degree and you’ll have to embrace the long journey of proving to the world that you left the University with some sort of superpower, one that is not available to the ordinary human being. And that’s a step that you can only take after you convince yourself that being a “sociologist” is a real thing.
Something similar happens with design. Even if the world has already accepted that “designer” is a legit job, you’ll still have to prove that you can do something that those who are not designers can’t. This seems to be a very hard battle to win.
What is a designer?
A designer isn’t someone who finished a specific degree, nor someone who was born with a special gift. Also, it's not someone who can edit friend’s photos on Photoshop to make them look thinner or that one cousin that draws really well. A designer might very well be able to do all of that, but it's not a clear definition.
(Photoshop will, hereafter, be used as synonym to “designers magic tools”)
“A designer’s work starts way before a single pixel gets placed and ends way after the last one is locked in place”
Mike Monteiro in Design is a Job
The hard part is not the first pixel, nor the last, but everything that’s in between. A competent designer knows how to plan the journey ahead and provide solutions through every step. It’s not just about pixels either, as design is way more than web design, but that’s where I’ll be focusing here.
“A designer is a person who designs.” Wikipedia
How perfectly put: a designer designs. That’s one hundred percent correct. Such as the plumber plumbs, the judge practices the law and the psychologist deals with psychology, and everyone is perfectly aware of the authority of each in their fields, the designer is an authority in design. What’s so strange about it?
…why not yellow instead? I really like yellow!
When it comes to design – and social sciences, in general – everyone has their own idea. That’s perfectly fine and it’s valuable, as the design process gets richer with the various inputs from different sources. However, there should be a point in which the trust should rest in the person who is the most capable of getting the job done.
When you request the services of an architect to plan your house, it’s because you know that you can’t do it yourself. Those kind of services require both payment – usually – and mutual trust. The architect works some kind of magic and by the end you have a product that you recognize as valuable. Throughout the process, opinions and demands flow freely and are usually accepted, but you probably won’t ever tell the architect how the job should be done. That’s where its different from designing.
Everyone makes small design choices throughout their days, combining pieces of clothing and jewelry together, decorating their homes or picking new colors to paint the bedroom walls. That’s probably why design is seen as something that everyone can do with little to no effort.
Some people believe that when someone hires a designer it’s not because design is something particularly hard to do, but because that individual doesn’t have the time to design nor the Photoshop skills needed. This is the worst misconception.
Once the design process starts, suddenly everyone is a designer. Jack, who requested the design, says that the background should be yellow; his partner Misty is certain that triangular buttons are innovative; the partner’s aunt Louise believes that all copy should be in caps for better readability and Alfred, the partner aunt’s brother, knows for a fact that an animated mascot is the future.
The best quality that a designer can have is the patience to explain over and over again why it’s all a bunch of nonsense, without being rude.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and, as stated before, most of the times it’s valuable, but there are many occasions in which it’s important to trust that the designer knows best. But why is that, exactly?
Designers are not divine beings
“Most designers are nocturnal, creativity strikes them under the moonlight (tenebris inventicus) and as such their biorhythm differs immensely from common humans”
Thomas Fogarasy in The strange creatures called “Designers”
Let’s get it clear, designers are not enlightened mythical creatures. What makes them different from those who are not designers is very simple in fact: experience. It’s how we can tell apart a doctor from a sociologist, an anthropologist from a surgeon or a salesperson from a plumber. Each one is experienced in his own field, there’s no magic involved.
When a designer provides a given typeface to use on a website, it’s not because it’s the best typeface on the market, as there’s no such thing. It’s because it's the best for that particular case, taking in account a number of other elements that play together and the goals that user should achieve through them. And how is the choice made? Experience.
Most people can see the various elements and form an opinion, but making them all work together towards a common goal is not as easy as it may seem. Usually, you’ll have to understand what was done before, what worked, why it worked, get inspiration (which, I guarantee, is not divine) from various materials, understand the user and play it all together with a pinch of creativity (not divine, either).
Everyone is a designer
As it happens in every other field, the common mortal is able to master the noble craft of design, no doubt about it. Still, it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a question of having a design degree either, as undergoing university doesn’t define what you can, or can’t, do.
Design is about collecting references, understanding movements, staying relevant and having the technical knowledge to deliver. That’s where everyone gets confused. Hiring a designer is not the same as hiring technical knowledge to implement opinions. Design is not based on opinions.
It should fulfill given tasks, be practical and not a subject of beauty contests. Experience gets you from problem to solution, while opinions usually point you to the wrong direction, no matter how good looking it may be.
Feedback is essential and there should always be an open channel for communication. The designer is not working for his own sake and it’s important to be sure of everyone's ideas and objectives. In a similar way, a time comes when the trust should be entirely placed in the designer’s capacity to work some magic with Photoshop. It’s always for the best.