"プレゼンテーション zen" introduced in Japan
Design lessons from the art of washoku

10 Tips on how to think like a designer

Designer_japan Most people do not really think about design and designers, let alone think of themselves as designers. But what, if anything, can regular people — teachers, students, business people of all types — learn from designers and from thinking like a designer? And what of more specialized professions? Can medical doctors, scientists, researchers, and engineers, and other specialists in technical fields benefit in anyway by learning how a graphic designer or interaction designer thinks? Is there something designers, either through their training or experience, know that we don't? I believe there is.

Thinklikeadesigner_slide Below are 10 things (plus a bonus tip) that I have learned over the years from designers, things that designers do or know that the rest of us can benefit from. When I speak around the world I often put up a slide that asks people to make as many sentences as they can beginning with the word "Designers...." The goal of this activity is to get people thinking about thinking about design, something most of us never do (it also gets people in the audience talking, loosening up a bit; always a good thing). The sentences they generate range from "Designers wear black" to "Designers use creativity and analysis to solve problems" to "Designers make things beautiful," and so on. (Click on the "Think like a designer" slide to see the 11 tips in slide format on Slideshare.net — feel free to use them if you like.)

These ten are broad and even a bit philosophical. Regardless of your profession, I hope there is an item or two that you can apply to your own work.

(1) Embrace constraints. Constraints and limitations are wonderful allies and lead to enhanced creativity and ingenious solutions that without constrains never would have been discovered or created. In the words of T.S. Eliot, "Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl." There's no point complaining about constraints such as time, money, tools, etc. Your problem is what it is. How can you solve it given the resources and time that you have?

(2) Practice restraint. Any fool can be complicated and add more, it takes discipline of mind and strength of will to make the hard choices about what to include and what to exclude. The genius is often in what you omit or leave on the editing room floor.

(3) Adopt the beginner's mind. As the old saying goes, in the expert's mind there are few possibilities, but for one with the beginner's mind, the world is wide open. Designers understand the need to take risks, especially during early explorations of the problem. They are not afraid to break with convention. Good designers are open minded and comfortable with ambiguity early on in the process, this is how discoveries are made.

(4) Check your ego at the door. This is not about you, it's about them (your audience, customer, patient, student, etc.).  Look at the problem from their point of view -- put yourself in their shoes. This is not easy, it takes great amounts of empathy. Get in touch with your empathetic side. Empathy — an under valued "soft skill," can be a great differentiator and is key for truly understanding a problem.

(5) Focus on the experience of the design. It's not the thing, it's the experience of the thing. This is related to #4 above: Put yourself in their shoes. How do people interact with your solution? Remember that much of design has an emotional component, sometimes this is even the largest component (though users may be unaware of this). Do not neglect the emotional aspect of your solutions.

(6) Become a master storyteller. Often it's not only the design — i.e., the solution to a problem — that is important, but the story of it. This is related to #5 above. What's the meaning of the solution? Practice illustrating the significance of solutions both verbally and visually. Start with the general, zoom in to the detail, pull out again to remind us of the theme or key concept, then zoom back in to illuminate more of the detail.

(7) Think communication not decoration. Design — even graphic design — is not about beautification. Design is not just about aesthetics, though aesthetics are important. More than anything, design is about solving problems or making the current situation a little better than before. Design is not art, though there is art in design.

(8) Obsess about ideas not tools. Tools are important and necessary, but they come and go as better tools come along. Obsess instead about ideas. Though most tools are ephemeral, some of your best tools are a simple pencil and sketch pad. These are often the most useful — especially in the early stages of thinking — because they are the most direct. Good advice is to go analog in the beginning with the simplest tools possible.

(9) Clarify your intention. Design is about choices and intentions, it is not accidental. Design is about process. The end user will usually not notice "the design of it." It may seem like it just works, assuming they think about it at all, but this ease-of-use (or ease-of-understanding) is not by accident, it's a result of your careful choices and decisions.

(10) Sharpen your vision & curiosity and learn from the lessons around you. Good designers are skilled at noticing and observing. They are able to see both the big picture and the details of the world around them. Humans are natural pattern seekers; be mindful of this skill in yourself and in others. Design is a "whole brain" process. You are creative, practical, rational, analytic, empathetic, and passionate. Foster these aptitudes.

(11) Learn all the "rules" and know when and why to break them. Over the centuries, those who came before us have established useful and necessary guidelines — these are often called rules or laws and it's important to know them. Yet, unlike other kinds of laws, it may be acceptable to break them at times so long as you know why. Basic graphic design principles and rules are important and useful to know, yet most professionals today have a hole in their education when it comes to the fundamentals of graphic design. I try to do this a little bit with the book Presentation Zen Design to raise the design mindfulness and vocabulary of professionals who do not make a living in design per se, but who have a desire to get better.

This is not an exhaustive list (in fact, I started with about 25 items); there are many other things designers can teach us (and not only graphic designers as well). What is missing from this list? What would you add? Love to hear your ideas.

Dieter Rams: ten principles for good design (H/T Tom Moore for this link)


John Spence

As always Garr -- an absolutely superb post! Excellent ideas -- it is all about what "Not" to put in a design -- in order to keep it clean, elegant and effective. More is not better... better is better. Thanks for helping to keep us all focused.


The late, great Orson Wells summed up Number 1 best: "The absence of rules is the enemy of art."

Luis Fernando Oliveira

Garr, may I disagree on number 3. The true expert knows that there is usually more than one "right" answer, if any. The mistake of believing in one correct answer is the mistake of the beginner. And that is the hardest decision, how to simplify without dumbfing.

Luis, I think you may have misunderstood what I mean by "beginner's mind." Here is a simple explanation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoshin

Mike Wagner

Garr, thanks for the post. It served as the centerpiece to a lunch time conversation with a client's VP of Operations.

Thank you for your generous sharing of insights learned along the way.

Much appreciated!

Keep creating,

Stephen Hampshire

Good stuff, Garr. I think the first two are particularly powerful, and perhaps the hardest for the layperson to see.

I find imposing arbitrary constraints on yourself is a very good way to get the creative process flowing when you get writer's block - something I blogged about in relation to photography in particular: http://lightboxer.wordpress.com/2009/05/11/constraints-and-creativity/

I suspect restraint is so fashionable at the moment because the digital age has meant we're swamped by amateur design, which is invariably too busy.

Robert Hacker

The emphasis on the depth of understanding the customer is particularly noteworthy. However, I would have thought you would have added design as a means to achieve differential advantage and something about how design has to be integrated into strategy or values for a company/product/project.



stop stealing from others!
you should put where you get it from.


Josh - Your link shows that Carlos did credit Presentation Zen. I don't see any evidence that Garr stole anything.


Why zen has rules?

Dan Becker

Excellent post!

I just wrote a silly little iPhone app in my free time, as a nice change of pace from my day job.

One of the things I enjoyed most was the design process. These principles capture the things I worked hardest at.

I did violate one or two of these since an equal purpose for me was specifically to learn iPhone programming, not just to be a creative expression. :-)

The few listed here that I didn't spend time on give me something to think about for next time!


>stop stealing from others!

Excuse me? Are you saying I stole the post above even though this was posted on Aug 10 and "carlosmiceli's" post (a copy/paste of my post) was posted on Aug 11? Logic??? Also, carlosmiceli cites the source (me) of his copy/paste on his 1-day old blog so I really don't mind. In addition to that, I have essentially said everything in this post before over the years -- I guess I am stealing from myself. I rest my case. :-)


Great post, Garr.

It sums up the most important things you've been teaching us, your readers, since 2006 about design in one post. Simply great.

This is a perfect hand-out for my marketing students. Obviously, I will cite the source ;-)

Greetings from Switzerland.

Rolando Peralta

brilliant advices! thanks a lot for sharing, Garr!


I enjoyed your recent discussion of 10 tips on how to think like a designer. I have bookmarked your website but do think you could cut back on the number of posts on your home page. It is taking some time to load into my browser. The archives are there for a reason.

Tom Moore

It would seem that decalogues are the order of the day. Here's a link to Dieter Rams' thoughts: Good Design in 10 Commandments. It's about 30 years old, but there's some gems to contemplate.


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