Posted by: rolfsky | December 22, 2008

5 lessons for young designers

While at eBay, I’ve had the opportunity to cut my teeth being a “designer” on various projects, initiatives, and explorations. Over time, I’ve learned that (like many other things), design looks like fun and is actually hard work.

Here are 5 tips that I wish someone had given me before I started designing anything:

  1. know what you’re solving
    Design is the process of creating solutions to problems. More often than not, the problem is actually something different than what it at first appears. Probably, those asking you to do the design are phrasing the question incorrectly. As a designer, it’s up to you to figure out what they’re really asking for. Once you know what you’re solving for, then you can begin researching all the use-cases which you’ll incorporate into your successful design. (And there will be plenty of use-cases that weren’t initially mentioned.)
  2. someone has already designed this
    The world seems like a blank slate. Never has a designer encountered these problems before, and you have the chance to create something truly new! Wrong. Your “entirely new” problem is likely one of the age-old problems many systems or products have approached before. The circumstances may be new, but looking to the past at how other designers have solved something like this will help you learn from someone else’s mistakes. If you can’t find something like this before, ask around, and read some books; the truth is out there.
  3. this is not a meritocracy
    In the end, your design will not evaluated solely on its merits. Any design you deliver to a committee or team will have to pass their own special set of requirements. Their perception is your reality, and if it looks complicated to them, it is. There is no sense or joy attempting to convince them they are wrong, it’s your job to explain the rationale behind your design decisions and how they solve the problem. At times, you’ll need to educate about what the actual problem is. After you’ve done all this, you have to let it go and move on.
  4. you are not designing for yourself
    You’re way deeper into this than you realize. By even thinking about this design problem in the first place, you have already become a power-user. There are plenty of edge-cases to explore, don’t get wrapped up in them, just because you know they exist. Focus on delivering the functionality in priority order by solving most users biggest problems first. Also, remember that the users of this product are not designers. Namely, your users probably don’t have a few of the luxuries you have: LAN connection, two 1600×1200 monitors, really good eyesight, an hour of undivided attention. I always think of this way: imagine this design as if I were trying to hold a baby in one hand and still accomplish my task. Does the design still work?
  5. the better the design, the less people will talk about it
    Secretly in your heart you long for fame and fortune as a designer. A sad truth to design is that the better something works, the less publicity you’ll probably get. Inspired design is invisible, subtle, and elegant. To achieve any sort of notoriety, your design must be so invisible that its invisibility is noteworthy! Also, designers are like authors or actors: for every super-star, there are 1000 nearly-as-good who will never see their name in lights.

Any additional thoughts? I’d love to hear from any readers who are designers themselves!



  1. Great post, Rolf. I’d add one more piece of advice: Don’t take feedback personally! We all need to be reminded that we are judged by the final product, not by the number of times we ask for help. When user research findings indicate that design changes are needed, designers should be thankful for the early feedback and use that feedback to make the designs better – not go into defensive mode! We’re all in this together…

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