Nature or Nuture in Design

I was looking at design work I did over 15 years ago.  Although I can see that the browser technology has improved and therefore my canvas of design has improved, I noticed that the quality of the work was not discernible from my current work.  The thinking that went into the design is practically the same.

In other words, I don’t think I have become a better designer despite practicing it for almost 20 years.  I think I started being good and then maintained my skills until now.  No one taught me how to design.  I didn’t read any books on design until much later in my career.

Over the years, I have learned that there were words for the things I knew to be true.  Words like affordance, color theory, cognitive dissonance, mental models, combobox and a myriad of other terms that describe things I used before I knew what to call them.

This revelation has filled me with depression.  What if you can’t learn creativity?  What if you can’t get better at designing?  It means I will never be better than I am.  It means junior designers are either good or will never be.  As someone who delights in teaching, this is a horrifying thought.  I want to mentor designers.  I want to pass on wisdom to them.

However, if it is truly nature (you are born with it), then what is the point?  I hate this feeling.  I want to believe people can improve.  I’m looking for evidence that young designers can start off poorly and become great.  So far, I don’t see it.

4 replies on “Nature or Nuture in Design”

Glen — have you read the (excellent) book Mindet by Carol Dweck? It talks exactly about this point:

In a “fixed mindset”, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a “growth mindset”, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Good post Glen. My thoughts are this – which may have already been considered, but still are true I believe:
Creativity is something you’re born with. Whether that is nurtured by your parents growing up, or squashed by them defines how you end up using it or not later in life.
Talent is the ability to learn something (with what seems like a natural ability to do that something), and not only do well at it but even change it, expand on it, and create new ways to do “it”. That’s where creativity comes in.
Creativity allows you to imagine what can be, or how even how to think beyond limits.

I’ve been a designer for 35 years, and had a natural talent for it, where I started as a Graphic Designer. Was I good at it at first? Kind of. But by practicing, learning from much more talented designers, studying how they did things, listening to their critiques or direction, only made me a better graphic designer, as I learned more about good composition, layout, color, etc. I had a knack for photography, filmmaking – anything visual I just seemed to get and could do, but I still had a lot to learn in order to take that raw talent and refine it.
All the things I learned how to do better – graphic design, filmmaking, photography, architecture, storytelling — all fed into me somehow becoming a UX Designer, where I ended up learning more, but am able to contribute new thoughts and ways of doing things as well.

So, yes, people can improve. I try to do new things I’ve never attempted in design by studying what others have done (any kind of design), and see how I do at it. We can’t improve if we aren’t willing to stretch beyond our comfort zones, or what we’re currently good at.

As far as learning things you know were true before you knew what they were called – I still remember the first time I heard the word “Affordance” in a conversation, doesn’t it make you feel like you were way ahead of the game before this was ever called UX?

Thank you for writing this article. It seems many adhere to the “fixed” mindset mentioned in an earlier comment, and it’s hard being a junior UXer (or transitioning into the field like I am). No one wants to carve out the time to bring a newbie up to speed, but rather they want a new hire to hit the ground running.

Many are stuck not knowing how to fish and can’t get any fish in the interim and are, in a sense, starving. This is something the UX community needs to give more attention to, IMO.

Whatya think?