What Separates Good Designers from Great Ones

Most of the design books you read, including my own, are about how to be a good, competent designer. They are about how to make strong, reasoned design decisions and about design methods and tools. But what they won’t—can’t—teach you is how to become a great designer.

The only way to be a great designer is to produce great products. Everything else is…well, everything else. I’m convinced that the people who are great designers, while assuredly they’re both talented and experienced, have taken extra measures to ensure that what they produce is (more often than not) great work. (Caveat: even the most brilliant people have creative misfires.) When I reflect on what I know about how these designers work, I come up with the following characteristics:

No compromising on process. Whatever that process is, they stick to it. IDEO is great about this. If a client doesn’t want that process, they are told to look elsewhere for business. You hire us because we follow our process, which we know produces better results.

Time. Enough time to do the work well, including the hidden cost of thinking that has to happen. You need enough time to do brainstorming, iterations, prototyping, testing, and to focus on the details. Some products simply take years to get right; all of Apple’s products do.

Details. Sweating the details: sound design, transitions/animation, timing, iconography, labels, curves, typography, materials, manufacturing process. The tiniest of changes, done well, can affect a product greatly. Yves Behar and Jonathan Ive are known for this kind of detailed design.

Discernment. Knowing what is tasteful, and what isn’t. Knowing what is usable and what isn’t. Knowing what is beautiful, and what isn’t. These are subjective, but great design requires a point of view. If you don’t know what a great product looks or feels like, how can you design one? You might not like the aesthetics or the functionality of a Frank Gehry building, but you know it’s his and you know what he likes.

Power. The ability to say with authority, “This is good. Make it like this. Do not change it.” And more importantly, to have that listened to, understood, and obeyed. Think Steve Jobs. This is why so many of the great designers have their own firms or are partnered with a CEO.

Risk-taking. Every great product is a risk, because it’s not like other products on the market. Being able to take that risk—and more importantly, convince the company to take that risk—is an essential step. Stefan Sagmeister is the model here: anyone who can have their own skin cut with an exacto blade for a poster can take risks.

Doing these things will probably cause some problems, which is why most people will never be great. You can lose clients. You can get a reputation for being difficult, for being eccentric and uncompromising. You can have some painful, public flops. You can be fired.

Some of these problems will go away if you become successful enough, because then your seeming “liabilities” will become assets. Clients and companies will want to hire or to work with you because you sweat the details and take the time to get it right. Because you’ll argue for the best solution and resist compromise. Because you have a point of view. Because you have a process that works, that has produced beautiful products. But until then, until you deliberately or instinctually develop these characteristics and prove them in the marketplace, it’s hard to go from being good to great.

Courage.