The four *least*-teachable traits of great designers
How do you spot a great future designer?
Look for people with skills that are hard to teach. In my product design classes, the hardest thing to teach has been this:
The ability to quickly evaluate a design, generate slightly-better solutions, and stay fully engaged in this loop long enough to get a remarkable result.
This is important because in design, the battle is won or lost over countless small details. They all have to be right, and they all have to fit together.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s break it down.
1) The Eye 👁
To quickly evaluate design, you need what designers call The Eye. The Eye is all about good taste.
Do you critique the typography of street signs? Obsess over colors and fabric when buying clothes and furniture? Become infatuated with particular paintings or photographs? Resist the urge to straighten crooked picture frames? You might have The Eye.
Designers use their Eye to tweak thousands of little details, all day, every day. Without it, you can’t create a great result of any meaningful size.
Note that you don’t have to make anything to have The Eye. You just need to recognize what’s good and what’s not.
Steve Jobs famously said that the the problem with Microsoft was that they had no taste. He went on to build Apple into a luxury brand, and now his company is the most valuable in the world.
If you want to see if someone has The Eye, ask them to pick any object in the room. Then ask them to tell you what they like (and don’t) about its design. If they have The Eye, they’ll have a lot to say.
2) The Spark 💥
Generating solutions requires The Spark, which is all about creativity. Before we talk about creativity, let me give you my definition:
Creativity is simply the tendency to make things.
Creativity is about what you do, not what you say. That cool friend who loves concerts and never quite gets around to starting that screenplay? Not creative. A 70-year-old retiree screwing a board under her deck to stabilize the stairs? Creative.
Do you just talk, analyze, compare, and debate? Or do you pick up a pencil and draw? Creativity is that pure, raw itch to get your hands dirty and create something new. When creative people show up, things are brought into the world (even if it’s a doodle on a post-it).
Creativity is not about making good things, it’s about making literally anything at all. You can’t make good things until you’ve learned how to make, and you can’t learn how to make unless you make a lot of bad things first.
Creativity is hard. It’s summoning something from inside yourself and manifesting it into the real world with your hands. It requires bravery and willingness to be wrong.
Sometimes managers to have to “rein in” the creative instinct of young designers. Creating things too fast can keep us from learning enough—but when it’s time to make, we have to burst out of the gates and make.
If you’re not sure if someone is creative, ask them to draw an idea they’ve been talking about. Some people will hesitate, or go on explaining, but creative people will be relieved to put it on paper.
3) The Flow 🌊
Once you have taste and creativity, you need practice. And practice. And more practice. It’ll take years before you’re really good. For digital designers, this means sitting in front of a computer for hours on end.¹
This is nearly impossible to do unless you have The Flow — the tendency to become lost in your design work.
I named The Flow after “flow state,” the enjoyable and energizing state of absorbed focus that skilled people hit when they’re on an engaging challenge. Athletes call this “the zone”.
The Flow requires grit, but don’t confuse it with “hustle”. It has nothing to do with summoning charm, nothing to do with getting aggressive, nothing to do with sweat or “winning”. You don’t even need to wake up early. The Flow can be a grind, but it’s closer to relaxed focus than a slog.
In fact, Flow should feel pretty easy. Bukowski’s gravestone reads: “Don’t try.” If you have to try too hard to get into the Flow, you might not have much energy left once you get there.
That doesn’t mean The Flow is always easy to find. Quiet offices and dark early morning hours breed Flow, and noisy workspaces and meetings kill it. You have to make room in your life for The Flow to appear.
If you want to know if someone has The Flow, ask them about how their projects are going. If they’ve been “meaning to find the time,” that’s a bad sign. If they do have it, they’ll tell you about all the things they’ve been trying. You might even see bags under their eyes.