3 design mental models they don’t teach you in school.

As a designer, I understand the quench, passion, and lust to do great work that impresses everyone. It doesn’t mean I hit the nail on the head each time, but God knows I try!

However, if you’re in any area of the creative industry, you quickly learn you can’t simply be good at design production alone.

You have to wear multiple hats, for multiple people, in multiple scenarios.

Many designers don’t last.

Many find the pressure too difficult. A critique is an insult.

Yet, in a job that relies on focused business input meeting tangible creative output, we don’t have much room for preference, or hurt feelings. It’s less about your designs, and more about business goals.

So if being a really good designer is less about UI, graphics, or digital output, what sets us apart? How can a designer truly prove their value beyond being a skilled digital magic-maker?

The following sections aren’t terribly difficult principles to understand, but mastering them can take years.

Ready to take it to the next level? Then let’s dig in!

01 — Understanding Fires, Rivers, and Droughts

This point is all about understanding how your design process meets that of a business environment’s.

If you’re anything like me, you might tend to focus too much on trying to impress from a visual standpoint.

I want to go 10x, not 1x. However, 10x may not be doable, or even necessary.

When you’re operating in such a huge and largely un-navigable space as tech product design, it’s easy to start down the wrong path.

You can easily spend hours, days, or weeks addressing a solution that won’t be tangible for another year due to x, y, z. So do yourself a favor, and synthesize the following scenarios…



This is not lost concept on you. When something is on fire, everyone’s biggest focus is to put it out as soon as possible! As a designer, it’s pretty obvious what to do here…

  • Pair up with another designer, developer, or PM
  • Don’t waste time! Money is burning!
  • Get to the critical problem, and address it quickly



river is more or less your normal stream of work (see what I did there?).

If you’re within an agile design environment, your current design sprint and backlog grooming ceremonies have you covered on what kind of work is coming down the line. This is planned, and should be addressed with investigation and time well spent to solve each story, but nothing to hurry through…

  • Do light research on the story (task at hand)
  • Understand service / backend dependencies that may effect solutions
  • Work with fellow designers for outside opinions (possible misses)
  • Partner with engineering for collaborative solutions



drought is that feature in your app (or anything else) that hasn’t been touched in 5 years. Nobody dares to touch it because of how large it appears, or you’re still parsing / fixing tech debt from 2008.

As a designer, this is a fun territory to poke at and provides an opportunity to flex your product design muscles to the core…

  • Dig into the feature as is. Study it. Document thoughts.
  • Carry out a heuristic evaluation of what’s weird, broken, or bad UX (compile it)
  • Provide quick, overview solutions to the problems you’ve found
  • Present to your boss, engineering partners, or other interested parties
  • If parties are interested, circle back and do a deep dive design pass (hopefully this will land on the product road map at some point!)



02 — Initiate, Iterate, and Itinerate

Try saying that sub-title 5 times super fast!


In other words…

  • Step up to the plate (start on something without being asked to)
  • Design as if nothing is ever done (because to an extent, it never is)
  • Set timelines, meetings and other important “next steps” with people


While studying design in college, you’re taught all about execution; all about designing premium solutions via software, design history, and other fundamentals.

When entering the industry, you quickly learn that everyone is going a million miles a minute and very few have time to stop and understand your thinking on something you’ve made.

This isn’t design critique time. The real world doesn’t have time for that. It’s just got to be right; it has to get results.

That’s not to say that people won’t question how you came up with what you did (they will), but you’ll just have to be ready to answer anything pertaining to your why. Always have this information logged in your brain, ready to dump on whoever asks for it (+2 points for saying “data” a lot).

You’re only going to help yourself if you do things that aren’t asked of you, thoroughly digging into problems until you have an appropriate solution. Sparingly call meetings, set expectations, present, and set up next steps.


03 — Be a business-minded designer

When younger designers dream of working for Nike, Apple, Google, or Facebook, they think they’ll get to come up with work that will instantly affect millions of people.

And they will…but it won’t be because the feature they’re shipping is the next Instagram and people will bask at how amazing the design is.

It’ll be because from a business standpoint, that feature is bound to make your company money.

At the end of the day (and beginning) it always come back to the bottom line, whether we like that or not 🙁

Nobody wants it to be this way alone, but as you’ve been doing this for awhile, you start to understand that the only way you get to design in Sketch all day, is because you’re making that company money…which in turn, employs you.

The more you can bring the business case to justifying your design decisions, the more stakeholders, directors, and other shot-callers will trust your why. If your what contains beautiful design for the sake of beautiful design, it won’t fly. They won’t care..and might even distrust your intentions…

  • Learn to pitch design from a standpoint of how it’s going to make the company money, grow an audience, or make their experience better (less buggy)
  • Learn all you can about business principles in general
  • Ask your stakeholders about their goals for the project you’re working on (chances are they’re mostly worried about the business metrics; their job depends on it), so you’ll be speaking their language
  • Get to know your stakeholders on a personal level if at all possible — befriend them and gain trust
  • Learn about user / customer acquisition and retention metrics
  • Understand your end-to-end experience and where you can move the needle or create opportunity for the business to get ahead


When it comes down to it, the pixels are the easiest part of design. If you have a solid understanding of core design principles and keep in mind the above bullets, you’ll start to make a name for yourself among peers.

Design isn’t art. It’s business psychology, and it’s damn difficult.

Anyone who thinks or tells people that design is easy, clearly has NO idea what they’re talking about.


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