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Can Anyone Be a Designer?

Probably because I sit next to trained cook and decent butcher Ryan Freitas (whose article on the similarities between cooking and design (pdf) you should read instead of this post), I've been reading books lately about chefs and cooking, namely The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain and Heat by Bill Buford. (I recommend both, simply for the appreciation you will have the next time you eat at a restaurant as to what went into making your meal.) At the same time, a recent thread on the IxDA mailing list once again had designers arguing about whether anyone can be a designer--or whether, in fact, everyone already is.

The movie Ratatouille posed this same question (sort of) about cooking: Can anyone cook?

The answer is, of course, yes. Anyone can cook, to varying degrees. But not everyone can be a professional chef, line cook, butcher, or the myriad of other positions that make up a professional kitchen and the food industry in general. It takes training and a certain temperament and physical endurance. You can be a great cook at home, but that has absolutely no bearing on your ability to be in a professional kitchen, as New Yorker writer Buford found out in Heat.

The same is true, perhaps to a lesser degree, for design (or for that matter any craft that combines artistry and skill). Anyone can design. It's a human activity, to give ideas form and expression in order to ameliorate a less-than-ideal situation. But not everyone can be a professional designer and work at the level most professional designers do: where money, time, and reputation (yours and your clients' and your users') are at stake. And for some designers, like those of medical devices, military systems, and emergency response systems, the stakes are even higher: users are literally entrusting their lives to the designers. I don't know about you, but I want someone who knows what they are doing designing the important products and services I use.

The problem is though, like the customer in the restaurant, everyone thinks they can design, and will offer an opinion, informed or not, on design work. Having an opinion on design isn't the same as being a designer. Some opinions are simply better than others. Not just from designers, either. I've stolen great design ideas from developers, business analysts, executives, research subjects...hell, anywhere I can get them. But we need to be judicial about the opinions we accept and those we reject. It's a matter of professional judgement.

What sets a professional designer apart from the amateur should be the quality and variety of the choices the professional designer makes while working. Even though it isn't always possible (ours being a subjective art), professional designers should strive to make deliberate choices in their work that can be defended. In designing your home, you don't have to defend your choices to anyone (except maybe your family). In designing products and services that will be bought and sold and used for serious purposes, your decisions had best be good: informed by an understanding of the context of use and tempered by experience, talent, and skill. This is why I get paid.

Originally posted at Saturday, August 25, 2007 | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)

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Revising Designing for Interaction

It's been almost two years since I started writing my book Designing for Interaction. In that time, the industry and the profession has changed and so have I. If I was to write the book now, I'd write it differently. And that's what I've just proposed to New Riders: a second edition of D4I to come out next summer.


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