Designers: instructions for use. Motivation, problems, solutions
We have prepared a new article based on the speech of our CEO Alexey Kulakov at the MIND-15 digital stand-up held by ARDA and Magwai design studio.
It is about who designers are – artists or engineers, and how best to teach them so that they are motivated to grow and develop.
We also talked about the problems that may arise on the professional path and suggested ways to solve them.
Have a read!
I studied industrial design at the Academy of Architecture and wanted to be a graphic artist. But one day, these plans changed, and I became – by accident – one of the first three web designers in Yekaterinburg. My world turned upside down, and I realised that design is a completely different activity than I had previously thought. Twenty four years have passed since then. I changed several design professions, learned how to work as an art director, then raised several art directors.
I am making this introduction in order to say – all these years we have been saying the same things over and over again about what we consider to be design. Sometimes I start to think that everything that I will say below is already clear. And then some new discussion happens, and it turns out that no, it's not obvious. So, here are some of the axioms we rely on when creating a design. Maybe they will be useful to you too.
What is design? Who are the designers at JetStyle?
Different studios understand design differently and specialise in different aspects of it. At JetStyle, we do interaction design. Because we believe that human interaction design is a central part of any digital product. This means that from our point of view, designers are not artists. That design is not self-expression but engineering creativity. And there are no other criteria for the quality of a design besides whether it solves a communication problem or not. All artistic means and words of the expressive language are good insofar as they help people achieve their goals.
And what to do with beauty, emotions, aesthetics? Does a beautiful design have no advantages, other things being equal, with a convenient but functional? Why do we even hire people with artistic taste as designers? Why did I study art myself?
Without going into details, “beautiful”, “aesthetic”, “correct”, “good” are words that have no meaning outside the context of the goal. But at the same time, in order to make statements and be understood not only on a rational but also on an emotional level, you need to have a wide visual experience, understand how perception works, be able to understand the cultural code and express yourself in it. But yes, indeed, we think that there is no equal beauty and correctness for everyone.
What makes a designer happy? What is the designer's thrill?
I shouldn't have been doing design for a long time, but sometimes I still do it "illegally" because, to be honest, I like to design more than to manage. If you've tried it, you understand this moment when you open Figma and start creating a certain world, and you understand that this will turn into a product, and people will begin to behave differently. You are getting lost in the process, like in a computer game – oops, and it's the day after tomorrow already. But you didn't just play. You also made some thing that seems awesome to you at the end. This is a very special and pure thrill. You find yourself in a stream. And there is no such joy at all in the work of a leader – the buzz is completely different there.
Recipe for a designer’s motivation
When it comes to motivating a designer, the recipe is simple:
Teach the designer to be happy in the flow.
Give them tasks that are capable of capturing them entirely.
If it is difficult for the designer to find interest in the task, help them understand what the challenge is (by the way, this is the most difficult part, as it seems to me).
Do not distract them from work when they are in the process.
Rejoice at their success.
Help them get out of the dead-end when they get there.
This is where the easy part of the recipe ends, and the difficult one begins:
Give the designer tasks from their zone of proximal development. The difficulty here is that you need to find these tasks somewhere. And this is no longer a question of educating a designer, but a question of sales and a completely different article.
Make the designer see how the result of their work is being used.
To summarise all this, the design thrill is that the designer can “with these very hands” embody the vision – create artefacts that will change people's lives. If you learn to feel the thrill from this, if you manage to fit this vision into the plans of the team/client/business, then, as for me, there will be no problems with motivation. For me personally, of course, it is much easier than just a designer. Because I am not only a designer but also a product director and a company director, so when I draw pictures, they are most likely to be embodied later.
Design that changes the world
And one more thing. There is a phrase: "We are working to make the world a better place." And everything is very ambiguous with it. It is very difficult to believe since in most cases this is a lie because, most often, there is no special connection between what we do and how the world is changing. But if we allow ourselves to understand that changing lives for the better is not a sacred duty or marketing bullshit but a selfish design desire (we just love to see how the interfaces we create are used and appreciated), then it becomes clear that this is a change in the world and gratitude from it is the best fuel for the designer. But it is not always possible to organise this. I will be lying if I say that most of the time we get it. This is not true.
On the other hand, as a designer, we have a bunch of ways to get this fuel for ourselves. But for this, you need to realise that you are not designing interfaces but a product. And sell this vision to the team. Although in the end, you will not be called a designer but a product manager. I must say, this is a rather mutant path to product managers, but I like it.
What else motivates a designer?
Types of motivation to work
I have an article about group motivation. From time to time, I conduct training on this topic. In particular, I talk in detail about six types of motivation.
Priority and skills growth: we did it before anyone else / we know how to do what almost no one can do.
Process and involvement: we are part of a cool team that values us.
Duty: we do what is most important to the world.
Result: we solved a difficult problem, and we can say that we are great because here it is an artefact.
Reward: I have a prospect to start earning more.
Curiosity and self-assertion: we learned something new before anyone else.
Target portrait of a designer
If we talk about a designer, their target portrait is something like this – they are motivated by:
skill growth – often, this is the leading motivation. A designer, like any engineer, is interested in the activity while they are learning something new. As long as they understand that they can do new things in new ways;
curiosity – they are interested in what new they can do in the project, what curious they can learn;
involvement in the team, at least our designers are like that. This is our strong point – very cool people work on very different tasks. Just put a person in a cool team, and they will feel good in it, and there will be no problems with motivation;
the ability to earn more.
It all comes down to a fairly simple motivation formula: you need to set tasks for the designer in the area of their immediate development, give them sufficiently qualified feedback and involve them in projects that they can be proud of, and show that the team appreciates them. Actually, that's it.
Aspiring designers, who have been in the profession for no more than three years, have much fewer problems with motivation. They grow quickly, get a hell of a lot of feedback, have many tasks that they haven't tried yet, their qualifications are growing, and they are becoming more in demand among managers who sell their work to clients – which means they can increase their wages – everything is awesome.
What problems arise and how to solve them?
Problems begin at the middle+ level and arise at the place of a conflict of vision of who a designer is – an artist or an engineer.
Long feedback loops
The design stands at the very beginning of the value chain, so there are plenty of problems with how to close the feedback loop. A designer has to wait a very long time for the work they have done to go through the front-end-back-end quality control. And how it might change along the way. Among other things, during the months when the task went from the designer to production, a lot has happened, and we need to redesign. And the designer, most likely by this time, is already working on another project, and immersion in the old one would distract and demotivate them.
In particular, to solve this problem, we switched to a product approach in development and design. We really want the client to get value from our work faster. Not only because it will be more useful for the client and they will continue to cooperate with us. This is important for us because it is much more interesting to work this way. And yes, this is the most difficult part because, for this, it is necessary that both teams – ours and the client's – are able and willing to speed up TTM (Time To Market).
Selling the wrong stuff to the wrong people
When a client doesn't want to come up with ways to change people's behaviour, you are selling your hands, not your head. The work becomes uninteresting, the value we create is not visible, new interesting skills are not required. In general, there are no tasks for a middle+ in the zone of their proximal development, and there is no chance to sell their labour more expensive either.
Solution from the company's side
In our company, we have a formula for choosing a client: we work with those whom we respect for what they do, and with those who are interested in purchasing one of our leading competencies: UX, development and marketing. And as long as this is the case, there is no problem with motivation.
Solution from the designer's side
Actually, you don't need to wait for the mercy of nature. And in every project, you can act as if the client is a fine fellow and really wants to help their customers. At least, you will respect yourself. As a maximum, it turns out that the client didn't mind, and your vision will get a chance. Yes, for this you have to learn how to sell your vision. By the way, if it works out, it will turn out that you are not a designer, but an art director, not bad, right?
No interesting tasks
If you don't sell something that is interesting for a designer to do, they don't have tasks that will help them grow their skills. On the contrary, there is a mountain of identical tasks that have long been out of their zone of proximal development.
These are the problems of the company, not the designer. As long as you can teach a person, as long as they understand that you are the source of their future competence, as long as you can be a sensei for them, there will be no problems with motivation. Problems arise when your designer surpasses you in growth when they become a source of competence and reach the ceiling of your business. Then you have to change this business with them. Or they will leave you.
For instance, we have an art director who really likes generative design. But there are no orders for this. Accordingly, we have to make sure that clients buy from us what is interesting to us. How do we do it?
We accumulate the vision. The company has to invest in creating and demonstrating some of the concepts because otherwise, no one will buy new products. Designers should be able to do everything they can and not be limited by anyone. Thus, we, for example, have developed a fairly strong direction for ourselves – VR. In 2019, we were the first in the country to launch a WebVR site for the White Tower, and recently we released our first title on Steam.
We are actively engaged in sales. We have been on the market for more than 15 years, and now we are in the top 10 – clients find us themselves. But selling a new product through incoming requests is a slow process. Requests for things that no one else has done don't just come up. Therefore, we look for clients ourselves, show them concepts and advise them.
We allow leading designers and art directors to create concepts within the pre-sale, where they are limited only by user behaviour and their skill level.
Simple conclusion about a designer's motivation
To summarise, in order to motivate a designer, you need to have a vision of the products that the market will buy tomorrow, invest with your best designers in creating that vision and be able to sell it. And the designer needs to learn how to create and sell the product vision.