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Want to be a great designer? Steal these 30 secrets from the world’s top experts

Designers from Google, Microsoft, Nike, Pentagram, and more reveal how they innovate time and again.

Want to be a great designer? Steal these 30 secrets from the world’s top experts
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How do the world’s most accomplished designers come up with fresh ideas day in and day out? Some draw inspiration from chefs. Others put rookies on their team. Still others steal their ideas from clients. Here, we asked 30 experts spanning architecture, product design, UX, academia, and medicine, to share their biggest design secrets.

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Be A Sponge (With Clients)

Verda Alexander

We’ve learned everything we know from our clients. Okay, maybe not quite everything! But some of the most basic things—like where to put a sofa. Almost 25 years ago, one of our earliest clients came over to our apartment and decided to fix our poorly arranged living room that had an awkward angled wall. A few years later a super client–Philips Design—schooled us on open plan desking layouts and inspired us to create a three-person collaborative pod. Engineers in Herndon Virginia reassembled a bunch of workstations literally overnight like expert design elves, and taught me a huge lesson in creative space planning. Just because the manual doesn’t have an option doesn’t mean you can’t create it. Facebook in 2010 showed us how to hack an office and create the ultimate collaborative environment. Recently clients have started leading the discussion on diversity and sustainability. I am beyond excited to team up on those efforts. My favorite clients over the years have been the ones that have challenged us, the ones with whom we have been able to build a true partnership and grow together. I will continue to be a sponge in this way. It’s what has made me as a designer, and it’s made our practice stronger.—Verda Alexander, cofounder, Studio O+A 

Find Your Inner Contrarian

Gadi Amit

All design processes start with some biased opinions for the possible ‘right’ direction. At New Deal Design, we use a contrarian technique through our search for the best direction—we call it the ‘dark horse’ option. The notion is to provide a plausible contrarian point-of-view using a design alternative to counter these biases. When designed well, these dark horse alternatives are often convincing enough to start a major dialogue and affect the mainstream alternatives, too.—Gadi Amit, founder, New Deal Design

Every Problem Has A Solution

Kate Aronowitz

Optimism, creativity, and grit are three essential tools in my process, whether it’s thinking about designing a team or a product or solving everyday issues at work or home. I approach every problem knowing there is a solution. If a solution isn’t coming easily, I look at the problem from as many unexpected perspectives as I can. If I’m still struggling, I iterate, iterate, iterate.—Kate Aronowitz, lead operations partner, GV

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The Bauhaus Is Overrated

George Aye

Throughout my professional life as a designer, I had seen the Bauhaus and its long tail as the pinnacle of design. But until I read Sylvia Harris’s paper titled, “Searching for a Black Aesthetic in American Graphic Design,” I never once stopped to think how it became the de facto standard-bearer for good design. Were it not for an explosion of post-war consumption and mass production in the ’50 and ’60s, this German movement might not have grown to such dominance across the globe. What would count as ‘good design’ today if we had been exposed to more than just one major cultural datum?—George Aye, cofounder, Greater Good Studio

Design The Way A Chef Cooks

Sebastian Bauer

Companies need to create an environment where the people who are designing products and experiences feel heard, seen, and empowered to do their best work. Even at scale, this type of work is highly personal and deeply affects the lives of the people we are creating these experiences for, so the energy that designers put into it is felt in the final product. My wife is a professional chef, and there is an analog here: If you create a meal with joy and love, the person eating it will taste that. It’s the same with product design, and it is my responsibility as a design leader to make sure that our kitchen is stocked with inspiration, kindness, joy, and love.–Sebastian Bauer, senior director of design, Android and Pixel

Good Design Isn’t About Designers

Catherine Courage

It’s about the people we design for. Often times, we think good design is a matter of aesthetics – that it’s about designing things that are beautiful, immersive, rich. All those things might be true. But at its most fundamental, good design is design that works for its users. Our role as designers is to put ourselves in other users’ shoes, and then create the best experiences possible. That means, we need to be radically human-centric. We need to know who we are designing for, and anticipate their wants and needs. I’ve always considered excellent user experience research a superpower, and I urge all product builders to treat user research as a non-negotiable part of the development process. To build truly great products, we need to first build understanding and empathy.–Catherine Courage, vice president of user experience, Google

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Design Is A Time Machine

Michael DelGaudio

As designers, we use research and empathy to understand human motivation and behaviors, and map those to intended product outcomes. The design process inherently helps us imagine, then create, potential futures. While we cannot predict the future, if we squint, sometimes design can help us catch a glimpse of what potential futures might look like.–Michael DelGaudio, UX Manager and Design Lead, Android TV

Design Can’t Be Taught

Hartmut Esslinger

Design is very simple – aside of talent it requires disciplined work and constant learning about our adjacent fields of knowledge such as human history, and sciences including ecology and economics. However, in his book The Tides of Mind, David Gelernter states correctly that about only one in eight people has creative talents, and that creativity in all fields cannot be explained or taught—only mentored. Working with my design students over 30 years, my rate is one out of about 100. In choosing eight to 15 out of hundreds of applicants (in China even over 1,000), at graduation just about three to five are at world-class level. Naturally, one has to learn about the design process, as we are connected to an industrial process model, but my main focus is to install courage to make mistakes and gain realistic confidence. Presentation is about 50% of our profession, because our audience lives and works by rational parameters. Therefore, our students also take acting and dancing courses. And as many friends and peers sunk into alcohol and drugs, I try to encourage my students to enjoy a sober creative life. The thrill is in the journey.—Harmut Esslinger, founder, Frog Design

Be Like Nas

Derek Fridman

‘It’s never what you do—but how it’s done,’ according to Nas. My secret to design is approaching it a lot like the best musicians and rappers and singers in the world enter the studio every time. With intention. To be an effective designer, your work and process has to be just as important as the end result, and I’ve learned that there needs to be an obsessive sort of quality, excellence, and consistency at every step of the design process, from concepting through to detailed design —and post-launch and iteration. Where you land is directly connected to what you’ve learned from your design process in the past and breaking tried-and-true paradigms with intention.—Derek Fridman, design partner, Work & Co.

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There Is No Finish Line

John Hoke

Our design philosophy [at Nike] is rooted in athletes. We know in design, like in sports, better is only temporary. Athletes will never stop pushing, so neither can we. Sowe’re never done, never satisfied; the potential is infinite and the progression endless. We’re always in pursuit of better. In fact, one of our mottos is ‘There is No Finish Line.’ We bring a mindset of restless curiosity to everything we do: from identifying new frontiers of performance to designing more inclusively and innovating more sustainably. It’s also clear that sports will never stop evolving; the aperture will continue to widen, and with it, the problem sets we must solve for widen too. That’s why we can never be content to only address the problems of today; it’s critical we continue to imagine and anticipate new possibilities and future trajectories.—John Hoke, chief design officer, Nike 

Put A Rookie On Your Team

Andrew Ibrahim

I remember earlier in my career getting the opportunity to be involved in important meetings or large projects that were way above my ability. When I asked my mentor, Justin Dimick, why I was included, he gave me the book, Rookie Smarts. Rookies, it turns out, have unique advantages that make a team better. They come with fresh eyes, are naive to the assumed constraints, and lacking their own expertise, tend to proactively incorporate a broader range of expertise. There is no question that high-impact work requires deep and meaningful experts, but for every project, I always include a rookie because it pushes the conversations further and makes the ultimate output better.—Andrew Ibrahim, surgeon and chief medical officer, HOK Healthcare

Everyone Is A Designer

I’m not sure I have a secret per se, but I can share a few realizations I’ve had over the course of the nearly 50 years in which I’ve been designing: First, I agree with Victor Papanek who argued that design is a ubiquitous human activity—we’re all designing all the time. For me this puts what I do into perspective and reminds me that the people who are already in the system (the group, community, or organization you’re working with) have more tacit knowledge about the problem and their ‘system’ than I will ever be able to acquire. So the stakeholders connected to and affected by the problem are the real experts and my role is one of ‘service’ in bringing resources to their system, helping to convene useful and productive conversations and not losing sight of the fact that my own expertise is narrow and limited within the context of a large, wicked, systems problem.

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Terry Irwin

Second, the most powerful systems interventions are often non-material. Most designers of my generation (and several subsequent generations) were taught design out of the craft tradition; the making of material artifacts. This way of knowing tends to focus on material solutions and can become overly fixated on aesthetics, sometimes to the exclusion of other considerations. Service and experience design are good examples of how our collective thinking about design has evolved from out of that mindset, but I think we still have a ways to go. Since the ways in which we humans think and act is at the root of most wicked problems, the most powerful interventions (with the potential to ignite positive, systems-level change) are those aimed at shifting collective beliefs, cultural norms, behaviors, and expectations. Material artifacts will almost always be involved in the delivery of these solutions but starting from the standpoint of the non-material objective is, I believe, a more powerful point of departure.

Third, experts always know a lot about a very little. In a world in which expertise and ‘mastery’ are the ultimate goals, the posture that we take as an expert can become habitual. And that posture can cause us to forget that when it comes to addressing a complex, wicked problem, we will only be operating out of the center of our expertise a small percentage of the time. The rest of the time we will be engaged in a collaborative dance in which leadership and followership are fluid and constantly changing. And sometimes, the most powerful posture is that of speculation instead of certainty, and leveraging the power of ‘beginners’ mind.’ We can perturb a system, but its response is always self-determined; we cannot predict how it will respond and so certainty becomes a liability.

I have found that the older you get, and the more years of expertise you have under your belt, the more difficult it is to adopt a speculative posture and let go of the need to have it all figured out. But this posture and willingness to speculate is—I believe—fundamental in addressing wicked problems. Designers must approach systems with a lot of humility.—Terry Irwin, director, Carnegie Mellon’s Transition Design Institute

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Ask Open-Ended Questions

Bon Ku

My design secret is simple: Ask questions. The creative process begins with inquiry. As a physician, I have been trained to focus on a narrow path toward a given outcome. This training is excellent for treating patients in the emergency room but not ideal for open-ended exploration. Designer and author Ellen Lupton taught me how the simple process of questioning helps us to reframe our assumptions and look at any problem from a new angle. Asking open-ended questions allows me to gain more empathy for my patients and is the guiding design principle for a creative mindset.—Bon Ku, emergency physician and director, Health Design Lab, Thomas Jefferson University

Culture Is Evolution And Revolution

Bryan Lee

Culture is evolution: It is the consequence of prevailing collective conditions, like environmental and systemic oppression, geographic isolation, war, poverty, policy, and wealth inequality. Culture is also revolution: It is a survival response to immediate individual circumstances (shelter, food, education). It is the subtle adaptation of mental and physical processes to manage and adhere to a path of least resistance in life. These acts of preservation ultimately manifest habitual tendencies and lead to entrenched cultural values that define the use of space in ways often invisible to standard practice.—Bryan Lee, design principal, Colloqate

Embrace Big Data And ‘Thick Data’

Joyce Lee

When it comes to design for healthcare, we need to prioritize the measurement and understanding of metrics inside the system. For too long healthcare has operated as a black box, relying on anecdote and perception to drive our actions instead of actual real-world data about the system and our patients. If you can’t measure medical errors, how can you possibly improve the care and overall health of your patients? Now that we have access to big data with electronic health records, we need to couple it with ‘thick data,’ which, as described by designer Tricia Wang, are ‘insights generated by qualitative, ethnographic research methods that uncover people’s emotions, stories, and models of their world.’ These approaches are both complementary and necessary for understanding the challenges of a poorly functioning healthcare system that requires optimization, but that can also address the needs of the most vulnerable patient populations.—Joyce Lee, professor of pediatrics, University of Michigan

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Bake In The Complexity

Giorgia Lupi

Our visual culture is obsessed with simplicity. When it comes to data visualization, we’re often led to believe that the simplest chart is always the best. And sometimes that’s true—if I’m landing a plane, I need a clear and immediate dashboard in my cockpit that gives me the information I need. But life is rarely so simple: reality is messy and complicated, with lots of gray areas. In my work, I always try to purposefully bake in this complexity to provide a more true-to-life illustration of whatever I’m depicting. I want to write rich and dense stories with data, to educate the reader’s eye to become familiar with visual languages that convey the true depth of complex stories. Usually this means including something I call ‘context’ in every visualization. Context is the many nuances, gradations, and ancillary details that, together, paint a fuller (and often more complicated) picture of reality than what reductive infographic ever could. Often, context is qualitative. It tells us how people, describing the emotional contours of an event or phenomenon that quantitative numbers—ones and zeros—can’t fully describe on their own. I’ve learned to broaden my definition of ‘data’ to include context (and therefore, both qualitative and quantitative information) to unlock valuable new tools to visualize the richness and gradations of real life.—Giorgia Lupi, partner, Pentagram

The Simplest Answer Might Be The Wrong One

Paolo Malabuyo

H.L. Mencken wrote, ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.’ I remember feeling like a young, hotshot designer with a sharp eye and sharp tongue. I would often critique many products and be dismissive of them. If it were me, I would clearly do better. It wasn’t until I actually worked on similarly complex problems that I came to realize it wasn’t simple or easy. This was true whether I worked on video games, consumer devices, cars, video streaming, or ad technology. I had a simplistic view of the problem and, therefore, had simplistic and wrong ideas about how to solve it.—Paolo Malabuyo, director of user experience for YouTube Advertising at Google

Design For The Edge Case

Christina Mallon

Designing for the edge case (ie. someone who has no use of their arms—like me!) will lead to innovation for all. The best example of this is the touchscreen. In 2005, Wayne Westerman, an engineering graduate student in Delaware, was working on his dissertation when he began developing carpal tunnel syndrome. To help deal with the painful condition, he began to experiment with a small, multitouch input device. The idea was to create something he could use to enter information without having to press hard. This technology became the touchscreen, which was later sold to Apple.—Christina Mallon, chief brand officer, Open Style Lab

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Assume Multiple Identities

Toshiko Mori [Photo: Ralph Gibson]
The design secret I share is in two steps: First, use the power of observation to absorb and process external phenomena from multiple perspectives. Second, process those multiple perspectives in parallel discourse in order to deal with the ever-increasing complexity of contemporary life. One needs to be able to assume multiple identities in order to see a design problem from diverse perspectives and come to a solution which is best for all.—Toshiko Mori, principal, Toshiko Mori Architect, and Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design

To Mitigate Capitalism’s Worst Instincts, Invest In Better Design Education

Design can be a major force in making the world a better place, but only if we change how the profession of design operates in our consumer-driven society. Our economic models require companies to pursue a relentless drive for growth and increased profits. Why? Part of the reason is the cost of financing. The stock markets insist upon continual, unlimited growth in order to provide profits to investors, despite the enormous harm it does to workers, customers, and the world. We manipulate our products and services to force ever-increasing consumption. We continually ‘enhance’ our products with new features (a disease I have named “featuritis”). We deliberately design forced obsolescence.

The discipline of design originated as a tool of industry, helping to grow profits but few designers have a say about what is made or how. Industrial designers delight in using new, exotic materials, often bonded together in ways that make it difficult to recycle and reuse them. We design consumer products to be treated as fashion so that they must be replaced periodically, even while they are still perfectly functional. Many of our devices are designed to be replaced, not repaired. This helps corporate profits but does great harm to the environment. In the computer-telecommunications industry, slim and lightweight has become the fashion, which requires special bonding of materials, minimizing easy access to the internal parts so that the devices are difficult to repair.

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Don Norman

The problems are not restricted to physical products. Services, communications, and interaction design are all complicit. In this case, the waste is not in burning trash heaps but in a loss of privacy, in the continual barrage of messages urging us to do this, purchase that, dress this way. It has all helped lead us to what Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘the age of surveillance capitalism.’

There are two courses of action that designers could take. The first is to revolt, to insist upon modifying the goal of ever-increasing profits for that of a better way of life as advocated by Mike Monteiro in his 2019 book Ruined by design: How designers destroyed the world, and what we can do to fix it. The second is to provide designers with a broader, richer education so that more would be able to hold positions of authority in companies, foundations, and government. Design will not play a role until designers can speak up to the need to design for humanity from within the C-suite of companies, where they should serve as Chief Design Officers or Chief Executive Officers of large, international companies.

In order to make these changes, we need to change how designers are educated. Designers are still primarily taught skills to enable the creation of beautiful objects. There are few courses on ethics, economics, business, or politics. Few courses analyzing systems thinking. Few courses on the circular economy and its advantages for sustainability. Few courses on using design to treat the world’s most critical societal needs. And not the sort of broad education that turns specialists into thoughtful, effective managers and executives. The good news is that many recognize the need for change.—Don Norman, founding director emeritus, Design Lab, UCSD

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Learn to Live with Chaos

Cathy Pearl

When you first start out as a designer, you think the process is pretty straightforward: design beautiful things which you will hand off to engineers and it’ll be built just as you dreamed. In reality, it’s a whole mixture of things. You spend time designing, doing research, collaborating with other designers as well as product managers and engineers, learning how to make your case with the legal team, negotiating, compromising, and sometimes after all that, you never even get to launch your project. When you can learn to live with the chaos and uncertainty, you can let go of the perfect design (which was probably never perfect to begin with) and actually build things people will use.–Cathy Pearl, design manager, Google Assistant

Embrace Your Harshest Critics

Paul Priestman

I’ve always been a proponent of showing your design ideas to your harshest critics or experts who will be able to pick your ideas apart. If an idea stands up to the harshest criticism, you know it has legs. And if it doesn’t, you’ll be encouraged to refine and resolve it until it does.—Paul Priestman, founder and chairman, PriestmanGoode

Emotions Matter

Ivy Ross

I have done experiments within different design groups and different companies that I’ve worked at, and I’ve found that the overall emotional state of the group has a subtle impact, whether intended or not, on the product. Everything in nature has a shape and every shape produces an energy, so everything is essentially energy. Through the laws of resonance, all shapes in a surrounding space affect each other and their environment. The role of positive energy in design is to achieve harmony between the human body as an energy field and the energy of a space, and the forms within that space.—Ivy Ross, vice president, design for hardware products Google

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Feed The Earth, Don’t Poison It

Céline Semaan

Be able to look at interrelated systems as parts of a whole, highlighting the communities and ecosystems that exist around each resource needed to create products. Regenerative design requires a scientific understanding of ecosystems impacted by any extraction needed to design and produce products. The secret is to create systems that prioritize materials that go back to Earth as food not as poison.—Céline Semaan, founder, Slow Factory

Adopt A Learning Mindset

Albert Shum

Design doesn’t hold the answers, only more questions, and the design process itself is an act of seeking. To design is to learn, not to know. Good designers know that a hypothesis is based on not being sure. The secret is to hold true to your values – not just the data. The advice ‘strong opinions, loosely held’ should be a design principle as we adopt a learning mindset in the way we create.—Albert Shum, corporate vice president of design, Microsoft

The World’s Best Designers Aren’t People

Dori Tunstall

Mycelium are the best designers in the universe. As I learn more about ‘non-human-centred design,’ I am fascinated not just with the materiality of mycelium, which we are already think about in regards to bio-fabrication and biomimicry, but with their relationality, how they interact with 92% of plant families or even the human guts as fermentation processes in bread, cheese, and wine. Mycelium are the world’s best systems designers and we have a lot to learn from them about creating harmonious conditions for all that is around and within us.—Dori Tunstall, dean of the faculty of design, Ontario College of Art & Design University

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Innovate From The Edge

Itai Vonshak

Resist the temptation to start with the center of the product. Design transformation often happens from the edge coming in. The center of a business or a product takes a lot of scrutiny (which is often unhelpful). Most design transformations can be traced back to smaller projects that were not at the center of the product roadmap. Anyone remember Microsoft Kin? Look at it now to see how it ended up impacting years of Microsoft Design.Itai Vonshak, head of design and product management, Google Material Design

Stay Curious

Richard Whitehall

Keep your eyes and ears open: Although the design process has been heavily codified there is a curiosity that good designers (whether formally trained or not) have that goes beyond their work. Good design process focusses this curiosity in the right places but to be a good designer you need to keep this curiosity alive beyond the challenge at hand and ensure that your creativity is always being nourished.—Richard Whitehall, executive director and partner, Smart Design 

Everything Is Made Up

Robert Wong

This is less a secret and more a realization that is profoundly motivating to me as a designer. And that is… Everything is made up! This seems stupidly obvious, but if you really think about it, it’s kinda mind blowing. Everything is made up… Countries. Religion. Laws. Every language ever spoken since the beginning of time. The mullet. Olympic games. Smart phones. Quantum computing. Pizza. Ice cream. Google! Everything we take for granted in our daily lives, at one point, didn’t exist. One person, or a small group of people made something good and it became part of humanity’s lived experience. That means that on any given day, anyone could make up something that could change the way our children, and our children’s children live. That is both incredibly humbling and inspiring to wake up to every morning.–Robert Wong, vice president, Google Creative Labs

Design Is Timeless

Ma Yansong [Photo: Greg Mei]
Design should be placed in the long run of history. If you think an architecture, product, or fashion design can be timeless, then it is a design. —Ma Yansong, founder, MAD Architects

Reporting by Suzanne LaBarre.

See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.