You may have been shown a particular feature or a interaction flow and thought "that's great design" but it is not. It may be clever design or competent design but it is not great design.
The reason why is that great design is not explainable, great design would take an infinity of words to explain. The best anyone can do is pull out one chunk of a great design and lay that piece bare but to do so amputates it from it's surroundings and kills its greatness. Like the blind man with the elephant, any possible perspective misses the essential nature of the beast.
Great design is holistic and fractal in nature. It is infused into every part and every dimension of the product and it is the weaving together of every aspect that makes it great design. Great design is about the relationship of all of the synchronous pieces working in glorious harmony.
This is, perhaps, why so many people, including designers, don't fundamentally understand great design. They expect to be able to read about it and categorize it and list it out as a series of skills that must be learnt. This is not possible.
The only way to understand great design is to marinate in it. To experience it on a day by day level, dissect it out and reverse engineer the pieces that make it great. The only way to be a great designer is to understand this and struggle to achieve the same harmony in your own work.
There is a special lightbulb that goes off in your head when you first realize that design is everything and everything is design. The performance of the code is a design issue because it causes interruptions in the cognitive flow of the user. The quality of the code is a design issue because it affects how quickly we can pivot as a product. The message of the marketing department is a design issue because it affects the types of users who are attracted to the system. The structure of the team is a design issue because it affects what role design has at the table (Organizational Design). The training of the customer service staff is a design issue because they handle the exception cases for when your design has failed as it must because design is about tradeoffs.
This is part of the hue and cry around the Valley; "it's impossible to find great designers anymore". There are many designers, few of them are great. So many of them are stuck in their existing skillset, their existing narrow worldview, unwilling or unable to venture out and do what it takes to infuse the soul of their product with design.
Part of the reason why is because our process of creating designers is fundamentally broken. Good design education is not an industrial process. It cannot ever be a list of skills to be learned or tools to be mastered. Good design education must be artisan, individually moulding great designers, stroke by stroke. The number of schools who are committed to doing this are few. The number of schools who are committed to doing this and capable of shifting with the rapidly changing demands of the field are zero.
Post schooling, our industry has not been kind to designers. The typical technology team nowadays is 3 - 5 engineers and one designer. One designer who has to battle it out alone in an environment hostile to design, who has to puzzle things out all by themselves from whatever independent resources they can gleam, who has to master a dozen different domains, each of which could take up a lifetime of dedication. Even in large teams, mentorship has become a losing economic proposition. Designers stay so short at any one gig and mentoring drops the productivity of senior designers so much that any company devoted to mentorship basically becomes a charity for it's competitors. What is left for all but the most brilliant designers to do except muddle along, day by day, barely struggling to stay afloat in a mountain of work?
Something needs to change. Designers are important. Design is important. The health of the technology industry is not sustainable unless we fix the ailment in Design. This is my primary reason for starting the Product Design Guild.
The guild is a place that designers can come together and contribute to the betterment of design. It is a place which replicates the old ways of doing things, the human ways. Two designers, side by side, sharing with each other what they know. Touching, crafting, diving deep into the guts and tuning every single string until it hums a glorious tune. This is the only way I know of how to teach great design.
Whether this will work, I don't know, it's still the very earliest days of this project. But dammit, I'm trying because this is important. I'm trying because I want to see the world become a better place and the best way I know how is to build better products.
We are currently planning to hold a pilot at the end of October where we bring a group of talented designers together and have them collaborate. For them to bring the work they are doing in their everyday lives and work on it together with other designers. To collaborate, to brainstorm, to critique & to wireframe. To see their designs from another perspective and to hopefully learn something that makes them a better designer. If this post has resonated with you and if you would like to be considered for this pilot, I urge you to sign up below. We will get back to you by October 22nd about the details of the pilot.- Xianhang Zhang