Search for the term “great designers” these days, and thousands of results appear: almost all about web design. When did it pass away that great design was about architecture, interiors, furnishings, and inventions of household devices and factory machines. When did a ‘device’ cease to be a doorknob, or can opener, or car, and conjure, instead, only images of handheld electronics run through ‘taps’ and ‘swipes’ and ‘pinches.’
I was recently asked, “Where do you get inspiration for your designs?” It was asked in the context of user interface design, and was couched with the implication that inspiration must come from a “who” rather than from a “where” or a “what.” My answer, “My inspiration comes from many places! Especially architecture! Fashion!” The gentleman looked at me in surprise. I am, after all, a senior user experience strategist, and yet my answer did not come from the halls of electronics and digital design. Then we got to the heart of his question, “i mean, what do you think of Nielsen and Tufte?” I briefly stared back at him, wondering at this exhibit of UX knowledge from the president of a company specializing in a a non-digital domain that was only beginning to emerge into digital design. All who had spoken of the ‘old guard’ in this company I was visiting, thought its leaders and staff rather staid and old-fashioned, not fully ready for a new world; yet here he was citing two names well-known in the field of information design. He shifted in his chair and finally blurted out his real distress, “You’re an expert. What do you do when two ‘experts’ in the field disagree? Nielsen and Tufte have a very public disagreement. Which one do you hold with? How do you know which one is ‘right’?”
I smiled, “Of course they disagree, that’s part of the fun of design!” He has a company and millions of dollars at stake, and was clearly nonplussed at this mention of ‘“fun,” but clearly intrigued, nonetheless. Pausing I waited to let my shocking statement sink in before plunging ahead to an answer “Tufte and Nielsen are experts, yes, but I am an expert, too. Every UX person is, each in his or her own way. What those ‘experts’ are talking about is design, in general. They are big names, with big audiences, each brilliant and each often ‘right’ in general terms. What they do not know, and will never see, are the users I see, study, and that get into my very cells every day. They do not know the goals and the needs, the hopes and desires of the users I serve. They do not know my organization’s goals and how to reach them and, indeed, are not in the least committed to doing so. I take the best of what I see and hear and read, and what I have created in my own work and seen in my own user studies, and use my expertise to apply it in the context of what I know is best. That’s what UX is, and why your and other companies now seek what we in the UX field provide. We know how to take the experts’ advice and apply to make real things, to generate new ideas, and take those ideas from concepts to real.”
So when do you get to call yourself an expert? The time is now. Whether you have been in the field for 20 years or 20 days, you have something to bring that no one else does. You, we all, also have something to learn. Look around for guidance and inspiration; look around for great design. Then let go of what you learned and go with what you know, even if only for a moment. Work with the team; let collaboration drive your design. Sketch and make lists and get frustrated and throw things away. Let the eraser and delete key become your best friends. Take it step at a time. Breathe. But more than anything remember that design is personal. Tufte and Nielsen and a corporate president, and you and I, bring ourselves to the fore, and use what we know, and all for three central purposes: so that users will be happy, successful, and reach their goals; so that we, ourselves, will be happy, successful, and reach our goals; and so that those around us, our team members, in the context of their own work and our corporate goals, will be happy, successful, and reach their goals.
Want great design? Do it now. Make it personal. Go create!