Designer Toolkit

This is what you need to level up as an individual contributor

How marrying design process and design instincts will set you apart.
Open Design

Design-led organizations are starting to receive more attention, and for good reason. Companies that prioritize design have higher revenue growth and are more tapped into user needs than companies that aren’t design-led, according to an October 2018 McKinsey report. So it makes sense that more and more organizations have realized the impact of design and are investing in design processes.

This heightened focus on the impact of design has also changed the way companies see and value designers. The UX Collective team summarized this shift in their annual The State of UX report:

“Our employers and clients are buying way more than [designers’] technical skills. They are buying our authenticity, our transparency, our openness, our ability to collaborate with our peers, our ability to recover from failures. This transformation in the way companies buy design is making designers realize they are selling a process, not a deliverable.”

The design process (and documenting it) has become more important now more than ever, especially for individual contributors (ICs).

Individual contributors have a different relationship to their work than designers who choose the management route. The farther ICs go in their career, the more they focus on their craft. Without the added responsibilities associated with management, they wield a large amount of influence while constantly sharpening their design skills, including their design instincts.

Knowing how your design process and design instincts feed into each other is an important skill for any designer. But for ICs, who are especially attuned to craftsmanship, it’s crucial to the success and longevity of their career.

Design instincts help you create better solutions, faster

Instinct transforms technical skill into artistry. Take jazz improvisation. At first glance, great jazz improv seems like it’s just spontaneous playing that magically creates beautiful melodies. But that magic is actually instinct that each musician on that stage has honed for years.

Over the course of their music careers, those jazz musicians have studied and practiced notes, chords, phrasings, songs, and scales and they’ve played with countless other musicians, constantly developing their instincts for musicality, performance, and collaboration. They’ve learned from each practice session and performance and it’s those experiences that develop the instincts they use to improvise.

So while those musicians are creating something new on stage, it probably wouldn’t sound as good or as cohesive if they didn’t have great musical instincts. The same goes for design.

Because you’ve tried so many different design solutions over the course of your career, it becomes easier to identify similar types of problems and how they relate to one another. This allows you to begin pattern matching.

And it’s those past experiences that become part of your toolkit as a designer. You can then recall, “oh last time that I encountered a problem like this, we tried these four solutions, we tested them, we narrowed in on these two.” With a wealth of experience to draw from that you evolve into a faster, more confident designer.

Your design instincts are what separates you from other designers. It’s your unique point of view that’s informed by your knowledge and past experiences, allowing you to stand out and become better at your craft.

Expertise and design instincts go hand-in-hand (because, science)

Instincts/intuition are the results of your brain’s ability to synthesize your knowledge and experiences so you can make good (design) decisions quickly.

In the 2016 study Measuring Intuition: Nonconscious Emotional Information Boosts Decision Accuracy and Confidence, researchers examined the link between intuition and decision making. Joel Pearson, scientist and a member of the research team behind the study, explained their findings:

Data suggests that we can “use unconscious information in our body or brain to help guide us through life, to enable better decisions, faster decisions, and be more confident in the decisions we make.”

They also found that intuition can be improved over time with practice. This is because your brain is always learning from your past decisions, thanks to your adaptive unconscious—the part of your brain that processes large amounts of information so you can function. It’s that part of your brain that helps you make quick design decisions.

In fact, recent research found that possessing a high level of expertise makes your intuition more accurate over time. That’s great news for IC designers because the work they do to deepen their craft helps them fine-tune their design instincts.

Version control is the missing ingredient to developing design instincts

Building design instincts comes down to seeing what worked and what didn’t in a project and figuring out why. In the past, honing your design instincts was a long, fragmented process.

You would save each version: v1, v2, v3, final, final_final, in a Dropbox folder filled with snapshots in time. But what you were missing was the why—and what led you to go from V1 to V2.

It was like seeing only the first and last step in a long list of instructions that came with your Ikea dresser. You didn’t know the feedback you received, who gave you that feedback, the iterations you tried and why.

But with version control, not only do you have more time because all of the feedback and iterations are in one place, but you also get to see the entire narrative of a project, from beginning to end. This empowers you to gain a deeper understanding of the context of the decisions that were made every step of the way. It’s a new way to observe the design process.

Version control means you get access to the mind of a designer in a way that you couldn’t before. A more junior designer can follow along and understand the decisions of a more seasoned designer on their team as if by osmosis or subliminal learning. It takes the pain out of onboarding because a new designer on the team can get ramped up quickly and have the same institutional knowledge as their teammates.

Version control makes it that much easier for you to hone your design instincts because you can quickly identify knowledge gaps and easily pinpoint patterns of bottleneck across projects, giving you deep insight into how projects progress and improving the design process as a result.

You’re learning from the collective experiences of your design team, so there’s no more playing catch-up. It’s like matrix-style learning but you don’t have to put on an electrode-embedded head cap to learn new information quickly.

Empowering the IC in a more open world of design

In a recent blog post, our co-founder and CEO described how version control creates a major shift in how we view and learn from the design process: “By introducing transparency and a predictable workflow, we can bring others into our process, helping them understand the intentionality that goes into designing a great product.”

As more organizations become focused on design, the design process has also become more transparent and collaborative. More designers and companies are sharing how they arrived at their design solutions on Medium and the like. Version control is the natural extension of a more open design community. This push towards transparency benefits IC designers who are constantly looking for ways to refine their craft.

Version control gives your adaptive unconscious the context and information it needs to help you come up with great design solutions faster in the future. Equipped with a streamlined workflow and unprecedented access to organizations’ design processes, it’s exciting to think about what the next generation of designers will be able to do.