Back to table of contents

Credit: LSR Design Studio

What designers do

Amy J. Ko

When I was an undergraduate, I didn't have a clue about design. Like most students in technical fields, I thought design was about colors, fonts, layout, and other low-level visual details. I knew enough about user interfaces to know that design mattered, I just didn't know how much or why.

Then I went to grad school to get a Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, where I studied not only computer science and behavioral sciences, but design as well, combining these fields together into my expertise in Human-Computer Interaction. Suddenly I was surrounded by designers, and taking design classes with design students in design studios. Quickly I learned that design was much, much more than what was visible. Design was where ideas came from. It was processes for generating ideas. It was methods for evaluating ideas. It was ways of communicating ideas. I learned that design was problem solving, and that it was the problem solving that shapes the world. After all, look around you: nearly everything in the space you're reading this in is designed by someone, somewhere, to solve some problem. As this XKCD comic illustrates, once you realize the designed world around you, it's hard not to see the design work behind everything around you:

After some time, I also realized that if design was problem solving, then we all design to some degree. When you rearrange your room to better access your clothes, you're doing interior design. When you create a sign to remind your roommates about their chores, you're doing information design. When you make a poster or a sign for a club, you're doing graphic design. We may not do any of these things particularly well or with great expertise, but each of these is a design enterprise that has the capacity for expertise and skill.

What does it mean to do design professionally then? In the context of information, design is everywhere, particularly in the software industry. Consider all of the job titles that have a little (or a lot) of design embedded in them:

In my experience, design is where the power is in companies. Designers determine what companies make, and that determines what people use. But people with the word "design" in their job title don't necessarily possess this power. For example, in one company, graphic designers may just be responsible for designing icons, whereas in another company, they might envision a whole user experience. In contrast, many people without the word design in their title have immense design power. For example, some CEOs like Steve Jobs exercised considerable design power over products, meaning that other designers were actually beholden to his judgement. In other companies (some parts of Microsoft, for example), design power is often distributed to lower-level designers within the company.

What is it that all of these roles have in common? In my experience, they all involve these skills:

In a way, all of these skills are fundamentally about empathy skills, because they all require a designer to see problems and solutions from other people's perspectives, whether these people are users, other designers, or people in other roles, such as marketers, engineers, project managers, etc.

I believe these skills can be learned. (If I didn't, I wouldn't be a very good design teacher!). How then does one learn all of these skills and get one of those jobs I listed above?

Practice. And specifically, deliberate practice. You must design a lot and get a lot of feedback about your designs. Choose a medium to design in (you're Informatics students: I'd recommend web, mobile, databases, VR, AR, and other information media over things like fashion design or bridge design) and start practicing! We'll spend much of this class learning how to practice and what to practice.

Next chapter: How to Design

Further reading

Dow, S. P., Glassco, A., Kass, J., Schwarz, M., Schwartz, D. L., & Klemmer, S. R. (2010). Parallel prototyping leads to better design results, more divergence, and increased self-efficacy. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 17(4), 18.

Empathic Design: Is Empathy the UX Holy Grail? (2016).

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Ršmer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

Jonassen, D. H. (2000). Toward a design theory of problem solving. Educational technology research and development, 48(4), 63-85.

Rock, M. (2016).The Accidental Power of Design.The New York Times Style Magazine.

Wright, P., & McCarthy, J. (2008). Empathy and experience in HCI. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 637-646). ACM.

Merchant, B. (2017). Steve Jobs did not invent the iPhone. LinkedIn.