The 5 Stages of Becoming an Amazing Designer, Explained.

Do you remember how you came to design? Most people have a story or an event that brought them to the profession they are in today. The woman who became a chef after her first visit to Tuscany. The guy who always wanted to be a doctor after the illness & loss of a loved one. Saving lives.

As a designer, my story isn’t as cool and life-changing. It is actually the story that is changing, as the profession of a designer did change so much in the last decades. And I am not the only one:

Every digital designer goes through several stages in their career, and in this article, I am trying to map those stages. I hope you will find yourself in one of these stages, maybe let me know which one you currently in – and if you are not a designer, I hope it might help you to understand your designer friends a bit better.

Design for Aesthetics

Most designers start their career because they want to bring beauty to the world. That does sound very idealistic, but don’t forget: You are young and selfless, and you want to turn the world into a better place. How can you contribute?

I was no different - in High School, I enjoyed English and Art classes, so becoming an artist or a designer was always an option for me. Because artists don’t get paid to well and the success criteria seemed a bit random, I chose the latter.

As a young designer, you look at your surroundings and ask yourself: How can I make this better? Would this look more professional with a better typeface? Would I like this better if it was in a different color? You are on the heels to change the world around you if you only could.

What they don’t tell you: Designing is messy, and you will see a lot of ugliness on the way. Designers usually don’t start with cool and pretty projects, they will pick up something that does not look nice or work well and try to make it work. Most attempts to do so will fail horribly, and instead of bringing beauty, you will create even more ugliness, and you will start to question yourself and your skills. Maybe that’s the reason is why so many designers start surrounding themselves with fancy expensive Mies van der Rohe or Hermann Miller chairs?

Design Systems

At some point in your career, you discover that it’s not about the pixels. That everything is made of components and the way they fit and work together. You start thinking in systems, and you find a sense of satisfaction in this approach. This is where grids, libraries, and design languages start kicking in. You read Müller-Brockmann and deep-dive into Atomic design. One day, you will be making a great UI kit, at least as good as the Bootstrap one.

I had this moment in university. I was studying design and took my first typography class: Until then I thought making typefaces was just about rendering 26 letters and some numbers. I had no idea!

A typeface is the ultimate design system, and a great challenge, in which every component has to work with every other component (read: character) to form a consistent and understandable design. I knew I never wanted to be a type designer (I salute to those who are), but I sure wanted to create systems rather than aesthetics.

Design for Usefulness

As a designer, unhappiness comes from two sources: 1) making boring designs and 2) making genius designs that no one understands. You probably had this great idea, this game-changing thing that nobody could appreciate? It changes the way you think about your craft.

You will start thinking about the people who use the things you make. You hear the term “UX” and you deep-dive into usability testing, system usability scales, and personas. You will challenge your designs, expose them to colleagues, friends and look at how they react to them: If they “get it”, you are happy.

During my first years as a student, I took a job at my university where I had to look after disabled students in the campus computer center. We had special hardware, keyboards, adjustable tables, mouse balls. Hardware that was very expensive – and that no one ever used. The university simply didn’t have any students with these special needs. The issues were in a different place: The university’s website. One day, a colleague at the university wrote to us, stating that she couldn’t navigate the site properly with her screen reader.

That was the moment where I learned everything about website accessibility and usability. I started learning and applying the WCAG, I read Jacob Nielsen and Don Norman – trying to optimize my designs for an inclusive experience, for the people who use it.

Design for Business Value

And then there is this point: You understand the product, you understand the users or customers – but no one in your company seems to listen. What do and what they request from you seems uneducated and wrong. You know better. You want a seat at the table, but you not being taken seriously. Sounds familiar?

The best insight about design is probably that clients and stakeholders don’t care about good design – they care about good business.

So you learn about the impact that your design has, and how to get be accountable. You understand the business value your design has to the product and the company. You learn about KPIs, business objective, design by data and split tests. You get interested in that side of the business.

When I was a designer at Wooga, everyone had full access to all Business Intelligence tools and company figures, helping us to make educated decisions. We were responsible for setting up AB-tests and providing a positive outcome for the company. Being able to have an influence on business success with your designer skills is very motivating.

Design for Purpose

Business success – eventually, that means $ it can generate – you sell out. The risky part of being a sellout is it will, slowly but surely, destroy your brand. Customers will move on, users will churn.

This is the moment where you look at your own consumer behavior and yourself: Why do I keep using the products I use, why do I stick to them? Because of their great business model? Their convincing modals? Their big buttons? Probably not.

You stick to products because they integrate well with your lifestyle. Because they partner up with you and become a part of your life. Because they help you become a better version of yourself. Because they enable purpose.

Enabling purpose by design can help you create brands and products that make people come back to them, over and over. To do that, you need to understand the humans behind the user well. You need to start thinking beyond KPIs. You need to start creating Human Experiences.

From Pixel Pusher to HX Designer

Can you identify with this path? It is not only the development of a designer throughout their career, but it is also the development of the design industry. You start because of the craft, you stay for the impact that you can have.

Which stage are you in right now?

Johannes Ippen
About the Author

Johannes Ippen is a designer from Berlin, passionate about French punk rock, really strong espresso and writing about design. Follow him on Twitter for more of design-related essays. Full bio →