The Design Code: The unspoken code of the best designers

The Design Code: The unspoken code of the best designers

This post will not attempt to instruct you on the top 10 steps to take in becoming a dev/design unicorn….or any type of unicorn for that matter.

This is advice on the most practical way of experiencing life as a designer and getting the most out of that experience.

I call it…The Design Code.

What is the Design Code you ask? Good question. We didn’t learn it in school, and it isn’t taught in design talks at How or Adobe Max. It’s not etched in stone, nor is it a published Book Apart. It isn’t found on medium and certainly is NOT this wikipedia entry, but by experience and only through experience, can one gain insight how to benefit from the Design Code.

The Design Code is what allows us design types to pull from past experiences, and provide new experiences, both of which work together to provide a consistent source of inspiration and unique final products.

Imagine if you will for a minute, someone with basic life experience, lets call her Arryn, who has lived on the surface of the earth for her entire life and becomes a designer. Presumptuously, she has experienced a sunrise, transportation of some sort, and friendship in their lifetime.

Conversely, lets now assume there is a guy named Peter, who has literally lived under a rock his entire life and somehow chooses to become a designer. His perspective from life would be extremely different to that of Arryn, and some might say his pool of inspiration would be much more limited.

When describing a sunrise they both might use the feeling of warmth, however Arryn would have a color and gradient palette from which to pull. Additionally she has context for a “visual library” of what the sky and land look like at the moment the sun crosses the horizon. She would be able to visually describe what the sunlight looks like reflecting and refracting through window panes and off of dewey grass.

She would be able to capitalize on familiarity and iconography, which are important aspects of visual design, but they certainly are not the only ones.

Peter may understand a sunrise makes his home warm. The shades of grey he might choose to use to design tell the story of a sunrise may not be the same experience anyone else has, but his solutions could be equally as effective, as they would be unique, memorable, and unexpected results.

In attempts to codify how essential individual experiences are to the design process, I’ve created a short list of Design Code tenets:

1. Design without purpose is decoration .

A brand puts out a new logo, and you redesign the new redesign just because, sure it’s decent technical practice, but it’s TERRIBLE theoretical practice.

As designers, we all know that imitation is the purest form of flattery, and sure it may get a student a job out of school; But imitation doesn’t further our field as a whole.

We iterate, iterate, iterate, and stagnate. (side note: I’m definitely using this line for a song, sometime.)

Consistently making decisions that a robot can make doesn’t increase your value as a designer. If anything, it makes you expendable and able to be replaced by automation. It cheapens our profession.

A sampling of Dribbble redesigns, just hours after the new Instagram logo was introduced

Tobias van Schneider Shared his thoughts as well, but he echoed the thoughts of my previous post about The Witch Hunts that the design community seems to keep going on after every brands updates. He brings up valid branding points and how long it takes for us to get used to something new, even though our first instinct is to be upset by change.

Similarly, when a design is made to show the world how “cutting edge” you can be in concept or how far ahead of your time you are in web design — it is self-aggrandizing and actually the counter productive to our industry as a whole. (see tenet 3, below)

Understanding that employment in any market can be competitive, being the best version of a designer that YOU can be is exactly what you should be. Being an individual human, you are intrinsically unique, and have a unique perspective.

However, attempting to illustrate with your portfolio that you are more creative than everyone else, is less important than showing what problems you are actually solving with design.

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

2. Design is for everyone.

The design community at large seems to forget that design is for almost everyone else in the world, not just designers. It is easy to get caught up in the world that we understand and know, but we must remember design solves problems for those who cannot.

Designers are the translators, decoders, and interpreters of messages. We are the assigners of value, and the creators of meaning. Our role is that of liaisons between clients and end users. We should be communicators first, and decorators last.

We create WITH purpose FOR a purpose.

And while not everyone can design, everyone can and should be the beneficiaries of design.

Now I said all that to say this — we are empowered as taste makers to create design that will have mass appeal. As Ira Glass once said:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.

As lucky as we are to have good taste, we should be able to share our taste with the world, should we not?

Oh, Most Definitely.

But I think it important to draw a line of distinction between having good taste, and creating good design work with your tastes. What it boils down to is: I made something pretty vs. I solved a problem.

Recent trends on social platforms are causing detriment to the significance of design. Designers creating projects specifically for notoriety, or offering little to no constructive feedback other than “this sucks” or “I’ve seen this before” is a destructive habit stemming from ego that the exclusivity of being a designer can foster.

At the core of who we are, is the want to be capable communicators and problem solvers for the masses.

Its great to go to creative conferences, and network and meet other creatives, for the fellowship and collaboration, but all too often we get in a mode of giving a false sense of celebrity to other designers who solve problem(s) effectively.

We should all strive to create work we can be proud of, and that others may be impressed by, but those cannot be the driving factor in making design decisions. We have to always keep the goal of solving the problem as a number one concern as it inevitably will have the most desirable outcomes for everyone it is intended for, not just the design community.

3. Design Starts with Respect.

Respect has a lot to do with how we successfully navigate the waters of being a designer. It can dictate wether or not we get a job, who we hire, and even how we get inspired. This means respect for everyone we encounter including: clients, yourself, and peers.


Sometimes this can be the most difficult — we need to respect the people making the requests. We might disagree, but we need to remember to do so, respectfully.

Often as I hear “They don’t know what they are talking about.” or “They don’t know what they want.”


But more than a job, we have a responsibility to educate clients and equip them with better tools moving forward.

Much like when you were a child are visiting someone’s house, your mom may have told you to “…leave it better than how you found it.” Such is the case with clients. We get work from them but should not create more work for them. We should providing them with the adequate communication as well as design, that leaves them wanting to come back to us not HAVING to come back to us.


We never got further by putting each other down. Furthermore, being our own worst critics make it difficult to get anything done.

Its easy to google or search on Behance and Dribbble and see amazing things that we wish we would have designed, ourselves. You may think, “I’m never going to be that good.” and with that attitude, you are exactly right.

The human brain has an amazing ability to justify anything, and we can talk ourselves straight into inaction by being consistently disappointed by our failures and shortcomings.

Show yourself some respect every once in a while, and learn to love your failures. They are the mistakes that ONLY YOU can make and you can learn the lessons you need from them.


Last but not least, is the respect for your peers. The others working along side you in the design field, as well as those outside of it.

I find an endless source of inspiration from those not labeled in the workplace as “creatives.” It’s a misnomer that those without this credit to their name cannot provide creative insight.

In a multi-use office space, separating creatives with physical space can even cause more problems than it does by just calling them creatives.

We should empower all of those around us to share creative thought on a daily basis and not just limit those with a degree or experience in professional design services to provide creativity. Design (as mentioned above) is for everyone, and should remain inclusive, especially to those around us.

We can be the catalysts for creativity in workplaces, schools, at dinners, and encourage the conversations and events to take place that might be wacky and/or zany, but don’t kill or thwart someone else’s idea, just because it wasn’t yours.

We should be willing to play by the rules of improv theater by saying “yes, and…” in any situation, be it brainstorming a solution to world hunger or just asking questions like “What if…?”

Would you be prepared if gravity suddenly reversed itself?

As long as we are retaining our optimism, necessary for our own creativity, we can foster and encourage others by not writing them off, or calling them “weird.”

Where can I find out more about my “Design Code?”

The most simple answer is, by living it. No seriously, do it. Go forth, have experiences, and try to apply the most basic tenets to get the most from each and every experience.

What are you waiting for?

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