What Does a Designer Do? A Rumination on Magic

Ask what a designer does, and you’ll get a million different answers. This is apparent every time someone asks me what I’m studying here at AC4D. Is it like graphic design, or UX? What are we designing, and for whom? I tell them I perform research into human behavior and provide insights into how to improve systems, interactions, and general human experience. Their eyes glaze over.

The public writ large may not know what we do, but designers working in the field do—right? Well, it depends who you ask. There is general consensus that designers should work with users, and the field of interaction design rests on this tenet. But what does it mean to work with users, and how?

Jodi Forlizzi writes that “Designers understand, explore, and create based not only on data in the world, but also intuitive judgment.” This is a common belief among designers, but her approach to gathering data is unique. Her Product Ecology framework encourages designers to study products and how users interact with them to understand human motivation and behavior. This demonstrates an archetypal “designing for users” mindset. Her research may involve users, but, ultimately, it is the designer’s “intuitive judgment” that reveals new methods to better serve the user’s needs.

This “intuitive judgment” is something like magic, and Forlizzi embodies what I call the “Designer as Magician” approach. Many designers believe that we should interview users and test our solutions with them, but that  designing should be done by those who wield the magic. Jane Fulton Suri, who espouses corporate ethnography and experience prototyping, adheres to this notion. Don Norman, who believes designers mostly add incremental improvements to existing technology, adheres to this approach (he just doesn’t find the magic to be very impressive). And Chris Le Dantec, who understands the importance of designing with users, nevertheless holds the designer at a remove. His understanding of different publics, a concept he borrows from John Dewey, belies the idea that the designer can flit between communities at will and impart their magic skills.

On the other side of the spectrum is the “Designer as Organizer” approach. In this view, everyone can and should be involved in the design process, on a more or less equal footing with the designer. It is the designer’s job to bring those people together and help them organize their creativity and insights. This will allow them to direct the design process in a way that truly addresses their needs and values.

Liz Sanders is a strong proponent of this approach. She assumes that all people are creative and, given the chance, can contribute to the design process. Thus, she supports co-creation, especially as a means of generating social value.

Paul Dourish takes this one step further, arguing that, because every user’s context is unique and in constant flux, we must create tools that allow for user input and individual user design whenever possible. Bill Gaver, meanwhile, has his own approach wherein he gives participants creative prompts to generate insights into their attitudes and behaviors. This process, which he calls “Probology,” is used to generate unique designs that are more the result of creative play than research.

Finally, we have Jon Kolko, the founder of AC4D. His book Exposing the Magic of Design lends its name to the dichotomy presented here. Does Kolko believe that design is a form of magic? And when you expose the magic, does it cease to exist?

What Does a Designer Do? diagram

In the above diagram, I’ve placed Kolko in the “Designer as Organizer” category. He certainly believes that designers have a special skill, so it was difficult to place him here. Input from our class discussions—specifically his advice to continually solicit feedback and invite users to evaluate our themes and insights—has inspired me to place Kolko toward the “Designer as Organizer” pole. In addition, by arguing for the strategic incorporation of stakeholder buy-in, he shows attention to the need to organize public opinion (and corporate opinion) around a designer’s work.

Still, Kolko’s approach to design, despite incorporating users’ feedback, bears the hallmark of some of our other corporate-minded designers, including Norman, Fulton Suri, and Forlizzi, who ultimately argue that a designer must create something for someone at the behest of someone else. This mental hierarchy inspires me to place him toward the “Designing for” position—a somewhat surprising conclusion, given the fact that we are taught at AC4D to design for social good.

But I guess we’re not taught to design with social good, are we?