The Design Practitioner vs. The Design Thinker

As design tools through digital and print mediums become more accessible across the globe, we enter an era of design that allows many to explore what it means to be a design practitioner; that is to say, the techniques and time put into exploring the actual doing of design is greatly accessible. However, with all experienced designers, there is a strategy and thought process that develops over time. Years of exploration, failure, success and repeating this process around the actual doing of design manifests itself in the form of strategy, process and iterations on an individual and/or group level of involvement. Over time, designers begin to develop a heightened sense of design, recognize the positive parts of design and transform from being a practitioner of the craft to becoming recognized as a thought leader within the industry and organization.

In this new era of digital accessibility to many various design tools, designers who have been honing their craft for years (and even decades) should recognize their role in this fast moving atmosphere. Instead of becoming bitter about the onslaught of fly by night design shops and many unqualified people taking on design roles for their own projects and organizations; I believe it's important that we begin to recognize the clear dileniation between a practitioner of design and a thought leader of design.

A practitioner is a worker.
The practitioner uses the tools nesseccary to work in the design medium required. In digital, these tools range from graphic design, prototyping, photo editing, front end development, video and motion design, among many other tools. The modern designer is multidisciplinary - not by choice, but by nesseccity of the industry, job market, and requirements of projects set forth by leadership who have recently begun to understand the value (economically) of good design.

A practitioner today has many responsibilities and is often regarded as a "unicorn" type to the organization, but, the reality is that these multidisciplinary designers are applying the foundational elements of design thinking across a wide range of tasks and mediums. These practitioners are examples of the true value of design thinking throughout multiple mediums, across organizations, and even in daily living. Design thinking is powerful and we are finally at the intersection of society where the value of this thinking will be an intrinsically important role within the advancement of commerce, culture and aesthetics both digital and physical.

Let us not confuse the value of design thinking with execution. They are different but possibly mutually beneficial. There are many design practitioners who are incredibly talented at their work but they lack the intuition or practical application of design thinking into their work. That is at no fault to them, but the oscillating balance between being a practitioner and a thinker is unbalanced. This is a dangerous space to operate. In my opinion, design will be moving towards the value of the ability to think as our tools for serving as a practitioner become more accessible and automated. Just as working in photoshop 15 years ago to edit pixel by pixel for retouching an image has become some from hours / days worth of work to a matter of seconds, being a practitioner in the execution is going to be more automated . Designers need to understand the balance and difference of a practitioner and thinker.

This balance and difference is the future of design and the design industry. Design must fully embrace the foundations of design in every aspect.

Without these foundations embraced and advocated at the highest level of designer, expectations of an end product is unrealistic is there is a lack of the foundations that have brought design to where it exists today. The execution within itself must rely on the balance between aesthetic, function, form, development, testing, feedback, experience, quantitative and qualitative data and aligning with the overall brand style and narrative. The metamodern designer takes all of this into account when working on a design. We cannot afford to have an unbalanced approach to our work with the role as designer in modern society.

As we move forward, we must not look at the design industry as having an identity crisis, but we must continue to advocate for the value of design, the importance of design fundamentals, communicating these values and providing true return on investment through every project. There is a great oscillation between being a practitioner within society and forging new paths with thinking and ideas and the future of design in society.

The pendulum aesthetic

Design movements seem to swing like a pendulum. Back and forth. Minimalism, modern, sleek design is poised throughout our cultures and societies from the hands of designers across the globe. This ripple effect takes place every few years and we see a shift, well, more like a tidal wave of a certain aesthetic across various types of mediums, marketing campaign, product designs, etc. In a certain era of time, a designer could walk down the street and more than likely decipher the type of product, message, or campaign something was designed for purely based on the architecture of the aesthetic. The color, font style, texture, photography treatment and energy of a design can quickly render itself to being grouped into a thought-shared aesthetic within various industries at certain points in time.

This pendulum seems to swing back and forth faster and faster from the Swiss influenced modern approach of the Bauhaus era of design, to the reckless and abandon-all-rules of the ever chaotic approach of the 90’s. Somewhere between the two, we find the aesthetic of various designers who have garnered their own sense of style by focusing strictly on either side of the pendulum, or creatively balancing the two within their personal work.

The 90’s saw a group of designers who threw out all conventional design thinking influenced by the Swiss or Bauhaus modern movement and set out to disrupt every piece of visual they could get their hands on. Magazines, posters and prints during this time looked chaotic and completely destroyed. The visual language was oscillating and finding some sort of balance from all of the clean and minimalist designs that saturated the markets. Helvetica was an outcast during this time. Primary colors were disregarded. It was a playground of grunge and texture is and disturbance. It was reminiscent of the culture - it resonated with the music of the time (grunge and alternative came into the mainstream). And this pattern continued until the late nineties when Steve Jobs launched the visuals for Apple and the introduction to the iPod. The clean and minimal approach was back, with a notion of evangelical tones and zen approach to the visual brand. The pendulum was swinging back and soon every digital and tech company was copying the aesthetic because it was dominating the market. And on and on, this happens constantly throughout culture.

Furthermore, commerce, business and revenue sales tend to drive the swinging aesthetic pendulum back and forth. Designers either follow an aesthetic that is working at the time to provide value to increase sales and revenue; or they have bought enough time to explore, experiment and begin swinging a the aesthetic pendulum back the other way; if the sales follow, then so does the industry aesthetic.

Instead of bouncing back and forth, ever so often between these two dichotomies of design; clean vs. chaos. I believe visually, the true effectiveness of design lies somewhere in the moment where we can oscillate both at the same time. Presenting a clean product or brand in a very rough and distorted way. Or… a very dismal and chaotic product or work designed in a clean, minimal and modern way. To me, what I am trying to describe here, is that designer’s need to pay attention to the messaging and tone of the thing itself and use the visual approach to create the tension within the product, campaign or message. This approach creates an oscillation of a metamodernist approach to the work, and in turn, is more effective than the constant swinging of the aesthetic pendulum. It’s a difficult approach to take on and execute, but if done correctly, I believe has the biggest impact to resonate with our audience.

Working on smaller projects with a shorter timeline

Part of this business is the ability to turn out work at a timely rate for clients who need it now, because if you can’t do it, they will find someone who can, and willing.

Yes, things take time to custom tailor a clients needs for various projects, but when its a pretty cut and dry  project where the client, content and brand has already been established, you have to recognize the time to not try and reinvent the wheel and instead, put out good work with a quick turnaround.

As clients approach me for fast work when they need things done in a quick manner, I am ready for them. I am ready to take them on, dig into the project and turn out a product that they need and I can be proud of at the same time. It’s a difficult balancing act to handle, but worthwhile if you can have your ducks in a row. This doesn’t mean that you should cut your rates or sell yourself short.

For clients who need larger projects done, a lot of customization for a proposal goes into the process based on what clients need, but a lot of times people approach me with work that needs to be and is a pretty small project to take on, considering the types of projects I regularly work on. These projects are great to take on to fill the time when the larger projects are in a time of waiting. Sometimes, depending on the client, a project moves into a “hurry up and wait phase” and taking on smaller projects, I have found, is a great way to keep working, become more efficient, and get better at your craft on smaller scales.

Normally, for larger projects, I charge an hourly rate and base that rate on what information clients have presented to me, my knowledge of my work process and how long certain projects take, but for these smaller projects I base pricing on a flat rate. Anything that falls under the scope of work that needs a lot of attention and a large creative process to have a great outcome needs a proposal, meetings, and a lot of research before beginning the actual design and end product. But sometimes a client approaches me with more production-style work, and for those projects, I have decided to take them on to fill my already intense work schedule and at the same time, provide a reasonable service to clients who need quick turnaround for production work.

Here are a few things I have realized that help me pump out this work on a very timely basis is to keep a few key things in mind….

First and foremost, when going into a project that needs a quick turnaround and done really well, it takes focus. It takes a lot of focus. Every distraction under the sun can slow you down or cause you to lose precious time that you have allotted for this client and this project. Get rid of every distraction. Find a quiet place and a good timeframe where you can work uninterrupted for long blocks of time.

Organize your resources
Having your resources of textures, fonts, patterns, code, snippets, etc well organized will help you work faster as you can pull the pieces you need together to quickly turn out a project where a brand and content has already been established.

Streamline your workflow
As you work on projects, take mental notes where you need more time, what goes quickly and where you get hung up in the process. For me, most of my time is spent in the smaller details as I have many game plans for layouts on a grid-system and typography.

Turn off your phone
I absolutely refuse to answer my phone when working. If it’s an emergency, I’ll get a text or an email. Corresponding with clients via email for changes and updates is much better than having a client call you every day or twice a day or, even 5 times a day while you are trying to pound through some serious work. Having a Google Voice number really helps because I can have the voicemail transposed to text and then emailed to my inbox where I can quickly scan over a recent call without being interrupted.

Know your priorities
Major projects require the utmost attention for great outcomes and amazing results. Working on these projects are very mentally draining. It can become exhausting at times. Having these smaller projects at a flat rate are a great way to take a mental break from larger projects, but you’re still making an income, working on your craft, and practicing efficiency. But the key thing to remember is your priorities. Your larger projects need more attention than more production-style projects, and therefore you need to focus all of your attention on those projects when the time comes. Use your smaller projects to take breaks from the larger ones, but remember your priorities to your clients and deadlines.

Charge a rush fee
For smaller jobs that can be taken on, I charge a rush fee for these projects. Plain and simple, I don’t have to take on these projects, but I will schedule them in my workflow at an additional percentage cost for that client. Since the smaller project is usually a smaller budget, it’s only fair to charge a “rush fee” to get this work done.

I have enjoyed taking on smaller projects and being able to pump out good work for clients who need production-style work at a reasonable cost. Not every project can be a $10,000+ project when you are a one man design studio, but to fill the time between larger clients, I have truly enjoyed taking on the smaller projects and have the ability to turn them around in a timely manner.

The process is just as important as the product

Throughout my life I learned a few important things. One of them that always has stuck with me is the idea of the importance of the process. No matter what you do, how you do it and how you get there is just as important as the end result.

The process is just as important as the product. Learning about yourself, taking risks to fail and understanding those around you are just as important as the final outcome of a project.

For me, my creative process is one of the most important assets that I have. With years of education in communication and design, I realize that the process to develop a creative strategy is just as important as delivering a final product to a client.

The Process
While I can’t give away my ingredients for success, because, they are tailored specifically for how I work and what I have personally found to be a successful process for myself over many years; I can provide some kind of advice about this topic.

Start with Research
Develop a process that seeks to understand, evaluate and provide adequate research for whatever you are doing. Research is very important before embarking on any project. Again, let me say this. RESEARCH IS VERY IMPORTANT BEFORE EMBARKING ON ANY PROJECT. By understanding your client, what needs to be accomplished and the goals that need to be met, you can set proper rules and guidelines for yourself and provide your clients accurate expectations that they should have for you and your work.

Let them know
Once you have done your research, let your clients know what you plan on doing. This can be done through a variety of techniques. From wireframes, mood boards, creative strategies and proposals, you can provide your clients an idea of the summarized research you have done. This will provide a mutual understanding of the direction you plan to go in order to reach a successful outcome.

Execute with what you know
Next is execution. With all the quantitative and qualitative data acquired, meetings, proposals, phone calls, emails and understanding of what you plan on doing – you can now execute all of this to your final outcome.

Developing a great final product is what you get paid for. You are being paid to do something others cannot. But, you also need to lay proper groundwork to reach that final outcome. Take pride in the process. Nurture it. Revise it. Constantly evaluate how you do things and how you get the final outcomes and you will continually make your clients happy and build long-lasting

Good design is found in revisions

Good design comes with experience, but also revising and taking your time.

Design isn’t about owning a tool on your computer or having a folder full of free fonts. Design is about taking an idea and creativity communicating it to your audience. This article will describe a few key steps that I take with every design I work on and how I revise my work.

Design  is about finding solutions to problems and challenges that may arise. These challenges are usually faced with how to properly communicate with a target audience in the most effective way possible, while at the same time, having the ability to evoke some kind of internal emotion from the visual way these things are communicated.

Similar to writing an essay or thesis, design should be approached in various steps. Before opening up any program and starting to throw fonts, layers and textures around, it’s best to do your homework. Research is the key to beginning a successful piece of design. You should ask yourself these simple questions:

1. What is the goal I am trying to communicate?
2. Who is this for?
3. What is the target audience?

Once you have a good idea of the goals for your design piece, you can then enter the creative part of the design. This is what “separates the men from the boys” in the design world. Taking the goals and what you are trying to communicate into perspective and having the ability to successfully execute a design to not only communicate, but evoke some kind of emotional response with your audience will set your design, your client and yourself apart from the competition.

If your design doesn’t properly communicate the goals of the design, then it is not good design. Period.

Rough Draft
Write down a few key things that the design will include. Start with a few visual elements such as textures, photography. Find out what kind of color scheme would work well with this design, maybe it calls for a warm color palette or some very modern bright colors. I use to quickly find color schemes. It’s an easy way to visually see colors and palettes….

Last, but definitely not least, you should be able to decide (or have a rough idea) about what kind of typography this design needs. If it calls for a classic feel I usually find a nice serifed font like “Hoefler” or “Mrs. Eaves” or “Rockwell”. If the design leans more towards a modern feel, I usually think about popular clean typefaces such as “Helvetica” or “Futura” or “Franklin Gothic”. Depending on the type of design, sometimes I will work with a typeface in Illustrator and customize the typeface depending on what the design calls for.

You might be one of those people who can sit down, knock out a design on the first round and think “Man, this is awesome” and you’re done. I used to think I was that person. The truth is, everything can always be better than what it currently is. Always revising your design isn’t just a good thing to do, it’s necessary. The truth is, I will get into “design mode” for a few hours and come up with something that I really like. But I will save out that file and come back to it in a few hours or a few days and critically look at what I have done.

I usually ask myself these questions:
1. Is the composition correct?
2. How is the spacing throughout the piece?
3. Are the colors too strong or distract from the message?
4. Is the line height, font size, and typography working well?
5. Do the margins provide enough “breathing room”?
6. Do the textures distract from the piece?
7. Is the imagery/photography appropriate for this design?

Final Draft
Beautiful design doesn’t always happen on the first stroke of genius. Keeping in mind that revisions are necessary to find a solution to a problem (design) will help you be a better designer. Always ask yourself questions and try to find solutions to the challenges faced in any design.

Keeping these questions in mind, understanding your audience and realizing what you are trying to communicate are the core components to developing a design that is functional, communicates properly, and will make you a better designer.

Goals are designed

I believe that everything is designed. Whether intentionally, or by complete accident; everything designed is created by a series of decisions. Design is goals set into action.

Goals are one of the foundational parts of design. Whether it’s a web, brand, print or apparel project – goals are the steps we take to execute on a desired outcome.

Achieve your goals by design and not by chance.

Goals, like every decision made by a design, is not left to chance, but they are intentional. Goals approached in this way lead to success and the fulfillment of each goal.

Here are a few key points to help you achieve your goals:

  • Decide exactly what you want and be specific
  • Write down your goal. It needs to be written, tangible, modified.
  • Set a timeline for your goal.
  • List everything you can think of that you can do to achieve your goal.
  • Organize list by sequence and priority.
  • Take action. Winners take action with no guarantee of success.
  • Always move one step closer to your goal. Doing this develops momentum.

Inspiration is found everywhere but here

As a designer, it gets hard to become inspired. It’s one of those constant struggles where you look and search and seek to find inspiration in every place around you. This post is about how to find inspiration and what I do, personally, to become inspired. Hopefully this may, ahem, inspire you to find some inspiration as well.

I work on the computer constantly. This is my playground, my workstation and pretty much my life. Hours and hours of staring at the screen, looking over pixels and gazing at typefaces can become mundane and stale. Like most designers, musicians and artists, creative blocks happen all the time. Sometimes more often than we wish. But I have been doing an experiment for the past few months and I think, personally speaking, that I have found where my inspiration lies. I have found, specifically related to finding inspiration, that I need to get off the computer. I need to get out of my office. I need to get away from the coffee shop. I need to step out of my comfort zones and experience life and nature and be surrounded by things that have truly helped to inspire me.

I have made it a point to get outdoors. Go kayaking, fishing, hiking, put my feet in water and climb mountains. The inspiration in nature and our world is truly beautiful and organic. The past few months I have found that my level of inspiration with design has grown immensely since making an effort to get off the computer, turn off my iPhone and go experience the things that most of us find inspiring as we view it on our monitors or phones.

These experiences have influenced my recent work and helped to bring back memories and references of things I see in the natural world around me. My personal design style has a very natural feel to a lot of my work and being submersed in these settings and atmospheres have really caused the creative juices to flow and the distance between my creative blocks have diminished greatly. I encourage you, whether you are a designer, artist, musician or just looking for new things to experience in life, to get off the computer. Nothing is as breathtaking on a screen as seeing it in real life. There is something powerful about being in a kayak and watching bald eagles fly overhead while being followed by seals in the water. It’s amazing. Inspiration is out there; sometimes you have to go find it.

Design functionality

Functionality without beauty is meaningless.
Today I listened to S. Sagmeister shares his thoughts on a podcast about how Design without functionality will be embarrassing to us in the future and that he compared it to Soviet design following the collapse of the Bauhaus era.

Beauty is a human element that is needed in all parts of design. Design without beauty and fully functional fails to address the empathetic human centered approach of design. Design is meant to make people happy.

I've got the blues

Driving decisions on dollars and conversion is half the battle - keeping design human centered is key.

I sat in a room and listened to an executive prescribe design direction and his recommendation on color palettes based on his personal preference. This decision of a color battle had been ongoing at this company for years. Yes. Literally, years.

The color in question was, blue. I believed, based on my past experience, research, focus groups, testing and seeing the revenue numbers from previous projects; that the color blue, in fact, was a smarter choice. I shared my findings, my experience and my belief, as a designer, that if the goal was to raise the conversion rates, generate more sales and make more money with this design, then blue proves to be a much better choice than a color which is detrimental to color blind people.

I ultimately lost the battle. Well, kind of. The color never changed and the topic was filibustered until everyone got tired of talking about it. I still did all my designs in blue and many of those whom I worked with all agreed that it was a sound approach.

The reason I chose this color was because blue resonates as the color most people familiarize themselves with online as a clickable color. In turn, research shows that this translates to a better experience and more conversion for consumers.

Design decision
As a designer, my decision was based on other people. It wasn’t based on any personal preference or some archaic way of thinking because “that’s the way it’s always been”. I put the needs of other before my own and used that as the basis for my decision making.

I believe it’s important to put the needs of those whom you are designing for first. When we put the needs of others before our own, even in our day to day work, it translates to something much more meaningful for people. There is a certain energy that feeds into the work that can’t be quantified. I believe, this, is one of the greatest x-factors to the success or failure of a company.

Business decision


Leaders need to shift their perception within an organization if they want to cut through the noise and bullshit of our over-marketed digital world. The conversation needs to change. Leaders need to recognize that VALUE is the most important thing you can give to your audience. The money will follow. It always does.

In a business world driven by too much management, an over-abundance of business executives and the drive to always increase the profits, it can be difficult to wade through these beliefs about money driving the design decisions. But, I believe that this is a change in perception. It’s hard, but necessary.

Money is a reflection of the success or failure of decisions.

When we shift our thinking and our leadership’s thinking that design can actually drive profit, it begins to be a powerful force within an organization. There is an energy and a life-force around designing with empathy and putting the needs of people first, instead of the needs of the company’s profit margins. I’ve seen it first hand.

We read a lot about companies today who are shifting to a more design-centered approach with their leadership. Burberry, Nike, Samsung, Warby Parker, and Facebook to name a few. They get it. They realize that design leads the visual communication and, if guided by empathy, can be much more powerful than any business decision - even keeping the link colors green because “thats the way it’s always been”.

I’ve most certainly modeled the way I have started Nomadic in this way. It has and always will be a company that is ruled by design first. Putting the needs of others along with storytelling before any business decision. Why? Because adding value and being empathetic to your audience is much more powerful than debating over the status-quo of business driving decisions.

Real life example

As a designer at Disney, I’ve seen the benefits of putting design first. I’ve watched a company increase their online revenue from $2 billion to $5 billion in a matter of 2 years as a result of the small and robust design team I worked on moved the strategy and vision of a new platform forward by constantly putting the needs of the audience first. It was a long process filled with many hours of discussion and debate, but the topics were always driven by the desire to make the best possible product for the customer, not what the executive or leadership wants.

Our choice of link color was not a turnkey solution to raise the revenue this much, but it was a small part of the bigger design conversation. What color was it? Yes, you guessed it. Mother-fucking-blue.