Design for Non-Designers: Ten essential skills you can use every day

Design for Non-Designers: Ten essential skills you can use every day

There’s no shortage of courses, certifications, and workshops out there for anyone who wants to learn any aspect of design, from design thinking to UX and UI essentials. But “design” isn’t just about being able to use a particular method or tool; there are fundamental principles that can be applied to all design work.

Human-centered design practice is built on honing one’s empathy, curiosity, and bias toward action and experimentation. Designers of all disciplines use these principles to guide their approach to design challenges, and non-designers can use them as stakeholders and collaborators in the design process.

At Uizard, we’re continuously fine-tuning our AI-powered design platform to represent the most current UX and UI best practices out there, making good design well within anyone’s reach. We also believe that any tool is only as powerful as the user’s understanding of how (and when and why) to use it. So, to help establish a baseline of design know-how, we’ve gathered the 10 most universally relatable, relevant, and actionable insights to guide smart and informed design decisions regardless of your role or background.

Start with the why

This idea was popularized by Simon Sinek’s 2010 TED talk, “How great leaders inspire action.” His “Golden Circle” theory of value proposition development simplified (and critically visualized) what is actually just common sense in a human-centered design process. In essence, “starting with the why” means that by focusing on a product or service’s reason for existing, you ensure that it addresses real human needs.

Groundbreaking stuff, right?

Well, surprisingly, it is. The reason why this straightforward-seeming idea remains fresh and relevant is because it runs counter to traditional business instincts to start with the ‘what’ or the ‘how.’ In other words, bringing new ideas to market tends to be driven either by business goals or technology. These are obviously both important, but they’re not the right starting points because they’re already biased toward solutions. They are hammers looking for nails.

Asking “why” might be frustrating (especially if you’re using the infamous ‘Five Whys’ method of interrogating your ideas). It most definitely will send you back to the drawing board. But in the long run, customers will resonate more strongly with your creation as a result because you will have connected to their deeper motivations and values. You will have solved a problem, met a need, or just made someone’s life easier or better. And that’s what creates trust and loyalty.

Simon Sinek’s Value Proposition Model
Simon Sinek’s Value Proposition Model


Get out of the building

Stanford innovation professor Steve Blank’s legendary class on the fundamentals of technology entrepreneurship is anchored in a single, clear principle: get out of the building. Blank is invoking core design thinking curriculum here: go talk to people, go meet your potential customers where they are.

Consider the fact that much of design thinking is grounded in the ethnographic research methods applied in the social sciences. To clarify, ethnography looks at people in their native settings, with a focus on their behaviors and social interactions, observing cultural phenomena and drawing theoretical conclusions from them. Design thinking applies its conclusions (or at least its hypotheses) to the design of products, services, and programs.

This means that design doesn’t start when you open up a new file to make some wireframes. It starts with listening and observing, and noticing both patterns and anomalies IRL. While quantitative market research methods like surveys and demography do play a useful role, getting out ‘in the wild’ to do some fieldwork is where breakthrough ideas originate. Socialize your idea. Get feedback, early and often. More really is more. But diversity of perspective is key here, or you run the risk of ‘validating’ your idea in an echo chamber.

Interrogate your biases

Confronting our conscious and unconscious biases is an important tool in helping us to sharpen our thinking and become more intelligent participants in critical discourse. What are we talking about when we talk about biases in design? When we think about forming teams, for example, we should be thinking about whether or not we’re representing a diversity of perspectives and experiences in our group dynamics. This can cross many dimensions: age, gender, race, educational background, but also different roles and levels in the org structure. We might ask ourselves, ‘who gets to bring ideas to the table?’ What other inputs would help broaden our point of view?

When we think about the products and services we’re designing, we should be thinking as much about who an idea isn’t serving or including as much as we’re thinking about those that we are designing for. Who is being left out, and why? It’s about intentionality, and there’s another side of that coin, which is unintended consequences.

Take Airbnb. On the one hand, the company’s focus on understanding and serving the needs of its target users — renters and hosts — has become an industry benchmark of exemplary user experience. But on the other hand, over time, it’s become starkly evident that the business model and use cases have disrupted neighborhoods and communities, not just the hotel industry.

If you’re wondering how you might integrate a check-in with your team’s biases or take a hard look at the unintended consequences of potential design decisions, the super-cool designers at Seattle’s Artefact Group have created just the tool for the job. The company describes its Tarot Cards of Tech as “a set of provocations designed to help creators more fully consider the impact of technology.”

Tarot of Tech: Considering “Scale and Disruption”
Tarot of Tech: Considering “Scale and Disruption”

Say “Yes, and …”

Ideation and innovation rely on an ability to think on one’s feet. (Or ‘out of the box,’ whatever that means.) Unstructured brainstorming can often get a bad rap for its tendency to let the loudest and most extroverted participants dominate. It also suffers from a pervasive culture of ‘no’ that shuts down ideas before they’ve even had a chance to evolve. What seems on the surface like a fun team exercise can actually kind of take the wind right out of one’s creative sails.

To mitigate this dragging effect, designers have borrowed a few pages from the improv playbook, namely the act of saying, “Yes, and …” The pros at Chicago’s Second City teach this principle from day one: “The basic concept of these two words is that you are up for anything, and will go along with whatever gets thrown your way.” Put another way, “[a] large part of improv is that you are always there for your scene partner or partners, and, in turn, they are always there for you.” This is the dynamic you need for generative collaboration to thrive, taking risks and building on one another’s ideas rather than shooting them down.

Think like a futurist

Being a futurist sounds like a cool job, doesn’t it? But how, exactly, does one become a futurist? Or at least start to think like one? Best to let an actual futurist do the heavy lifting here. According to Jamais Cascio:

“Futurism as it’s practiced today doesn’t try to predict the future, but rather to illuminate unexpected implications of present-day issues; the emphasis isn’t on what will happen, but on what could happen, given various observed drivers. It’s a way of getting new perspectives and context for present-day decisions, as well as for dealing with the dilemma at the heart of all strategic thinking: the future can’t be predicted, yet we have to make choices based on what is to come.”

Designing products and services requires a good amount of this strategic foresight. We’ve already discussed two ways — observational research and examining biases — that inform the future thinking of design strategy. Another key aspect is about considering different scenarios and evaluating their relative outcomes and impacts.

An ugly truth of the dominant “move fast and break things” ethos in digital culture is its invariable short-termism. Get products to market quickly. Fail forward. There’s definitely some juice to this mindset. But asking for forgiveness instead of permission isn’t such a great strategy when it comes to how our personal data is being used, is it?

Thinking like a futurist asks us to take a broader of view of what’s possible and a longer view of the horizon. It asks us to scan across all of the factors that influence our decision-making: social, cultural, political, environmental, and technological, with an eye toward understanding systems and connections. Moreover, as Cascio explains, it asks us to create “a vision of what kind of world we want” and empowers us with the agency to bring that vision to life.

Map it out

Now that we’re thinking like futurists, we’re going to have to get to work mapping out scenarios so we can make abstract ideas more concrete. We have to start thinking visually. This is where many non-designers start to get a little shy and a little antsy, worried that they lack the design skills to adequately convey their vision. But that needn’t be the case. In fact, when it comes to your earliest iterations of an idea, the messier, the better, so you can give yourself the freedom to be playful and experimental.

Uizard is designed to support this particular use case, with an easy-to-use “what you see is what you get” platform for laying out design concepts. Can you start with some polished templates that have been purpose-built to represent best-in-class web and app design standards? You bet! But you can also upload a back-of-the-napkin sketch that our Design Assistant will translate into a fully editable wireframe.

Wireframes are a great place to get started as you begin to crystallize your idea. They’re an ideal tool for guiding conversations with your collaborators and giving everyone — designers, developers, product folks, and marketers alike — a level playing field to contribute to design direction and decisions.

Don’t get too precious too soon. Iterate your way forward through incremental levels of fidelity. Work with just enough detail to get the feedback you need at any given stage.

“Steal like an artist”

“Good artists copy; great artists steal” is a quote that’s generally attributed to Pablo Picasso, about whom it ironically doesn’t much apply. More notable were the copy-artists of the Renaissance period. They were known to trace and reuse “cartoons” to repeat certain elements — say, the fold of a draped gown, in this example from the Getty Museum — and that’s not to mention the engravers and printmakers who built careers reproducing the Masters’ works.

Mini art history lesson aside, the self-described “writer who draws” Austin Kleon published his own “Steal Like an Artist” manifesto for creativity in 2012. Building on what Picasso seemed to imply, Kleon suggests that creativity is built on compiling our own library of references and always finding new ways to iterate from and remix them. Writers, painters, musicians — artists are fastidious in studying the work of those they admire. There’s no shame in imitation as a starting point.

Try it yourself. You will invariably make little subconscious tweaks along the way. Kleon also reminds us that this is also how you learn to appreciate the details and nuances, how you get inside a piece of work and begin to understand the nature of all the micro-choices that lead to a whole that is much greater (and different from) the sum of its parts.

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Use building blocks

Over the past 10–15 years, companies like Google and Apple have created near-universally recognizable design systems, and by extension, have established a design vernacular for both hardware and software. This means that we have a common language for how digital things should look, feel, and behave. This allows us as users to navigate new products because there are familiar design patterns that help us orient ourselves, e.g., the hamburger menu or swiping right for an affirmative choice. Why reinvent the wheel?

Over the years, design has evolved to encompass a baseline set of standards and practices to which products are expected to adhere. There are some who might argue this has pushed design to the point of feeling sterile and homogenized or threatening designers’ careers with obsolescence. But far from it. If anything, it has liberated designers from spending too much time on minutiae and repetitive tasks and helped non-designers have a more accessible grasp on design fundamentals.

Templates and design component libraries are excellent jumping-off points for designers and non-designers alike. Not only do they show you the anatomy of best practices, but they also ensure you have the basics locked down first. Then, you’re better able to prioritize opportunities and trade-offs for innovation, which is the real work of design anyway.

Let it breathe

Here, we’ll keep it short and sweet in the spirit of taking our own advice. Design needs room to breathe. Whitespace trains the eye to scan for a hierarchy of information and focus on the desired actions. It also gives us time to pause and collect our thoughts. (Ahhhhh, feels good, doesn’t it?)

Share your work

Even when you have a set of clearly articulated design principles guiding your team’s every choice and decision, it can still be challenging to look at work with an objective eye — especially our own work. This is why we turn to design critiques and user testing as essential parts of the design process. So, how can we make the most of the feedback we receive?

The best advice in both circumstances is to have a specific ‘ask’ of your audience. To prepare for any review of design work, you should have a list of questions you need answered in order to move your work forward and a set of hypotheses about why your solution is (or isn’t) solving the design problem at hand. What, if anything, do they need to know in advance of reviewing the design? Do you need to set any context first? Tell people what feedback you’re looking for: should they be looking at the big picture or diving into the nitty-gritty details?

In terms of making sense of everything you learn, it can be helpful to create a framework for capturing and processing feedback. Our guide to user testing has a handy template for the job! This also helps you take a step back to spot patterns and also to avoid fixating on any one piece of feedback, negative or positive. Looking at things holistically will help key insights bubble to the surface, and you can prioritize next steps from a place of clarity.

Ready for more? We’ve got you covered

Hopefully, our (non-exhaustive) list of design essentials has not felt exhausting. There’s a lot to chew on here, but it’s still really just our selection of the greatest hits. Maybe you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work. We’ve got articles for that: Check out How to Design a Website: The Ultimate Guide for Non-Designers or Mobile App Design for Non-Designers: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started. Still need to brush up on your design vocab? Try What’s the difference between UI and UX? and What is a Wireframe and Why Do I Need One? Ready to rock and roll? Sign up for free and start designing today!