How to explain design to non-designers

Posted on June 14, 2021
2 min read


Explaining the concept of design to non-designers is rarely as straightforward as we imagine. Especially if said non-converts already carry preconceptions about what they think "design" means.

It’s easier to fill up an empty vessel than it is to fill up a full one.

Your friendly, neighborhood UX community on Twitter, along with Jonathan Lupo—a man so blessed with foresight that he (somehow) locked down the @userexperience Twitter handle—are here to help!

How do we make tangible the abstract aspects of UX?

Nathalie Zey, a user experience and visual designer, reveals her struggle to get real about UX.

Jonathan Lupo explains that design thinking might come in handy for Nathalie.

Design thinking has been described by Andy Rogers, founder of Rokker (a business design consultancy), as having three main qualities:

  • Inherent agility – ability to keep up with constant changes and improvements
  • Human-centeredness – ability to incorporate and meet the needs of people
  • Goal-orientated – ability to achieve a desired outcome[/perfectpullquote]

Andy has found that connecting design with the act of solving tangible, real-life problems makes the concept easier to grasp. You should check out the full interview with Andy Rogers if all this sounds helpful.

Jonathan also notes that there might be a semantical issue here—people associate the word "design" solely with aesthetics, rather than the process of solving problems.

Regarding this issue, being goal-oriented comes into sharp focus. Always having a quantitatively or qualitatively measurable outcome goes a long way towards reshaping this common misconception.

Some would argue that if you’re "designing" something without a goal in mind, you’re not designing at all—you’re creating art. You’d be justified in buying a beret, and creating baffling yet brilliant experiences.

When explaining design, should you focus on the process or the deliverables?

Megan Willis, a UX researcher, feels that Jonathan and Paul Randall are barking up the wrong tree.

Although Jonathan agreed that focusing on the finished article can communicate the value of what came before it, doing so can also lead to a habit of endless tampering.

If clients think design is simply about improving the thing (rather than the logic which helped identify what qualifies as an improvement), then their focus will be on "improving" the thing.

I’m sure we all know the dangers of treating a deliverable like a toy to be tweaked and tampered with, ad nauseam.

On the other hand, is it too utopian to expect non-designers to care about design processes? Is any level of geekery too much—and should we focus on giving only as much detail as is necessary to understand why the finished article is the way it is?

I can only draw on my time as a digital professional and limited experience in UX, and say it depends on the person you’re talking to.

If you’re lucky enough to stumble on a non-designer who’s gagging to hear all about design thinking, don’t hesitate to feed their enthusiasm. It might even be the catalyst for a career change.

But if your audience is clearly not that interested in design, maybe it’s worth delivering results and calling it a day. They might not fully understand what design thinking entails. But they’ll be certain that it works.

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