The Designer's Sixth Sense

In my work as a graphic designer, design manager, and freelance consultant, I have observed a disturbing trend in our design community. Too often we look outward for design inspiration, seeking out foreign styles, methods, and directions to solve our unique design problems. Too often designers borrow ideas from the latest celebrity showcase, or will work tiring hours at mimicking a style not their own.

In our last article, “The Road to Design Expertise,” John Dilworth named intuition as a key characteristic of design expertise, claiming experts “look at problems within their domain and instantly and intuitively know and execute the right solution.” Experts use a lifetime of experience, not CSS galleries, to recognize familiar problems and solutions. They have virtually stopped thinking, knowing the right design instantly.

I propose that this skill of design intuition is not just for experts. While most of us lack the years required to “just know,” we all can take advantage of intuition as a valuable addition to the designer’s toolbox.

What is intuition?

Good instincts usually tell you what to do before your head has figured it out.

Michael Burke

Intuition is commonly defined as an immediate realization of something without having to analyze or process the situation. It’s often thought of as a fleeting, momentary influx of knowledge, over which the recipient has no control or no power to command. But the concept of intuition, and how to use it, is hardly so easy to understand.

In his book Blink – the Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell explores the phenomenon of intuition, filling the book’s pages with evidence that what goes on in this momentary influx is hardly “not thinking.” He defines these moments of insight as the brain’s unconscious ability to quickly process what would take us much longer to process consciously.

According to Gladwell, the feelings we get in certain situations come from the brain’s ability to assess a situation and report back instantly, picking up on hundreds of nuances and prompting you how to act or feel.

In giving you these promptings, your brain draws upon your personal pool of precedence and judges each situation accordingly. Your intuitive thinking is uniquely different, ever expanding, and as personal as your thumb print.

Trusting these “instincts” is typically as or more effective than taking the time to understand why you feel – or should feel – a certain way. Worse, ignoring or misreading your intuition will lead to making decisions contrary to your own better judgement.

In philosophy and psychology, the definition and validity of intuition has been hotly debated for over a century. One philosopher, Henri Bergson, defined intuition as the experience of sympathizing with something to the point that one is “moved into the inner being” of that object, “to grasp what is unique and ineffable within it.” He said this act of sympathy is the only thing that leads to an absolute knowledge of that object – studious analysis leads only to a partial understanding.

Grossly oversimplifying Bergson’s theory, intuition is connecting with something on such a personal, emotional, even spiritual level that you understand that object better than if you were to take the time to study it.

Why a designer needs it

The only real valuable thing is intuition.

Albert Einstein

Applying these concepts of intuition to our realm, a designer’s intuition is:

  • recognizing the right answer to a design problem by trusting the brain’s ability to take previous experiences and characteristics of the current situation to make a decision
  • connecting with a design problem, or a client, or a project, at a personal or emotional or spiritual level, and perceiving its characteristics and needs to design a solution that fits

We’ve all been in this situation: five comps into a project, and you’re even more sick of the latest design than the previous four. Deadlines are looming and the client is antsy. Why can’t you seem to get this right? After a week of work, the design isn’t anywhere near where it needs to be.

Few designers take the time to pause and look inward when tackling challenging design problems. What is your own brain, or your own heart telling you about the problem? How can you use your own unique experiences to solve it? How might you get to the heart of the issue, not by “wrapping your head around it,” but by putting your head into it?

This type of inward thinking can lead a designer to arrive at the right design in a fraction of the time spent on exhaustively analyzing dozens of possible solutions or directions. Going to your gut, and trusting it, can add speed and quality to your design operation, and you don’t necessarily need years of experience or super mind powers to do it.

How to get the light on

My best idea is always my first idea.

Paula Scher

The first step to taking advantage of intuition, or enjoying that light going on above your head, is to keep your electricity charged. Fill up on everything design. Soak it up. Look for it in books, magazines, websites, blogs. Look for design where you haven’t seen it before. Fine art, architecture, gardening, landscaping, cinema, hardware. Open your eyes and see great and horrible design decisions being made everywhere, and figure out what made them so good or so bad. Fill your brain with great design.

Second, design everything you can. The more work you fit under your belt, the better. Take unusual opportunities to design. DJ a party. Paint a mural. Paint your house. Design your living room. Design your eyebrows. Put the same thought you put into your traditional work into your car, your house, your yard, your life. These experiences will be invaluable assets in later assignments, and will serve as handy practice sessions for fine tuning and exercising your design intuition.

Filling your life and work with design will give your brain the ammunition it needs to pellet you with ideas when confronted with new problems. In Blink, Gladwell recounts the experience of several sculpture experts who instantly recognized a fake sculpture, despite not knowing immediately why. Their brain, using their expertise in sculpture, caught on to the many characteristics of a fraud. The more experience you acquire, the faster your brain will know what to do, and the better your intuition will be.

Third, seek to connect to your design problems on an emotional level. Follow Bergson’s theory of getting “into the inner being” of the problem. Get inside of it, connect with it. What does the problem feel like? Sympathize with the issue to the point that you know it, understand it, and feel it. Knowing the problem at such an intimate level will help you understand all the characteristics of the issue, and will help you better recognize a solution.

Take, for example, the problem of a music video director, tasked with turning an audio track into something visual. He must get his head into the song, and explore how it makes him feel emotionally, long before he can visualize anything. Connect with your own design problems like a director would to his song. Soak it in. Listen intently. Repeatedly. Explore how it makes you feel. Only then will you recognize the right design that will visually match your song.

Finally, trust your gut. Trust the way something feels, and trust how you’ve reacted to it. Your unique set of experiences and styles will play into the ideas running through your head, but often you will come up with ideas no one has tried before. The best source of innovation and fresh thinking is often a hunch or idea popping into your head. Trust your gut, and have the courage to go with these ideas.

When intuition fails

99 percent of success is built on failure.

Charles Kettering

The reality of intuition is your gut will sometimes produce some pretty shifty results. Just as my intuition would be pretty useless on a basketball court, the intuitive powers of an unskilled designer will produce work that is embarrassing and shameful. But even the skilled designer will have bad ideas, and there are many factors of intuition that can produce bad results. Recognizing where bad ideas come from will help refine your intuition and prevent embarrassing mistakes. In Blink, Gladwell lists several warning signs that produce quick judgements that are sure to fail.

Intuition does take time. It may seem counterintuitive, literally, but the brain needs time to process information. Gladwell advises slowing things down. In one example, he tells of police squads who did away with two-man police cars in favor of riding solo. He writes,

One-man cars get into less trouble because you reduce bravado. A cop by himself makes an approach that is entirely different. He is not as prone to ambush. He doesn’t charge in. He acts more kindly. He allows more time.

Allowing your brain some patience will prevent shooting from the hip like some thug designer, and will help you better process the information at hand.

Beware of personal bias. First impressions and intuitive ideas can be based on unfair bias, whether racial, intellectual, or other. Don’t allow judgements of appearance to drown out every other piece of information you gather in those first few moments. Dismiss impressions based on bias or stereotype, and pay attention instead to the many other characteristics that truly matter.

Practice makes perfect. Intuition is a skill, and can be refined just like any other. Gladwell strikes gold with this blurb on training your mind to get better and better at quick judgements:

This is the gift of training and expertise – the ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience. Every moment – every blink – is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction.

Stop overanalyzing. Designers love to stop and write things down. But stopping a lightbulb moment to analyze and verify is a sure fire way of flipping the light off and stopping your flow. Gladwell quotes psychologist Jonathan Schooler: “When you start becoming reflective about the process, it undermines your ability. You lose the flow.” Don’t suppress action by stopping to think. Moleskine notebooks and Tufte’s 11×17s are most often filled when the candle of intuition has been snuffed out.

But even failure is something to celebrate. When ideas go wrong, learn from them and figure out why your intuition led you astray. Were you influenced by bias? Did you overanalyze? Tuck the experience under your belt and keep moving forward, building on the failure and learning from the experience. Downed projects, lost clients, and missed opportunities are certainly worth grieving, but are ultimately less valuable than the knowledge you gain from the experience.

Intuition, when founded in experiences of success and failure, and when fueled by faith and confidence, will produce a level of design quality that will blow away your previous work. It can and should be used to overcome and prevent creative block. And it will produce your most stunning, most impressive, most successful work that is truer to your unique fingerprint of expertise and experience.