Design is a long education in how to critically think about a problem. The difference between a Junior and Senior is rarely ever about the craft or practical skill-set; likely the easiest comparison but very rarely the right one to make when assessing effectiveness.
If we zero in on the strongest skill any Designer should have, critical thinking, the difference between “classes” becomes very clear.
When being described a problem, a Senior Designer will likely ask more questions than their Junior counterpart. This is to ensure that the person describing the problem is clear about the problem to begin with. Sometimes what’s being described is a symptom of a problem.
There’s the root cause (the system’s problem) and then there are the system antics or the unexpected results of the system. These antics are what people tend to mistake for the actual problem itself.
Problem as described: No one is signing up
Proposed problem: The button is too small
Questions worth asking: Is there a sea of distraction around the button that’s causing blindness? Is the copy clear? Does the button even work? Does the value proposition inspire action? Is there an interaction issue?
Junior Designers see constraints. Senior Designers seek constraints. I wrote before in my previous post that a Designer’s role is to dismantle a complex system into smaller components.
A Junior Designer will look at constraints and consider them to be set in stone (unlikely) and move forward. A Senior Designer will seek constraints so when they break down the components of the system, it’s easier to identify the problem and solve specifically for that problem.
Problem: We can’t do this
Junior: Okay, I’ll create another solution
Senior: Why can’t we do this? What is the cause of why we can’t do this? Is this engineering debt? Does this overlap with another project in the company which creates this problem? If we do this now, can we push for the ideal later? If there are no constraints, can we define some?
Many people look at someone like Jonathan Ive and are fascinated by how well he has executed on something they call vision. It sounds magical… like Designers get up in the middle of the night and exclaim dramatically, “I got it!” That’s absurd, no.
Over time, Designers accumulate a set of beliefs (like real life!) about why they’re doing certain things. This set of beliefs become their design philosophy and when you hire a Senior Designer, you’re hiring that set of beliefs. Ive isn’t doing well because he simply came up with the idea of the iPhone. Ive is successful because he found a way to convince people to care about the same thing he cares about.
Juniors are very rarely filled with this conviction. This also may be why some people believe Designers are snotty. Designers aren’t snotty. They’re opinionated. Vision is just a fancy word for opinion.
We are plummeted all day and all night with new information or what I call: data-points. It could be from traditional forms of data but it could also be types of information that come from over-involved people in the company (opinions).
Juniors tend to treat all data-points as equal, not knowing how to prioritize certain pieces over others. This leads to wasted cycles or a frozen Designer/team. A Senior Designer can say no because they’ve already discerned whether or not that particular piece of information is worth the pivot.
These four things can put another Designer leagues ahead of the other, regardless of how much work time they have put in. Expertise in this field is not determined by years, it’s determined by how well someone can define the problem to begin with.