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Want to be a great designer? Steal these 30 secrets from the world’s top experts

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23.09.2021

How do the world’s most accomplished designers come up with fresh ideas day in and day out? Some draw inspiration from chefs. Others put rookies on their team. Still others steal their ideas from clients. Here, we asked 30 experts spanning architecture, product design, UX, academia, and medicine, to share their biggest design secrets.

We’ve learned everything we know from our clients. Okay, maybe not quite everything! But some of the most basic things—like where to put a sofa. Almost 25 years ago, one of our earliest clients came over to our apartment and decided to fix our poorly arranged living room that had an awkward angled wall. A few years later a super client–Philips Design—schooled us on open plan desking layouts and inspired us to create a three-person collaborative pod. Engineers in Herndon Virginia reassembled a bunch of workstations literally overnight like expert design elves, and taught me a huge lesson in creative space planning. Just because the manual doesn’t have an option doesn’t mean you can’t create it. Facebook in 2010 showed us how to hack an office and create the ultimate collaborative environment. Recently clients have started leading the discussion on diversity and sustainability. I am beyond excited to team up on those efforts. My favorite clients over the years have been the ones that have challenged us, the ones with whom we have been able to build a true partnership and grow together. I will continue to be a sponge in this way. It’s what has made me as a designer, and it’s made our practice stronger.—Verda Alexander, cofounder, Studio O A

All design processes start with some biased opinions for the possible ‘right’ direction. At New Deal Design, we use a contrarian technique through our search for the best direction—we call it the ‘dark horse’ option. The notion is to provide a plausible contrarian point-of-view using a design alternative to counter these biases. When designed well, these dark horse alternatives are often convincing enough to start a major dialogue and affect the mainstream alternatives, too.—Gadi Amit, founder, New Deal Design

Optimism, creativity, and grit are three essential tools in my process, whether it’s thinking about designing a team or a product or solving everyday issues at work or home. I approach every problem knowing there is a solution. If a solution isn’t coming easily, I look at the problem from as many unexpected perspectives as I can. If I’m still struggling, I iterate, iterate, iterate.—Kate Aronowitz, design partner, GV

Throughout my professional life as a designer, I had seen the Bauhaus and its long tail as the pinnacle of design. But until I read Sylvia Harris’s paper titled, “Searching for a Black Aesthetic in American Graphic Design,” I never once stopped to think how it became the de facto standard-bearer for good design. Were it not for an explosion of post-war consumption and mass production in the ’50 and ’60s, this German movement might not have grown to such dominance across the globe. What would count as ‘good design’ today if we had been exposed to more than just one major cultural datum?—George Aye, cofounder, Greater Good Studio

Companies need to create an environment where the people who are designing products and experiences feel heard, seen, and empowered to do their best work. Even at scale, this type of work is highly personal and deeply affects the lives of the people we are creating these experiences for, so the energy that designers put into it is felt in the final product. My wife is a professional chef, and there is an analog here: If you create a meal with joy and love, the person eating it will taste that. It’s the same with product design, and it is my responsibility as a design leader to make sure that our kitchen is stocked with inspiration, kindness, joy, and love.–Sebastian Bauer, senior director of design, Android and Pixel

It’s about the people we design for. Often times, we think good design is a matter of aesthetics – that it’s about designing things that are beautiful, immersive, rich. All those things might be true. But at its most fundamental, good design is design that works for its users. Our role as designers is to put ourselves in other users’ shoes, and then create the best experiences possible. That means, we need to be radically human-centric. We need to know who we are designing for, and anticipate their wants and needs. I’ve always considered excellent user experience research a superpower, and I urge all product builders to treat user research as a non-negotiable part of the development process. To build truly great products, we need to first build understanding and empathy.–Catherine Courage, vice president of user experience, Google

As designers, we use research and empathy to understand human motivation and behaviors, and map those to intended product outcomes. The design process inherently helps us imagine, then create, potential futures. While we cannot predict the future, if we squint, sometimes design can help us catch a glimpse of what potential futures might look like.–Michael DelGaudio, UX Manager and Design Lead, Android TV

Design is very simple – aside of talent it requires disciplined work and constant learning about our adjacent fields of knowledge such as human history, and sciences including ecology and economics. However, in his book The Tides of Mind, David Gelernter states correctly that about only one in eight people has creative talents, and that creativity in all fields cannot be explained or taught—only mentored. Working with my design students over 30 years, my rate is one out of about 100. In choosing eight to 15 out of hundreds of applicants (in China even over 1,000), at graduation just about three to five are at world-class level. Naturally, one has to learn about the design process, as we are connected to an industrial process model, but my main focus is to install courage to make mistakes and gain realistic confidence. Presentation is about 50% of our profession, because our audience lives and works by rational parameters. Therefore, our students also take acting and dancing courses. And as many friends and peers sunk into alcohol and drugs, I try to encourage my students to enjoy a sober creative life. The thrill is in the journey.—Harmut Esslinger, founder, Frog Design

‘It’s never what you do—but how it’s done,’ according to Nas. My secret to design is approaching it a lot like the best musicians and rappers and singers in the world enter the studio every time. With intention. To be an effective........

© Fast Company


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