Design is a squishy term that means different things to different people and has meant different things throughout time. Therefore, the field of design has attracted many people with very different skillsets who are all grouped under the same umbrella of “design”.
I’ve noticed three broad groups of designers throughout my career: Carpenter, Artist, and Entrepreneur.
The Design-Carpenter: The classical designer
These are the classical designers — people who are extremely focused on Form following Function. They sweat the details and are dedicated to creating a great product. However, they don’t always show great aptitude for the business side of things.
Industrial Design, Interaction Design, Architecture
Crafty things: Working on cars or motorcycles, maintaining bonsai trees, building custom PCs, etc
Jony Ive, Dieter Rams, Mark Newsson, Robert Hoekman Jr, Frank Gehry
The Design-Artist: The “Shadow career”
These are the types that are actually artists, but they are moonlighting as UI designers during the day. I saw a lot of these when I was at Google. They were unbelievably good at creating work that’s visually striking and evokes powerful emotions, but not the best at thinking about product functionality and interaction design. Also not at all interested in business.
Graphic, UI Design, Visual Design, Brand Design, Fashion Design
Artsy things: Painting, drawing, sculpting, sewing, etc
Michael Bierut, Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher
The Design-Entrepreneur: Natural-born Service Designer
These are the designers that besides thinking about Form and Function, also think about Business, Marketing and Brand, because they see everything as a design problem. These designers have the potential to contribute the most to a business, but they are also the most difficult to integrate into an existing Structure, because they don’t fit neatly into one box. They also usually aren’t the very best at visual design, but can be quite good at it if they decide to put their minds to it. Their lives tend to be extremely optimized and structured because remember, they see everything as a design problem.
They often have their own business, run the design department at medium-sized companies, or go to early stage startups to help build the design culture there. You might also see them in Service Design. I’ve seen a few of them transition into Product Management since they feel like they can’t have enough of an impact in design with how most companies these days are structured. They tend to be extremely unhappy in design roles where they just have to work on one feature of one app for months (like, for example, working just on the notifications section of Facebook)
Brainy things: Reading, writing, creating products they then sell.
Raymond Loewy, Brad Frost, Joe Natoli, Luke Wroblewski, Andy Warhol
What they have in common
- They all care about craft and take pride in their work
- Intellectually curious
- They care about other people
What about UX researchers?
Researchers aren’t designers. They’re researchers. It’s arguably the hardest part of the job, but it is its own field.
What about hybrids? Can someone be an Artist-Carpenter-Entrepreneur?
I’ve met a number of carpenter-entrepreneurs and artist-carpenters. However, being equally good at all three is very rare, due to people having certain predispositions in their natural gifts and demeanor, as well as each field being so deep that it takes years to master all of them and become a truly great hybrid.
Can’t carpentry be a form of art?
In my personal view, anyone who brings creativity, passion and craft to their line of work can be considered an artist. But for the purposes of this model, I’m defining art as creating visually striking work that evokes strong emotions.
Share your thoughts
I’m still working out this model. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.