Who becomes a designer?

In trying to decide if a design career is right for you, it might be helpful to think about the qualities and interests that many designers share, and see if they overlap with your own. Since most high schools don’t offer design courses, it’s not easy to make the connection. Many students attend design school and are disappointed when either the education or the practice (or both) aren’t what they expected. Many professional designers don’t come into the field until after they’ve received degrees and even started careers in other disciplines.

So who becomes a designer? First and foremost, designers are keen observers and lovers of useful and beautiful objects, communications, messages, and experiences. They pay attention as they move through their day, possessing a hyper-awareness of the visual and textual world around them. They make connections and ask questions about how those objects and messages work, what they are, what things look like, how they were made, and what they mean.

For example, you may look at the differences among a pocket dictionary, a novel, and a large-format travel magazine. Why are they different sizes? Why is the paper thicker and glossier in the magazine? When you pick up the pocket dictionary, where do your thumbs go, and how do you go about finding something in it? Where are your hands when reading the novel, and how large is it? Do you move through the magazine from the first page to the last, or in another order? What is the difference between the pace of moving through the novel and moving through the magazine? Does the regularity of the visual design of each reflect that pace? What marks beginnings and endings in the novel? With observation, you will find that each design decision—the scale of the publication, the layout of its pages, even the feel of the paper—is not arbitrary or subjective, but rather is meant to guide and influence the reader in some way.

Noticing and appreciating, however, is not enough. Designers have a desire to make and customize things they haven’t seen before, and then share them. Observations lead to wondering what something that doesn’t exist yet would look like, and oftentimes the only way to know what it would be like is to actually make it. Sometimes this making solves a problem, and sometimes it presents a new idea. This curiosity is at the core of the designer, and doesn’t always make sense to everyone else. So you may wonder: What happens if you lay out a novel like a magazine? What would the magazine feel like if it were half as big? What if you could thumb through the novel like a dictionary? The only way to know would be to try.

Designers are also obsessed with clear communication. They are intrigued by misunderstandings, mistranslations, misappropriations, and missed connections, looking for possible solutions, especially when language doesn’t feel sufficient. Coupled with this is usually a restless desire for order. Designers have a need for completing things, revealing relationships, and simplifying complicated things. Students who enjoy the more verbal, conceptual, and visual side of mathematics often make good designers.

The visual environment is full of these miscommunications and breaks in order. A designer notices when the type on a highway sign is suddenly smaller for no apparent reason, or when a commercial product that is trying to appear “natural” fails to follow through in its packaging. We are surrounded by instructions and explanations that either make little sense or are deliberately obscured in small, uppercase type. Irritated or not, a designer reads both intent and process, and asks the question of why they are the way they are.

Design requires both introspection and extroversion. A good designer is able to get close to a problem or project and can work long hours alone or with teammates toward a solution. At the same time, a designer is an expert in reading people and navigating the needs and desires of a client to eventually shape the experience of the end user. This requires a sense of observation that is not limited to the world of objects and messages, but rather extends to the relationships humans have with those objects and each other.

If a client isn’t able to see the needs of the end user, it’s the designer’s responsibility to explain what those needs are and why they should be considered and prioritized, and to suggest a process that considers the needs of that end user. Since many non-designers think of design as subjective, this teaching and modeling is a necessary part of the designer’s toolbox. And when designers work for more than one stakeholder—which is often the case—managing both the design process and the relationships within the group of decision makers is necessary to bring the design to completion.

Finally, people often become designers because they feel like fulfilling one interest is not enough. An interest in language may point the way toward a life crafting words. An interest in order and structure may lead to an engineering career. An interest in making meaningful things may lead to studying art. An interest in people may lead to studying sociology, psychology, economics, or business. A combination of these interests—such as language and economics, or psychology and making things—may find a home in a design field. Many of the design fields overlap, such as architecture and fashion design, or industrial design and interior design, but graphic and communication design is the only one that consistently addresses how people communicate with each other.

Continue reading excerpts from The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication DesignNext up: What do designers need to know?

About the Author: Juliette Cezzar is a designer, writer, and Assistant Professor of Communication Design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, where she was the Director of the BFA Communication Design and BFA Design & Technology programs from 2011–2014. She served as President of the board of directors of AIGA/NY from 2014–2016. She is the co-author, with Sue Apfelbaum, of Designing the Editorial Experience, and the author of five other books, the latest of which is The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication Design.