A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Demystifying Design

Designers are makers who craft solutions to problems that plague customers, clients, and at times, society as a whole. The specialized tools and jargon (leading? kerning? cognitive load?) often understood only by other practitioners are a designer’s hallmarks. How we actually design and arrive at viable solutions is a mystery to most.

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Some believe this mystery helps us maintain the perceived value of design in our organizations. In today’s world—a world craving more and better design—however, this mystery is actually holding us back as a profession.

Mystery is empowering

Mystery is powerful stuff. It feeds the ego and creates a perception of control over a product’s end state. Mystery places invisible barriers between designers and the team that only those versed in “Design” can traverse. Non-designers often feel unqualified to enter our world and many won’t attempt to participate in the design process. The mystery makes designers heroes! A problem-statement enters in one end of the process and a solved problem emerges on the other, polished and gorgeous.

Opening the kimono

As designers, we must demystify the way we work. We must make our tools accessible, our jargon more mainstream, and our processes transparent to our teams. We must educate our colleagues and welcome them into our world. We must become transparent—for transparency will build cross-functional trust and erode the pervasive “us and them” attitude, dramatically increasing the value we bring to our customers and clients.

Inevitably, designers will resist such a movement. The first counter-argument is that non-designers simply won’t understand everything that goes into a solution. Concepts such as white space, information hierarchy, and color theory (to name just three) cannot be fully explained during a design review meeting. Others will say that it diminishes the unique value a designer brings to a project. If everyone can offer an opinion on how to design a solution then everyone, in essence, is a designer, no? The designer is no longer the hero. The inevitable revelation that at times designers rely solely on gut instinct will further erode their perceived value. No complex design theory calculations coupled with behavioral psychology truisms yielded the end product. It simply looked right.

Demystification is powerful

We must work more closely and collaboratively with our teammates, colleagues, and clients. Collaborative teams have trust. Trust stems from transparency between roles. As designers, we need to bring this transparency to our processes. Sharing the way we work and inviting others to participate is the first step. A colleague who may have originally thought that designers simply “made things pretty” starts to realize the rigor and experience that goes into each design decision. When the entire team understands the challenges of balancing brand, business, and consumer needs in a solution, the true depth of design is revealed. Not only is design’s value clarified, but the designer’s skill and expertise become evident.

By revealing our process, with its twists, turns, and challenges and inviting others into our world we begin to break down divisions. The input non-designers provide during the design phase will ultimately show up in the work—or at the very least they will perceive that you heard them. Feelings of ownership in the project increase, creating a team that is more invested in the success of the work which translates to improved product quality. Let’s look at some steps we can take.

Where to begin

  1. Draw together

    Invite your teammates and colleagues to join you in the ideation process: sketch together. It’s a powerful way to begin the demystification process. Show your teammates that sketching is something that everyone can do. Level the playing field: reveal the secrets of your sketching techniques. One empowering fact that works well when sketching collaboratively is that any UI can be drawn with basic geometric shapes. If your teammates can draw circles, squares, and triangles, they can sketch almost any user interface. By revealing these “trade secrets,” you empower the non-designer to participate in the design.

  2. Show raw work (frequently)

    The pace at which we’ve trained our colleagues to expect to see output from us is a major cause of the trust issues we face as designers. To combat this, show raw work to your team. As soon as you have a cohesive idea formed around layout or workflow, jot down a quick sketch and pass it around. Show your colleagues how you work. These early ideas reveal the scope of the challenges the designer is taking on and will help form the ultimate solution. Yet their true power, at least internally, is to keep the project’s forward momentum going by demonstrating progress. Instead of waiting a week for a first draft, show something in four hours. The raw nature of the work makes the design malleable by all and the fact that you, the designer, have spent so little time creating it reduces your own resistance to tweaking it or even fully rethinking the UI. Design tweaks, input, and general critique that would’ve generated a tension-filled room are now opportunities to weigh in on the direction of a much-faster moving project.

  3. Teach the discipline

    Within the context of the work you create and the design review rubric you use, there will be opportunities to educate your team. As common design tactics arise in the work, take a moment to explain why you chose that tactic and how it benefits the product. Pull people over to your desk and show them a recent update you made to the work. Engage them in conversation around how you believe you’ve solved one of the problems. In addition, this is a phenomenal opportunity to translate design jargon. If you’re going to use words like leading and kerning, at least take a few minutes to define those terms for your colleagues. Start building that common language.

  4. Be transparent

    No matter what design activity you’re participating in at the moment, share it with your team and the broader company. Let people see exactly what the design team is currently doing, why they’re doing it, and share the outcome of those activities. Create an internal newsletter, a wiki, or a simple email to inform higher-ups and stakeholders of what the UX team did last week, is doing this week, and has planned for the following week. Did you do some research? Publish the results and the design decisions driven from those results. This simple communication keeps your team front-of-mind in the organization and helps remove any ambiguity around what “those designers” are doing.

  5. Take credit for your wins

    Was a conversion metric met? Did a new feature deliver the lift you were looking for? Claim that as a victory for the design team. These ideas may seem antithetical to the team mantras promoted throughout this article, but, if done with proper inclusive decorum, these announcements begin to solidify the power that design has within the organization. The demystification process should not only show what it is that designers do but should prove the power of those practices through measurable business wins.


Design is popularly being hailed as the savior of many businesses yet many people don’t really know what design involves. This continues a cycle of doubt, underfunding, and incredulity at its true power. By revealing the inner workings of our design practices, explaining our choices, reinforcing those choices with references to provable academic theories, and teaching our colleagues what goes into every pixel placement, workflow, and word choice, we increase the value of our practice and of ourselves as practitioners. It’s the realization that designers are much more than simple pixel-pushers that will continue to bring new clients and new levels of corporate reach and achievement.

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