anthony cardle


10 Principles for Practising Design

Over the past year I have been working with some brilliant, sharp, and intellectual designers at Dubberly Design Office. This has been my first prolonged experience in a design office/agency and I was looking forward to actually seeing how design is practised on a daily basis.

As I was not surprised to find out, design at school is VERY different from design in 'the field'. Spoilers! Tinker Hatfield says: ‘the goal of design is not to be self-expressive, the goal is to solve a problem.’ As I watched my new colleagues doing their thing, I was convinced that there were some principles deep within them that helped them solve problems, find the best design solutions and keep the client fully engaged in the process. I just had to find them.

So, I’ve been on the lookout for ways I could improve myself as an employee beyond my ability to design, but my ability to be a designer. You will never get formally taught this and so far, I don't think there is, or ever will be such a way to get taught this. People work in mysterious ways, you need to figure this out yourself. From time to time I would come across a lesson, a piece of advice or an off-hand comment that resonated with me regarding design practise. I've tried to distil all these lessons into 10 principles for practicing design. These are by no means definitive and have come from personal experiences. Feel free to disagree. In a way that's the whole point, without thinking about these things how do we become better designers?

1. Don't just hear, listen.

Everyone has something to say, take the time to understand what it is that they are saying. It may just be the saving grace of a project.

2. Know what you don't know

Not knowing something is not a weakness, but you have to be sure you know what you don't know and be willing to change it. Learning on the job is a great way of ensuring you retain the information because you will have an experience to attach it to.

3. Rationalise everything.

Your client will appreciate you making decisions based on cold hard rationalisation. There is always the possibility that they will want to go in a different direction but you can be sure that they cannot argue with your reasoning because you have thought everything through.

4. Know when to ignore rationale.

That being said, don't ignore a gut feeling every once in a while. Sometimes it's the right thing to do and you don't know why but it just feels right. In a way that's all the rationale you need. Be carful not to go on gut decisions too often, it can come across as though you don't know what you're doing. This should not be confused with the 2nd principle (know what you don’t know). It just looks naive. Always look to rationalise before deciding to ignore it.

5. Find people who are smarter than you are.

There will always be people who are smarter than you. Find these people and surround yourself with these people. They will make you a better designer.

6. Your idea will NEVER be 100% understood by 100% of your audience, so don't try.

We all come from different backgrounds and cultures and upbringings. Trying to make everything you design understood, as you intended, by everyone is a waste of time. Focus on having a solid rationalisation. If someone doesn't understand and doesn't want to try and understand then there is nothing you can do. A fraction of your audience's ignorance is not worth dwelling on.


7. There's no such thing as too much detail.

Even the simplest ideas are complex and have a lot of details that need to be figured out. Your client will appreciate you going into more depth within the scope of a project. It reassures them that you know what you are doing.


8. Use everything as inspiration.

Inspiration doesn't always come from design books and art museums. Life is your inspiration. We design for people and people live life.


9. Clients will have their own agenda, do NOT ignore it, understand it.

Understand that a client has hired you to help them with their goals. Their motives for completing the project will be slightly different from yours. Do your best to understand these motives, it will result in a better project outcome for you and the client.


10. Be transparent

There is nothing worse than being dishonest with a client. It will never lead to anything good. Be transparent with your clients if you feel something is not right, if you feel like you're not hitting the mark or if there's something you need from your client to do your job properly. In turn you would assume that your client would be transparent with you when something isn't quite right. A good client relationship is key to a successful project and it starts with transparency.


These principles come from observing and asking people much more experienced than me (See principle 5) about how they practise design, and have been written after only a year in the industry. Andrew Stanton, a director at Pixar frequently says: 'fail early and fail fast'. I may have completely missed the mark and my principles might change next year and the year after that. But it's best to find out it's wrong sooner, rather than later. I will make changes as I go through my career but each change will be made with more experience and wisdom under my belt. Each time a refinement. How many times do you think Dieter Rams wrote his 10 principles before he was happy with them?


Bonus Principle: Check your spelling...twice...then check it again.

Anthony CardleComment