02/29/2016 01:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Most Important Trait a Designer Can Have Is...


Humility (noun hu·mil·i·ty \hyü-ˈmi-lə-tē, yü-\) : the quality or state of not thinking you- or your ideas- are better than other people's.

Disclaimer: There is a lot of verbiage these days that (rightly) emphasizes the need to self-love, to be confident, proud, and strong. Humility is not ever at the expense of being confident in oneself or one's work- instead, it is the tool that allows one to be even more fearless in design. Humility in one's process is not the antithesis of pride in one's work.

And now, ladies and gents, this is why humility produces the best designs, is the best trait a designer can have, and is a timeless tool that can transform both your product and its impact:

There is humility in embracing the subjectivity of design.


The idea that a designer knows best what is for his or her design is the downfall of designers everywhere. What is best for a design has a lot more to do with the needs of the user than it does the talent a designer can offer. Good design is functional, efficient, and simple: it gets the job done in a way that minimizes the need for a user to even think about the actions they are doing to get to their goal. (Read Don't Make me Think!) Even better design is all of those things and also beautiful, clean, and warm. (Good design is like a virtual hug, a good cup of coffee, or a spoonful of Nutella, basically.)

All of this stems from the idea that good design is subjective. You know the expression "it's not you, its me?" Good design says "it's not you, it's everyone else." As the designer, you don't matter: the only people who do matter are the users. And because of this, you're inevitably going to come across situations where you feel strongly about something that nobody else does, and somebody else feels strongly about something you couldn't care less about. The only way to overcome the nagging voice in our head that tells us that we know best, that we don't need to ask anyone else because our design is fine the way it is, is humility. Humility- the killer of the ego, the one force that is able to lower the ignorant walls we place around ourselves that prevent us from acknowledging that design is not, and never will be, a one-size-fits-all situation: it's subjectivity is where all the innovation and creativity comes from, after all!

There is humility in admitting defeat.

"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong."
- Joseph Chilton

"OK that's cool Joseph Chilton, but being wrong sucks."
- Me

In class at General Assembly, one of our projects is to add and design a new feature to an existing popular website that caters to a diverse set of personas. After performing market analyses and creating sitemaps last week, we started working on low-fidelity wireframes. One of my instructors, Pete Sheeran, walked by me as I was sketching my first wireframe... with a pencil. He stopped and looked right at me. Then he took my pencil and left. (I actually have't seen it since.) Why?

Because Pete was trying to teach me what I've been trying to teach myself for years- to be fearless in failure. Lines won't always be straight, and undoubtedly I'll draw a button (or six) where there shouldn't be any. But drawing in pen instead of pencil allows me to embrace the idea of failure and come to terms with its reality, and just as importantly, the humility to admit defeat. What does erasing every thirty seconds offer me in the long run? Being able to see the mistakes I will make- to point at them, to recognize them, to own them- well that's just looking fear in the face and refusing to give into its magnetic pull. Why shy away from my first and second iterations and their messy mistakes when they are, after all, a testament to my growth?

There is humility in empathy.


Empathy in design is the ability to design not just with the user in mind, but for the user's mind. The only way to do so is to incorporate every important aspect of a user's life in the design. After all, a user isn't using your product in a vacuum- he or she is living a life full of frustration, joy, exhaustion, hope, love, sadness, and every other real emotion that makes life beautiful. And good design will reflect that reality.

You just can't have empathy without the humility to recognize that someone else's experiences matter just as much as (if not more than) yours in the first place. And you can't have good design without empathy! A user-centric design is one that involves the designer constantly having the foresight to put themselves into someone else's shoes, and the humility to continue to do that until a design is not just their's- but everyone's.

There is humility in consultation.

"I know I just asked for your opinion, but is it possible your opinion could just be a little... I don't know... better?"

Part of the design process is constant consultation- not just with the user, although that is necessary, but also with our peers. Having the humility to understand that we don't have all the answers, that sometimes, our peers in the field have the experience we need to perfect our designs, is crucial. And there is humility in consultation, for sure: getting past ourselves to go and ask others what they think, and then, hardest of all- to implement feedback in a meaningful way- is the crux of good design.

A lot of this comes from understanding that we don't lose anything by asking others for their opinion. What's the worst that could happen? We don't incorporate it, and then what? But by asking, and then asking again, and then again, we are ensuring that every step of the way our product isn't only incorporating feedback from the user, but also from brilliant-minded people in the field who might have an entirely new, wonderful perspective on an idea.

There is humility in good design.


Good design isn't always about creating something new, flashy, and groundbreaking- sometimes, embracing good design also means embracing the conventions of good design that have worked (and will continue to work) well. Why reinvent the wheel? There is humility in accepting the limitations of existing UI and recognizing that some things that are industry standard are industry standard for a reason.

Ultimately, good design is at the expense of the biggest obstacle standing between our design and it's full capacity: ego. Ego stands between a designer and the design, a constant, daunting, looming force that causes us to second guess feedback and to stand by it- sometimes relentlessly- when we are wrong. Ego stands- tall and proud- between us and our greatest designs. And, if we let it, and don't continue to beat it down with humility- inevitably between us and our greatest selves.