Insight

The Well-Rounded Digital Designer

by Alex Carr

It’s not enough for an architect to be creative. They have to do more than just define a space or design the look of a structure. They have to ensure that the structure is sound. This requires a strong foundation, not only in the creative process but also in engineering. As much time as Frank Gehry might spend taping together pieces of paper he has to also make sure those pieces of paper will stand up against this little thing called physics.

The same goes for the industrial designer—Jony Ive balances a strong creative process with one that is inseparable from engineering. The construction, strength, and manufacturing of materials along with an understanding of how the elements are housed within his designed case are a package deal. Form follows function—and he has to really understand the function to create the form.

The architect and the industrial designer are part of a well-rounded design discipline where visual creativity is not enough. They must understand the context of their work, which requires them to be near-experts in physics and engineering.

In digital design, we have moved away from the well-rounded designer to hyper-specialization, with different designers with specific specialties focusing on their single area. But digital design, like architecture and industrial design, should be a well-rounded discipline. As a digital designer, you need to be a near-expert in adjacent spaces to be successful.

So what areas, besides design, does a digital designer need to excel in to be successful? I believe there are four key areas of focus. These are the physics and engineering disciplines for the digital designer.

User Experience

Everyone creating products needs to be thinking about the user, but the digital designer needs to be able to act on it. Knowing how to talk to users, test users, and getting thoughts and opinions is crucial to realizing what the product needs to be. Folks dedicated to gathering this for you are helpful but not always an option. And once you have that info it is just as important to be able to take those findings and distilling them into simple, readable, and relevant diagrams for stakeholders.

Research

Designers don’t normally think of themselves as researchers, but without researching the world where a product will live, a digital designer will find themselves hitting walls left and right. Researching the industry and landscape gives context for how it will be seen in that environment. Designing an experience for the financial industry is very different from designing an experience for the medical industry. Each has its own expectations and constraints. Designers need to be able to learn about a new area independently and then think critically about that area, almost as if they are living in it.

Business

This one might be the most difficult for a designer—business is not a required course at most art schools (any art schools?). Businesses are constantly considering how to gain new customers or sell more services and products to existing customers. The digital designer's work needs to support the same goals and strategies as the business to help them succeed. Selling design cannot only rely on aesthetics, but how a particular design will deliver the results the business is looking for. Digital designers should work more closely with the business to learn how they work. For starters, pick up a classic business book like the Essential Drucker—it will introduce the basics and the language of business.

Development

How a digital designer's work is implemented is just as important as how it’s designed. A digital designer needs to know how applications and websites are built, what they can do, what they can't do, and how it all gets made. This is not a small ask for a digital designer but it’s a necessary one. The best thing for a digital designer to do is to get in the trenches a little bit and learn to code. Maybe not at a level that their development team is working at, but enough to understand how development works and design a better suited experience.

Digital design is multifaceted and complex. A well-rounded digital designer needs to understand all those facets to create the best solution, considering the user, their research, the business, the implementation, and, of course, the design.


Less right-brained than whole-brained, Alex brings a serious creative, analytical, and research-driven approach to solving business problems. Big ones. Alex has created design systems across enterprises, executing in media ranging from motion graphics and print to embedded applications, interactive installations, and marketing assets. He and his team deliver strategy, concepts, design systems and experiences from the ground up.

Design
Design
It Takes a (Design-Led) Village
Design creates incredible value when allowed to lead, but is it possible for design to have too much sway?
Design
7 Principles for Great UI Animations
Animation in a UI is a great way to give the user feedback about the product experience...if done right.
Design
4 Things I Didn’t Expect When I Transitioned from Print Design to Digital Design
M. Saito describes the newfound joys and challenges of digitizing her profession.