Designers have dynamic tools at their disposal. Hardware, software, and gadgets of the trade have never been more accessible or easy to use. Even artisanal tools have attainable learning curves, and we have an infinite sea of online tutorials teaching us to make just about anything we have the wherewithal to attempt.
The wide availability of tools, however, can also be distracting. In reality, designers need to only perfect one tool: curiosity. All else is peripheral.
Curiosity, though beneficial, can be maddening. How nice it must be to view an object and experience it in real time without immediately attempting to reverse-engineer it.
Our interest drives our devotion. In other words, curiosity is the designer’s fuel. Begging us to learn something new about our surroundings, curiosity brings insight into the ordinary. We create our value by observing humans in time and space. It is only by seeing where footsteps naturally tread that we know where new paths are needed.
Whether informed by pure curiosity or compassion, this human-centric approach to studying systems will allow you to create from within rather than spectate from outside the glass.
Questions are foundational to human interactions. We exist in a call and response world and depend upon conversation. However, the latin root conversatio actually describes a communal way of life beyond just questions and answers.
Designers should be experts in asking insightful, targeted questions. Though we can treat question-asking as a soft skill, I’d argue that it’s more crucial than any technical expertise we can develop. In our question-asking and answering, we pause and reflect, making room for contemplation in our conversing. And especially now in our accelerated and modern context, a series of inquiries can unearth a goldmine of direction for us in our work.
Questions also foster empathy. By actively listening to responses, we can begin to form a mental image, placing ourselves in the scenarios being described. Active listening also helps us battle against our assumptions by hearing directly from those we’re serving. Asking the right questions can refine our work better than the countless hours we could spend searching for solutions on our own. In the right conditions, this inquiry-driven empathy should drive us towards informed action.
For most of us, big questions can feel unsettling. They’re difficult to ask ourselves and even more nerve-racking to ask those we’re serving. More comfortable at the surface level, we see this mirrored in our conversations. We don’t greet each other with, “Hi, I’m Jeremy. What’s the meaning of life?” We must first break surface tension in order to dive deeper, and it’s in these fathoms of curiosity that we find the heart of design.
As an Eagle Scout, I was bred to appreciate tools. I was also trained during those adolescent adventures to relish the scenarios in which I had limited tools—like the reality show fantasties we have about being helicoptered into an undisclosed location, with only a Swiss Army knife in hand. Okay, maybe not everyone has these fantasties. However, only when we’re without the instruments or systems we need can we fully appreciate their value.
I fear that design communities can overemphasis the role and importance of tools. Design literature is often aimed at developing newer, more efficient ways to use tools or hacks to make life easier. Competition has reached a fever pitch in this sector as well. Every day I see another essay written to persuade me to jump ship to a rival design tool, each option promising a brighter path forward.
Because we're tempted to make our tools like extensions of ourselves, we tend to forget that their purpose is to actualize our craft. In other words, our vision to design supersedes the tools required to bring our idea to fruition. This doesn’t chip away at tools’ inherent value; it simply puts them in their proper place.
There’s an entertaining debate happening in the tech-world around robots creating art. Sure, a robot could master Rembrandt’s lighting or Van Gogh impressionism in the span of an afternoon. They could likely master tools and algorithmically learn our tastes and produce art to match. But would they produce meaningful work informed by the lived human experience? Definitely not.
Just when advancing technology tries to push aesthetics towards polished perfection, we collectively bend back towards something much more human. Whether in a low-fidelity recording or hand-lettered type, we have to see human hands in the work for it to interest us.
Most tools are simple to learn. While we face some growing pains when we embrace them, they usually involve repeatable steps and can become muscle memory with enough time and energy.
But designers need less tools.
I can hear Dieter Rams in the back of my mind repeating, “Less but better.” Tools can often get in the way of our work. Many times I’ve forced an idea into reality using the flashiest technology when I just needed to make it work on paper. Calling for a lighter toolbelt doesn’t diminish tools’ importance but rather pushes for them to be conscious and deliberate.
The distraction to use tools unnecessarily can often cloud our vision for good design, and it’s those blurry moments that keep us from the tool we need to master most.
Where do we go from here? How do we fuel our curiosity?
Here’s a start:
1. Ask better questions.
One of the most human things we can do is build community through conversation. Dig for intimate insight through the questions you ask. Don’t absently inquire but rather actively listen to people and surroundings, allowing your questions to form organically.
2. Observe your surroundings.
There is no substitute for being present. Inhabiting space and time is invaluable to creating meaningful work. With deep knowledge of an environment comes ideation that reflects that environment. Don’t take slowing down for granted.
3. Lighten your toolbelt.
Don’t allow your tools to become a distraction. Stretch yourself by removing certain tools from your process in order to evaluate which ones really matter. Minimize your toolset and simplify your work to its essence.
Curiosity connects us not only as designers but as humans. When we allow our senses to adjust to the world around us, it’s amazing how refreshing our solutions will feel. We’ll be imagining on behalf of real people in real places and in real time. This spirit of curiosity is our greatest tool.
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