Ryan Chen


Lessons to My Younger Self


I will preface this answer by talking about what design isn’t.

Design isn’t (just) making things look pretty.
At least, that’s not the end goal. I think many young designers, like myself, get fascinated with the visual side of things — the illustrations, the colors, the pretty typography, etc. Often times, we get sucked into the role of putting a bird on it, and we fail to see the real problem at hand. No, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t obsess over fonts and what-not. But first, we must understand the purpose behind every design that we make.

Design is problem-solving.
Most of the time, a client will come to you and tell you what they need. Maybe it’s a brochure or maybe it’s logo. And it’s easy for a young designer to say:


Sure, you can do that, but most of the time it’s putting a band-aid on a deep wound. We, as designers, always need to take a step back and ask ourselves “why?”. Are you sure you need a brochure? Are you sure you need a new logo? What is the bigger problem here.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine emailed me about a new project she was starting and wanted to see if I would be interested in helping them design their product. She wanted to create an app that would help people with dementia track their memories in an easy and user-friendly manner. She showed me a few sketches of her idea, one of which contained a drawing of a winding road to represent the user’s life. The user would click on areas on the road to mark specific memories in their life.

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Now, put on your young designer’s cap. This mockup is a smorgasbord of creative fun. Imagine all the illustrations you could do! Oh, and even fun little animations of chirpy birds flying pass the screen! 2 years ago, I would be drooling at an opportunity like this.

Now, imagine staring at this screen through the eyes of dementia. If you did a simple Google search, you would find that symptoms include forgetfulness, memory loss, and an inability to recognize common objects. Although this screen may seem easy for us to interpret, we cannot forget about who we are designing this for. People with dementia would have a hard time distinguishing what is important and what is not. Sooner or later, they would be too confused and lose interest. Have we solved a bigger problem? I would think not.

Designing is problem-solving. We must fully understand the purpose of what we’re making before we pick up a pen and paper. So always question every detail of your work. Don’t leave it to your client or to your boss. Be fascinated with the “why”, and learn to be critical of your own work.

Good design is listening.
Our task as designers is to not only be great problem-solvers, but to also be great listeners. Most people will come to us and expect us to slap on some color and make their product look nice. But if you listen well and ask good questions, you will draw out the true problem — which may have been unknown to the client or even to you. Be curious in more than what they are asking you to do. Dive into their story, understand their audience, and listen, listen, listen. The great thing about our job is that this very skill is something we practice everyday. As you grow older, you learn to never just take what your friends say to you at face value. Many times, we must pry our way into the truth, and I think this is the same with design. Everything we make is a message we are communicating, so it is crucial that we communicate the right message.

Good design is empathy.
I may have covered this in my other points, but I really think this statement brings you back to the core of what we do as designers. Fast Company wrote an article entitled “Google’s Guide to Designing with Empathy”, where they covered several methods Google used to make their designs more accessible to people:

“Empathy is all about understanding, but many designers never think beyond what life is like for them.”

Take a moment to think about the things you buy or interact with day-to-day. Why Nike over Reebok? Why Spotify over iTunes? Why Starbucks over Dunkin Donuts? Brands define who we are because they speak to more than just a product. They preach experiences and connect to our ethos. If you wear this, then you believe in this. If you use this, then you believe in this. We as designers must learn to make things that connect to our deepest emotions.

Alright, so that was a lot of information. Also, as I was writing this down, I realized that I don’t really practice what I preach. So I’ll end with this. Know that we will make mistakes. We will fail to see a problem or misunderstand a client. There will be days where you will doubt yourself and your creative ability — and that’s good. Fail often and soak up as much as you can from your mistakes. Good design comes from trying and trying again. That is something I wish I would have known from the beginning, but I think it’s just a matter of experience.

Ryan ChenComment