Being Designer
  October, 2015

Being designer: What is it like to be a designer

Hari Nallan

Definitely, the title is not inspired by "Being human" label. What I'm writing here is an account of what I learnt in my journey as a Designer and Entrepreneur... and I have reasons to believe that both of them are fundamentally the same.

1. I learnt to switch sides:

I've learnt Design the way it was taught. It was idealistic (which I realised after few years of practice) and not scalable in the real sense. The reason is that Design education tends to lean towards foundational learning and that means you are taught how to create innovative solutions (usually in idealistic scenarios); I was also taught to rationalise those innovations by thinking through economy and production (and a little bit of everything that contribute to them). However, what I wasn't taught was, how it will actually apply in the real world and how I could scale my Design-ability to others around me who would contribute to, and influence my Design. Also, Design education doesn't focus on entrepreneurship whereas a Designer in the real world has to think like a entrepreneur, in the sense that, a Designer needs to have many tricks up his sleeve and needs the understanding and maturity to use them as the situation demands... in other words, rise to the occasion. In any organisation, a Designer does face strategic challenges as well as tactical (lot of times, both come at the same time). That is when, a Designer is required to switch sides... from taking a uncompromising user perspective to taking a uncompromising business perspective; from taking a technology perspective to understanding operational perspective. Being a Designer in a consulting organisation and having switched sides umpteen number of times, what I really learnt is "to switch sides"... from idealistic standpoint to realistic standpoint; and that means, taking the responsibility to advocate good design and at the same time, taking the accountability to make it happen.

2. I learnt to respect many important things other than Design:

From one perspective, I think Design is overrated; overrated because it cannot stand in isolation. Design requires a lot of support to survive and that includes (not limited to) economy, technology, operations, structure, people, policies, knowledge, limitations etc., Designers do have a perspective on each of these, but cannot exercise judgement and control on any of these (good designers have the capability to advocate). As a Designer of a consulting organisation and having worked with many successful companies, I learnt to respect those many competencies that help Design happen. I cannot think of any other discipline/ practice that is so dependent on other disciplines/ practices and this very fact humbles me time and again I hear "Design is a behaviour, not a department". Yes, very true, but to me, designers should embody that behaviour more than anyone else; and I am no exception to it.

3. I learnt to lose complacence:

You cannot afford to be complacent when you are in Design. The reason is that there is not much documented about Design practice, there is no absolute fact, it isn't mathematical, logical or scientific. It is of course, "Practical". Every trend, movement or approach in Design came about because of compelling factors that influenced it; and it is only prudent to watch out for those factors that may influence your next move. No other discipline is so volatile as Design has been; and not having a perspective on Design's "relevance" will cost one and all. As a practitioner of User Experience, this fact is much more amplified... that there is something new everyday (or every second!) and no one can really say what's going to happen next and how important its going to be. What you do today could be irrelevant in a matter of weeks (who knows what's in store for the next update of iOS? What if the UI is up for transformation; and it makes what we did just now seem ancient in no time ? Oh, Google Glass is going to be the next big thing and we got to be ready for it... and Oh, Google Glass is gone now, so what do we do with all that preparedness?). Sure, sh** happens. But more than anyone else, Designers have to prepare themselves for it (and discard it when its irrelevant) because much of these changes in trends and technology impact the "Design as its delivered" first. Most of the past case studies, stories of movements in the history of Design and insights from historic Design decisions (including the ones of Apple) provide only academic inputs; and everything in Design needs to be contextualised; and this ensures that I am always self-aware and have an awareness of situation around as well.

4. I learnt to Think Design:

No, no. I'm not selling my company here, but rather explaining my state of mind (its a different story how this became the name of the company I cofounded). I learnt to Think Design and it is different from Design Thinking, current fad notwithstanding, I've had Design perspective of doing things and that perspective got sharpened over years... As I struggled as a Designer to convince people on my perspective, I understood that the problem was not with my concept, but with the way I'm presenting future scenario... or the way I positioned myself in front of my audience. As I kept solving one problem after another (that aren't linearly related to each other), I am solving larger problems with bigger impact. Thinking Design is not just about problem solving, but much more. There are certain things that need to be left alone; and I am understanding them as I'm growing up... there are certain things that will die and Design can do little to help them; and I am understanding them as well... for everything else, there is Design and I can do that as well.

5. I learnt the value of incremental innovation:

It is a general tendency to want to disrupt something, especially among Designers (I apologise for generalising). Designers have this tendency to switch from being extremely inside-out to being extremely outside-in and most of them struggle to find a balance; and as a result, skew towards the former. A inside-out Designer wants a stamp, wants a deep impact with what he does, s/he has a perspective that differs from others and cannot accept someone else's creation and improve upon it. S/he finds it extremely hard to do that. Mundane people want something thats a notch higher over what they already have and are not interested in reinventing the wheel or do something entirely different. Visionary people have a future perspective that is very different from the current; and seek the company of others in shaping it, make the proposal palatable and Design a incremental shift. I'm yet figuring out whether I'm mundane or visionary (or both), but one thing I did already figure out is that the approach of incremental innovation is sustainable over extended periods, is scalable and valuable... not that I'm not inclined to disrupt!

In short, being designer to me is about balancing ideal and the real, it is about respecting and learning from other disciplines, it is about thinking Design and it is about being innovative... disruptive and incremental as well.

Hari Nallan

Hari Nallan

Founder and CEO of Think Design, a User Experience strategist, Designer, Speaker and Educator. Think Design is a Leading Design consultancy with offices in Denver, New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru; and collaborates with visionary organisations to identify, build and materialise innovative products and services.


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