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Your best work will be invisible

Originally posted to Medium.

As a designer, your best work is going to always be invisible. It’ll be invisible because the best part of what you do will be everything that takes place behind the scenes, where nobody will ever see it.

Knowing this is important, as it can help to unlock your full potential and help you focus on what matters most when it comes to product design.

When first moving into a product design role, the novice tends to conflate the work of product design with that of a more traditional design role. They want to be recognized for what’s on the face of what they build, so they focus on making it attractive or flashy. Or they want to make something beautiful without dedicating much time to building empathy, or deeply understanding the problems, or developing or identifying a clear design system.

Of course beautiful designs, and well-crafted experiences, matter quite a lot in product design. But the actual pixels behind a design are only as good as the reasoning behind them.

Consider the fact that almost anyone today can download tools to design and create products. All it takes is a laptop and an internet connection. And once you have the tools, you can use online tutorials to recreate what you find inspirational out in the wild.

Having access to complex tools is no longer a separator between the amateurs and the pros. A formal education is no longer a requirement to do quality design work. What matters now isn’t your ability to even use design tools well, or to know the lingo of the trade, or even to have a flashy portfolio. The most important thing is everything that takes place behind the scenes.

Your approach to research and having access to resources for conducting it. Iteration, testing, and gaining perspective. The exploration of edge cases, and the decision making around each of them. The ability to deeply understand what problems are being solved and the trade-offs that must be made to build a usable, and beautifully designed, end result.

In other words: designing with intentionality.

Nobody will ever see the research or the deliberate decisions made around trade-offs. Nobody will see the entire system you design, laid out bare on your computer or in your notebook. Nobody will ever see your ideas for personas, or the results from the research you do, or the hours you’ve invested in iterating on a single attribute of your design. Nobody will go through past conversations you’ve had with peers, co-workers, and potential users about your design. But these things will absolutely be reflected in whatever it is you create.

If we look at some of the most famous paintings in history we can see a very real interpretation of what I’m describing here. Using X-ray techniques we can see layer upon layer of old paint hidden beneath masterpieces like Picasso’s The Blue Room, Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass, and even (highly debated) da Vinci’s the Mona Lisa.

Beneath each work of art lies another, often rougher or incomplete work of art, the product the artist slaved away on before smothering it in even more paint, to get the details right. Often we can see not just one, but several paintings buried beneath the final work.

We can see this intentionality in modern design guidelines too. Like Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines or Google’s Material Design. Each design system contains a vast library of design principles and recommendations, some of which are so nuanced it will make any non-designer’s head spin. Just look at Material Design’s color page for an example of the thinking that has gone into color alone; the page is massive and rich with detail.

To put this another way: in anything we do, the gift we give others is investing our own limited time into the work.

Trying to find shortcuts to get to a final design, or focusing on only one attribute of the work, or tabling research or iteration just to get something out the door — these things never help the end result of the work you’ll do. They’ll merely hinder it.

What can often make a product experience so impactful is the work those who created put into it. To build something in such a thoughtful way that makes anyone oblivious to the fact.

To quote the famous entertainer Teller, of Penn and Teller:

“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”