BenBlog

On being a designer in the 21st century

As designers, we waste too much time in discussions about taste, style, pixels or ego. Thus, we are not focusing on what makes design such a challenging job. As designers at the beginning of the 21st century, we have both a great opportunity and a greater responsibility to redefine the role of the designer.

Form follows function follows experience

I am excited being part of the generation that is shaping a new reality by making our world digital. Most paradigms that were true for the past decades are changing and lots of them need to be redefined. The Bauhaus school of the early 20th century espoused the idea of the designer as a creative problem solver, working with a specific set of tools in the appropriate medium. Despite this movement’s influence, designers still tend to be split into various categories and still reduce their craft to “decoration” much too often. Now, in a digital world where borders between graphic design, branding, interface design and various other fields are getting blurred, we need to go back to a more universal idea of design.

We create experiences for people. An idea that, once you embrace it, shows clearly what our profession is really about: The things we create serve human needs. So, should we really care about the medium or tools we use to create these experiences? Should we really discuss a millions times, if skeuomorphism or flat design is the ultimate sophistication?—Or do we want to shape a world where design is at the core of every business and recognized as an essential management skill.

Let’s spend our time wisely, go out and educate people about the real value of design. Design increases customer loyalty and thus customer lifetime value. This will not only lead to more meaningful products, but to an emotional experiences that will result in greater income for our businesses.

Becoming a designer by instinct and training

One of the reasons I dropped out of design college was that I had to decide whether to be a communications designer or a product designer. Today that sounds even more absurd than it did back then. I always considered myself a designer. I wanted to create things that serve people’s needs, no matter what the “medium” is.

From an early age, I was lucky to learn from a lot of amazing people about how to create things. Starting with my grandfather in his bakery, to a teacher who spent hours with me after school to introduce me to the craft of illustration and hand lettering, or my uncle who built furniture. All this influenced my admiration for use- and meaningful things that are carefully crafted by hand.

Since then I have worked in a lot of different industries with a lot of different brands and products. I did brand design work in agencies, I consulted for established corporations in design thinking, and I built hardware and software in the healthcare industry. Everything I experienced on that journey, and everybody I had the chance to work with, helped me to become a better designer. Quite a number of people asked me in the past 13 years what it is that I am doing? What it means to be a designer? And how I can so easily switch industries and teams?

The best design team is not a team full of designers

Here’s an insight that fundamentally changed my understanding of design: I remember the day when I was responsible for designing my first “professional” hardware product and suddenly had to deal with materials, machine milling processes, electronics and packaging at the same time. Not only did I have to give this object it’s outer shape, but I got the chance to define every single detail around it—especially how people would interact with the product. I finally understood that everything a company does results in an overall experience for our customers. What’s more, it is this experience—this feeling—what makes a company unique. That is what customers pay for in the end.

At that point I realized that designing a unique product experience means first and foremost creating a shared understanding in our company that everything we do contributes—in a positive or negative way—to our customer experience. The question is how the product we are going to build should feel and which bits and pieces are needed to create this emotion. Every material we choose, every line of code we write, every message we send to the market and every color we pick is part of the emotional impression we leave in the heads and hearts of our customers.

That being said, an excellent design team is a group of people who share a common understanding of a specific product experience—no matter if they are engineers, writers, marketeers, business folks, typographers, psychologists or architects. This understanding—that a sustainable customer experience is more than the sum of all parts, and that it needs to be build into the DNA of a company—is one of the fundamental changes in 21st century business.

In a digital world it’s all about the experience