Designers at all levels of experience could probably list hundreds of opinions about what makes design successful. After two decades of designing and leading numerous design teams I have quite a few myself. But I've filtered them down to seven core perspectives I like to call ASTRO Theory.
1. DESIGN is a point of view. Many people believe design equals the visual object or result of the presentation skills a creative person creates; pictures, models, sketches, photos. I believe that design happens prior to these results and is actually about taking an original idea and applying a point of view by translating it into presentable, tangible elements for ease of sharing with others. Good designers happen to have talents or skills that allow them to make their point of view tangible, but that's not enough. Designers should be engaged due to their ability to create and support a strong point of view first, followed quickly by their ability to produce the goods.
2. PEOPLE are our ultimate clients. As designers, we collaborate with a lot of other disciplines to bring our designs alive. We often come up with the vision for a program, develop the details and then spend a lot of time protecting the original design intent through production. But after these efforts are complete, they matter little. The end results are all people see, experience or remember. No one typically cares how you got to the result—the battles, the compromises, the inspirations—they only know the final product. Because of this, I believe that as the other disciplines cover their specialties, designers should be the end-user advocates through the entire program, reminding the team that people are our ultimate clients.
3. EMPOWER individual creativity. We've all heard the term "design by committee" or possibly the old maxim that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. And I strongly agree. It's very difficult to create groupthink around multiple points of view. It's great to voice them, collect them and prioritize them, but to avoid camels, I recommend empowering one ultimate individual you trust to become the director and keeper of the vision. Empowering individual creativity also ensures a higher level of passion, focus, commitment and ownership for the results.
4. PROACTIVE over reactive. You can wait to be told what to do when someone else takes the lead and imposes their directives. Or you can identify opportunities, then take things into your own hands and provide options, ideas and leadership. A favorite mantra at ASTRO is "I'd rather get a speeding ticket, than a parking ticket." Of course, approval for certain levels of involvement are necessary, but I believe designers are leaders, and should be proactive over reactive.
5. DESIGN is not a democracy. Democracies are fine, mainly for collecting diverse input. But they can kill design. Often too many opinions water down the clarity of the design intent. I've had many clients where there are way too many brilliant people involved in programs. They find it their duty to provide all the alternative solutions or insights to every program—always broadening the thinking—instead of focusing on decision-making. If not for the benevolent dictatorship of the program director in these programs, they would never reach the goal. Design requires focused leadership, not democratic consensus.
6. CULTURE is the key to soulful work. Designers are kinda like plants (I know, I know...but it's a good visual). They really need an environment that supports their needs. I believe they need sunlight, nutrients, good weather, conversation, or music, maybe a hug, pruning, cleaning and sometimes transplanting. On top of all of that, they need space to express themselves individually, even while being part of a greater identity. Burying designers in cubicle-land, away from other creatives or off in isolation can be effective for those who have strong wills to survive, but for more relevant, beautiful, inspiring results, designers need a culture of design stimulus. They need environments that feed their visions and help them reflect and generate more soulful work.
7. CHALLENGE anything. I like to tell the designers I work with to simply ask questions: There are no bad ones except the ones you don't ask. And to not take everything at face value, especially if your gut tells you otherwise. It's always good to immerse yourself in data, but it's best to digest it like fuel for the process, not take it as absolute gospel. Notice I said challenge 'anything' and not 'everything.' The idea is to think about what you're creating, but not overthink it. Learn to trust your instincts and intuition, especially once you've digested all the information. I believe the magic of design can really occur when you challenge convention with confidence, then apply design talent and skills to make everything look super sweet.
That's current ASTRO Theory. But it's not the final word. I continually keep working to adjust, refine and apply it (see #7).
Brett Lovelady is the founder and driving force at ASTRO Studios of San Francisco, a company he launched in 1994. Brett created ASTRO to be a pure design culture, where he and his talented crew could blend design skills, innovative technologies and lifestyle influences into high impact, supercharged products and brands.
Within a short time, ASTRO has become an international design powerhouse by designing industry leading products and brands for companies like Nike, Microsoft, HP, Alienware, Herman Miller, Xbox, Virgin and many more. Also, Brett and ASTRO recently spun-off a new company called ASTRO Gaming, providing high performance video gaming equipment for pro gamers.
In the past decade, ASTRO has won numerous design and industry awards, including 2 prestigious BusinessWeek/IDSA Design of the Decade Awards, for both NIKE Triax Sportwatches and Kensington Smartsockets and was featured as one of Fast Company's Fast 50 in 2003. Prior to starting ASTRO, Brett did time as VP of Design at Lunar Design and before that VP of Design at Frog Design on the mean streets of the San Francisco bay area.