Can we get over these 4 fallacies of great design already?

Published August 12, 2021

Innovation will always be a key factor in the long-term success of any business. Without it, it would be impossible to remain relevant as new technology and trends emerge that better solve the problems your user is facing.

When I was starting out as a designer, I often felt the need to always create something different and risky because I needed to establish myself as innovative and thus invaluable to my team. Thinking this way, or worse, trying to live up to these self-imposed standards yielded little innovation when it came to my designs (and honestly, it led to overworking myself early in my career).

Today, I want to dismantle these delusions because the truth is most of the cutting-edge products that designers aspire to create hardly take design risks, nor are they the innovation of a single mastermind of design.

Nope, not even close. Let’s get to it.

Fallacy 1: Great designs are the creation of a single genius

When I was starting out, I assumed that award-winning products were the creation of a single person who designed an entire product from the ground up. But that is never the case. In fact, a lot happens behind the scenes with multiple brains humming and hawing over which design route to take. There can be years of researching, testing, reevaluating, retesting, and then further researching that happens before the product turns into what the final iteration that the world sees. As designers, it’s not our job to be the Don Draper of design – the person who holds the single source of truth as to what the design will be. Instead, our job is to be the team member who is the facilitator of thorough user research and the collector of viewpoints so that nothing goes unconsidered.

Fallacy 2: You have to take risks in your designs in order to be innovative

Risk-taking is an inherent part of the DNA of startups and tech companies. It’s how big companies like Apple, Amazon and Google have produced some of the most innovative products of our time. But while launching the first-of-its-kind product comes with business-related risks, the actual design of the product probably isn’t very risky at all. Really, great design only seems like it’s taking risks because we don’t know all the work that went into arriving at the output. So next time you deem a product’s design as “risky”, I would argue that, when it comes to design, it’s the designer’s job to make the product function in a way that will resonate with users, even if it’s new or different. In other words, every design decision that appears risky to us outsiders is deeply considered and is based on LOTS of critical thinking, careful calculation, and often the rules of design have been thoroughly considered at every take. Remember: it is not a designer‘s job to take risks in what they design, but to eliminate as many risks as possible through a process of validating ideas through research, checking assumptions, considering conventional design rules and never designing on just instinct.

Fallacy 3: Innovative ideas are complete solutions from the start.

We sometimes assume that visionary ideas are born from a single ‘aha’ moment. But that’s mostly just in the movies. Innovative ideas are born from research and process, not out of thin air from one person’s spark of genius. All innovations, especially designs, are iterated on and refined through a standard process that includes user research, creating a prototype, testing the prototype, making adjustments and then following the same steps all over again until the product efficiently solves the problem it is intended to. So next time you look at a product and wonder how they came up with that, remember that you are seeing the end product and not the 20 iterations that came before. Any innovative design is really the product of a designer’s tried and true process for uncovering insights into better ways to solve a user’s problem. It is the design process that leads to innovation, not innovation that will lead you to the design process.

Fallacy 4: Your design must be an original idea

There is often a myth among new designers that every design must be a completely new idea. However, some of the most innovative, world-changing products we see are not completely original ideas. It is more than okay if what you create is not something completely new. Great designs can be based on pre-existing models and iterations that the user is already familiar with. Changing a well-known design solely for the sake of originality will probably just end up confusing your users. In the end, what matters is that your design offers value that a user has never experienced and ultimately can’t get anywhere else.

Innovation isn’t always about creating something completely new. Sometimes it’s about identifying the best solution possible while working within the project’s restraints and eliminating as many risks as possible. If working with a pre-existing model or iteration helps accomplish this while producing the best possible solution for your user, then why would you waste resources reinventing the wheel?

The Takeaway

The next time you’re wondering if you will ever design something truly fantastic, remember that the greatest products we see today didn’t just come from one individual’s spark of genius. While it often remains unseen, there is always a process behind innovative work. There are 30+ failed iterations that never see the light of day and a design process that involves an incredible amount of time spent challenging assumptions and calculating risk. But above all else, there’s a designer who has invested their time developing a process that will ensure they always understand their user’s needs better than anyone else.

Nick Foster is the founder of Sixzero, an agency that helps companies design apps and software with impact.

Illustration by: Muti, Folio Art