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February 28, 2011

The Three Types of Designers – What Level are You?

I attended a seminar a few  years ago where the owner of one of the states largest design firms gave a really interesting presentation where he kind of mentioned this fact as a sidenote: “There are three types of designers; Technicians, Artists, and Problem Solvers.  The technicians make up about 70% of the field, artists about 20% and problem solvers are only 1 out of 10.”  I remember being really impressed with all his work but this is the main thing I took away from listening to him.  I’ve worked with all types of designers over the last decade and here’s my thoughts on who’s who.

The Technician

In school I was taught all the tools and not really pushed to create anything that special.  Had I not worked as a designer before I decided to get the degree I probably would have been one of them.  You know the type.  They can explain how to use all the tools in Photoshop or Illustrator.  They understand the printing process and know how to do spot checks.  They can even code a little HMTL.  Technically they are designers. Technically.

They can take your mockup or sketch and turn it into something that is well… less like a mockup.  Some people will even be convinced that it will be something you could be proud to present to your customers.  They are really good at punching a clock and generally stay on task without much complaining.  They can take your idea and put it into the chosen medium as well as you can explain your idea.

When to hire the Technician

If you already know what you want but don’t possess the time or ability to produce your design you probably need a technician.  If you are the type of manager that loves looking at everything through a magnifying glass you might want to hire a technician.  A technician take instructions and doesn’t worry about adding their own style or applying their own market knowledge. In other words they won’t use their artistic ability to mess up your already brilliant ideas. Technicians are cheap.  You pay them for their time and their ability to memorize those keyboard shortcuts. And in the end, you get what you pay for.

The Artist

When I went back to school all I really wanted was a piece of paper that would open more doors.  I already thought I knew it all so I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything.  Well surprise surprise, I did learn a few things.  One thing I learned well (in photography and not in my design classes) was how to push yourself and explore artistic expression.

First off artists are technicians, and then some.  They have learned the tools and can design circles around the technicians but this has never really been proven because they wouldn’t every really stoop to that level. The artists are the designers that win awards.  They have a flash website that shows their great portfolio.  Many of their examples are quite visually striking but leave the viewer a little confused as to what is the exact purpose of the piece they are looking at.  They can make you feel like you are in an art gallery of sorts.  They charge a lot more than a technician and don’t really need you to give them a lot of direction.  In fact they don’t want much direction.  You don’t usually keep one of these guys on staff, they either work as a freelancer or for an agency.

When to hire the Artist

When you need to impress clients or competitors with your marketing budget, a good way to show them that you have money to throw around is to hire an artist.  When your only goal for your product is to be eye catching and get some attention you need an artist.  You hire an artist when you don’t have specific conversion goals or when you have goals but no metrics to track those goals.  You have a great deal of faith in your artist and you will need to give them some space to work their artistic magic.  You can expect the artist to deliver something mind blowing and unexpected.  If that’s what you are after you can’t get that from a technician. You’ll need an artist.

The Problem Solver

Something that they really didn’t teach in school was the ability to solve problems. They tried, but mostly they failed.

In the truest sense, a designer is a problem solver.  They must have mastered the technical aspect.  They must have the artistic flair.  But they also have something that the other two types of designers are lacking.  The have the ability to understand why their client has come to them in the first place.  Even in cases when the clients doesn’t understand why they have come to the designer.

The problem solver has the ability to figure out what the client is hoping to accomplish by having something designed and then finding the best solution to accomplish the goal.  The problem solver uses goals and tracking metrics to measure the success of their efforts will come back and tweak things until they know they have it just right.  The problem solver has considered and in some cases pursued a career in some field of engineering.

Problem solvers are going to require a bit more time than the other guys.  They are going to spend a lot of time up front  getting to understand your industry and business.  They’ll really get to know your company and your goals.  They will also be a little bit pricey but not really that much more than the artists.

When to hire the Problem Solver

When you know what your goals are and have them well defined you are probably ready for a problem solver.  You understand that you have your expertise and the problem solver has theirs.  You are going to rely on their expertise but not just on faith. You want to work closely with them so you can understand how to work better them but you don’t want to try to manage them or dictate what they do.  The problem solver will help you understand who your target market really is (not just who you think they are) and help you reach that market.  They’ll take the time to understand the mindset of the target market and develop a plan to really connect with them.

The problem solver is also an artist but they understand that a design must do more than blow people away.  It must connect with your customers on a conscious level as well as on a subconscious level.  It also goes without saying that the problem solver is also a master technician.  They not only know the tools, they have tweaked and customized the tools to streamline their work and many times have developed their own tools to accomplish what the industry standards don’t quite pull off.

So I have to back up a little.  I don’t really consider Technicians to be designers.  I also don’t really consider the Artists to be designers.  But if you ask them if they are they’ll t respond affirmatively.  I’d call them aspiring designers maybe. In my mind a designer is someone who can find the right balance between form and function to solve a problem.

So Who Are You?

Which type of designer are you?  Are there more types of designers that I am missing?

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