Design Thinkers vs. Design Keepers


Over the years, our society has constructed a “designer” paradigm where design is embodied and idealized – even romanticized – within an individual. This idealization was created in part from cultural values, craftsmanship, and traditional media practices. I entered the design field in the mid 90′s drinking the “individualism cool-aid” found in popular design culture, believing design to be a “black box” of mystery: stuff goes in… stuff happens… and design comes out. Most designers (including myself) perpetuate the myth that design needs no explanation – “my title, my education, and my experience (portfolio) are qualifiers of my role.”

Up until the end of the last century, our culture endowed design (the verb) upon the individual (designer). This view rose from the long-established craft of design. Like most craftsman, designers internalized their skills and processes, learning from peers and the available tools specific to their craft. The need to explain their craft to others was unnecessary – much of their knowledge was contained within the trade, becoming tacit and intangible. Design-service industries, like advertising, further reinforced design as a mysterious process by explaining design to society (and their clients) as a “creative” act. Design conferences popped up, design literature appeared, and those people who could explain to you the difference between a sans-serif font and a black-letter font became popular. Even today the discourse found in design communities and education supports design values of self-creation and authorship, focusing on the individual as the “keeper of creativity”.

The problem with this view of design – is that it inhibits innovation and fuels society’s excuse that non-designers can’t create. We need to rethink what designing means, and consider separating the embodied values from the people we call “designers”. A good designer doesn’t keep his processes under lock-and-key. A good designer has transparent rationale, design language, and accountability for design decisions. He/she invites others to participate in the creative process. This designer mediates expectations and risks from stakeholders. A good designer has empathy for others and teaches participants to think like him. Organizations that wish to be innovative need more design thinkers, not design keepers.

We live in a time when change is continuous and swift, and it takes all people within an organization to create and communicate. Sure there will be people who are needed to understand accounting and finance. Sure there will be people who are privy to marketing trends. Sure there will be a need for a few visual designers to understand visual communication – but all are needed to understand what it takes to mediate risks associated with the act of creation. Creativity isn’t owned by a specific person or role. Creativity is found in the rationale and processes of creation. These processes create a language of understanding within an organization which all people can understand and participate in.

Imagine a department within an organization where anyone can walk through the doors and present an idea. Within this department idea contributors feel “safe”. There is no one who tells another person their idea sucks. There are just transparent processes and organizational “languages” that help people communicate. People who interact with this department become critics of their own ideas. Participants understand the constraints associated with available resources and production methods. Understanding begins to disseminate and all within an organization become connoisseurs of “ideas”. Organizations, not individuals, begin to hold knowledge. Cultures form around creativity. Everyone begins to design – when we start believing that designing isn’t something owned by designers.

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  • This is wonderful. I’m really liking where this is heading, based on what Chad has told me about your conversations, and what I read here. In fact, I feel a lot of my capstone depends on this sort of design thinking vs design keeping. I want designers to design artifacts with the explicit intent to have their user appropriate it in some way. This means, essentially, that the designer is admitting to, and preparing for, the fact that the design isn’t complete until the user makes it so.

    I’m really excited about this. Excellent, excellent thoughts.

  • admin

    Thanks for the comment Binaebi. I never really thought of your capstone as an instance of this, but I can see that it is. You’re right – objects can be designed in ways that are “unfinished”. Steampunk seems to be a cultural meme where the participants are taking upon themselves authorship rights, taking back the “design”. Anyone interested in learning more about steampunk and Binaebi’s capstone can visit her website:

  • This is really fantastic work Matt. I’ll be linking this in several places, extremely well said. Bravo!

  • Excellent post, Matt!

  • Hey Matt,

    I have a question for you, Chad and Burr relating to this… As you mentioned a single designer can not hold on to a design idea. However I would like to hear your opinions on design responsibility which Erik & Nelson talk in “The Design Way”. (Essentially they mention it’s the designer who is ultimately responsible for the design).

    Now when there is ownership for design, the responsibility is automatically attached to the designer because he/she is the owner. But, as per your thought or proposal of making the design co-created by multiple/all stakeholders, the responsibility no more rests with just the designer. The responsibility then can either be a collective one or the individual designer’s depending on whether the result was successful or not, or the company’s culture & focus.
    This makes me wonder if you can really build a culture or company of individuals who are willing to take a collective responsibility for the design as well as be diverse in roles. To me this is not impossible but still appears at surface to be a team in utopia.

    I am curious to hear how you see/saw responsibility as part of the co-creation.


    P.S I loved the reflection of all 3 of you in your independent study work. I just re-read it today. And even in there as you mentioned all 3 facilitated learning for each other, which I feel that you all took individual responsibility. But can that be the case in a company where you can pick and choose team members to work with?

  • admin

    Great question Ravi

    I’m not suggesting there is a “design utopia” where everyone gets along and designs together – although some of my thoughts probably come across like that. I admit that some of my expressions seem to be free of real-world constraints – especially those dealing with UX and design roles situated within other teams and departments. I agree with Nelson & Stolterman with respect to design responsibility and roles; that design responsibility, along with accountability, are values that facilitate a client/service relationship in working towards an end deliverable and goal accomplishment. In any organization, the accomplishment of building, selling, or designing something… is accomplished through roles and responsibility.

    That being said, I don’t work in an environment where there is a classic “client/service” relationship with regards to UX. I work with dozens of other people who are all working to build one product – most of them feeling like the piece they make is done with the customer in mind. I’m outnumbered in my work environment. There are more developers than UX designers. I cannot be the sole creator and keeper of UX ideas. I can’t afford to design in generative and communicative phases that resist contribution of others.

    I have to work in a way that allows information lying outside of my role, to be a part of my responsibility. I have to account for insights that my own design thoughts did not. This is where there is value in getting design input from others. This is where it’s valuable in having the person/team whom I pass my wireframes off to, involved in the initial brainstorming of UX initiatives. This is why I champion sharing UX values with others – because I can’t account for it on my own – even though my role defines that I do.

    Our independent study opened our eyes to the fact that there is value in accounting for ideas beyond those that a single individual is capable of, by including others – and the materials, words, and artifacts of expression we use in our roles as UX designers influences people’s involvement. Do we own and lock down our process, or do we evangelize and teach others the language, rational, and accountability of the UX space we own, and invite others to participate? I believe that as long as people are willing to play by the “rules” of UX, they should participate. It can only help them develop better UX judgement and insights as they work in their respective roles!

    Sometimes, Chad and I joke around about “it’s time to be a design keeper, not a design thinker”. We recognize that there is a time for execution and deliverables, and there is a time for seeking insight. In our paper, we attempt to describe the value of inclusion through two design phases – the generative and communicative phases. I believe there is value in involving others during these design phases, but admit that executing ideas and being responsible for them means taking on the “design keeper” role. That being said, I find myself resisting the job description and role requirements of the UX designer position I hold. I don’t believe it’s up to just me to be responsible for designing the experience of using the product. I believe everyone touching the product is responsible for it, and by sharing the collective creation, we all share the risk. This reflects my philosophy that the experience of using the product is more than just clicking on buttons: it’s the package they open, their relationship with the sales rep, and the attitude and demeanor of the customer support agent. I know this ideas does not fit into some cultures – although it would benefit organizations to start thinking in terms of these design principles. Some cultures and organizations use roles/responsibility to point fingers and blame.

    I think if a UX designer in a large organization wants to make a big impact, they can’t have the attitude of “I designed it in Illustrator so go program it”, or “just build it according to the wireframes I gave you”. It means letting people in on your process and rational so that as your design ideas are passed off to others, and they execute in the space (role) that they are responsible for, your ideas don’t die.

    Does that make sense? Did I answer your question? What do you think?

  • Matt, bringing the stakeholders based on design phase is important. But I think still designer is the one who can make the judgment – whom to bring in , when to bring in, what to take, what not to take, what to move forward/backward etc, albeit he/she has learned a lot about what’s “rational” after hearing from diverse stakeholders what is important to them. This I think still makes designer the design’s keeper but who has consciously & deliberately opened it up for growth.

    I am arguing for the design keeper notion because of the responsibility factor as well as expectation on the stakeholders. If I am designing a mobile app, I do not expect my technical team to give me visual aesthetics. Of course they can suggest me visual aesthetics. But I would have to consider views from my visual design team to make the decision. As much as bringing diverse stakeholders can produce interesting concepts/interactions, they can easily conflict because of the values focused in their curriculum or academic tradition.

    It can be even be sometimes a matter of trust. If a business person walks up to a interaction designer and tells a particular interaction is the most user-centered, then the designer may trust him & take their point or simply choose to ignore him.I think only a designer can make the final judgment but I’m not saying he/she should do it with arrogance but with care & consideration of a design’s keeper.

    In addition, I like your idea of educating the stakeholders with UX values. I think it might be interesting to do some sessions on mini-projects just for fun. This will be short and quick and low risk practice in my opinion, although I dont know if this is the approach taken in industry. To me it feels, it just puts too much pressure on all the stakeholders and designer to ask them participate in a design session where thousands of dollars are invested. Well it can be done if you can afford to make your stakeholders gain appreciation for UX the rich way but I dont think it’s the common case.

    Let me know your thoughts Matt.
    I’m really glad and learning just by writing comments.
    And I’ve just a minor suggestion.
    See if you can increase the text both height for the comments. It’ll just help me review what I’ve written before posting it.


  • Matt


    I fixed the text box size – adding more height to it. I hope that helps. Thanks for the feedback!

    Let me be clear, my “design thinker / design keeper” idea brings to light a design philosophy that challenges the classic design ideology that still exists in design culture – the idea that the creator is the keeper of the idea. It challenges designers who don’t account for the themselves in a larger design/creative process – and for the fact that there are lots of other people who “create” in part to sustain a process and product that involves lots of people. I’ve been thinking about these cultural design values for over 10 years, and even at my job here at Adobe, I see evidence of those lingering values of design keeping – some of which can be unhealthy in an environment that requires a higher bandwidth of knowledge and decision-making.

    There exists in society, a design ideology that the value of an idea is in large part tied to the author and that author of such creativity is somehow inspired. This philosophy has been around for thousands of years (Muses) and it’s hard for non-creators, as well as creators, to decouple artifact value from the author. I’m responding to some of these cultural philosophies as well as responding to the field of UX; which largely is made up of graphic design x-patriots – turned UX designers. One must acknowledge the design philosophies of this influential space and how these people participate and influence “UX Design” within organizations.

    Visual Design is a discipline that is largely without rigor and has a past rich in craftsmanship. With the advent of digital design tools in the 80′s and 90′s, the emphasis in this culture begins to be upon tools of creation. Until this time, both the tools and mediums of expressive content were all analog. Such processes allowed the creator (designer) to both A) understand and B) control the outcome of expressed ideas. As a graphic designer, I used to be able to both create an idea and make sure it was printed or coded in simple HTML – processes that were both controllable and accountable. Because of this “creative vertical integration”, there was little need for me to share accountability or creative reasoning. My clients saw me as the person who “owned” the idea. My creativity wasn’t without rational or reason – it’s just that the mediums of expression were dictatorial and the process of creation involved tacit knowledge and craftsmanship.

    The digital age changed all this. There isn’t just one person, tool, or technology that is used in “making stuff” – yet the old philosophies and social values still exist, especially for those people and organizations who have graphic designers in them. My undergrad degree was a BFA with an emphasis in graphic design. Most schools still situate this skill in the fine art space – which is ripe with self-expressive values and ideas. Unfortunately those ideas don’t fit well into the space of high bandwidth and software development. I spoke to Erik one day about this idea and he confirmed that most of these schools are in trouble – they fail to account for “design thinking” and collaborative creativity.

    The ideas Erik writes about in his book are almost 10 years old. They emphasize design as a client-service relationship, where the designer is still a “keeper” of something inaccessible to the client. That is an old-philosophy of craftsmanship that doesn’t fit technology driven design. It’s my belief that the value of that book is in clearly defining the process and risk of designing – principles that need to be valued by not just a single person, but by lots of people – all those involved in the creative act.

    There are both those A) people and B) situations where being a design keeper is still necessary. You’re right – decisions still have to be made and the accountability of certain things needs to rest upon one person; and some people in my organization still see me as a “creative individual” through the lens of these old values defined by the people / designers that came before me.

    Everywhere I’ve ever worked, the people I work with usually tell me within a few months of starting that, “you’re easy to work with – the previous designers were hard to work with”. My co-workers are responding to those designers that still value “design keeping”. It’s a response to designers that have difficulty sharing their processes, tools, and ideas with other creators-of-things in a more complicated space where the process isn’t owned by one person. These designers have a hard time accounting for the constraints and opportunities in the creative spaces outside of their control. This is where the idea of “design thinking” comes in.

    The Design Keepers is a manifesto of more openness and understanding. Design thinking includes teaching others design principles of risk, validation, ownership – as well as accounting for other’s ideas and participation in our process. Someone has to own the visual look of the buttons, someone has to own the code to make the product work, someone has to own the documentation of the training materials used to teach the product – but together, everyone should be thinking about the bigger picture of “creating” and accounting for a higher bandwidth of ideation and user-values: I believe these things should be owned collectively.

    Someone who has to encounter my ideas and creative artifacts down the product-making chain, should be able to come to me with an idea or advice. I should be handing off my work to others with values and support so that they can create judgement on their own. If I can get 10 other people to think like me – then others can access that judgement in their respective roles / responsibilities and make the product better without my direct involvement. This is extremely important because in most organizations, developers will outnumber UX 10:1. It’s imperative that my UX values are understood by others and that I don’t “own” or “keep” them. In a way, UX needs to be a lighthouse of values.

    I think the valuable principles of design in Erik’s book should be understood collectively by all those involved. There are those methods, processes, languages, and tools that UX designers use that don’t support this higher bandwidth. There are also design philosophies among some designers that prevent them from participating in this higher-bandwidth of creation.

    The Design Keepers was a deep analysis of these philosophies that hopefully would prepare someone to be more sensitive to the methods and processes of design, and how they either reinforce or challenge traditional values in the culture of design. I’m not saying that a designer has to be either a “design keeper” or a “design thinker” 100% of the time. I simply see “design thinking” as a valuable design philosophy that needs to be accounted for – especially in environments that are digital and dynamic. It does speak of ideals, but more importantly, it points in a direction that can ad value to such environments. Maybe I shouldn’t have titled this post as one idea vs. another idea. In fact both exist and at times are needed. Where is the balance?

    Feel free to reach out to Chad or Burr about how this independent study project has helped them in their jobs after school. They might be able to offer more insights.

  • Matt,

    Thanks very much for giving a detailed explanation. I was able to understand the need for the motto after you explained about how people are viewed in industry. I really have to agree with the motto and also you have here left it to a point where it’s more a call than an enforcement, and probably at the right time.

    I thoroughly concur on the collective responsibility factor. This is also a huge challenge for everyone and especially when teams & work goals are moving dynamically with change in user needs & technology.

    Thanks again for a deep thoughtful comment (I think it’s equivalent to a post). This is highly useful and educational for me.

  • Chad

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. But maybe I can say it shorter:

    In an organization responsible for building and selling a digital/software product, there are hundreds of people who affect the final outcome.

    The user’s ultimate experience of using a product is a combination of what marketing says, what product managers plan, what the engineers code, etc. I can neither account for nor control all of that. But I can help be a beacon for UX values, so that when the people in those roles that fall outside my immediate sphere of influence go do their jobs – they do so in a way that creates a more positive user experience.

    My job title is User Experience Designer, but I can’t “design” the user’s experience and then pass it along. The current expectations of such a job title definitely pigeon-hole me into wireframes, style guides, and workflows – but my real responsibility is to be a beacon of UX values. To me it is the difference between truly caring about doing what it takes to make the technology provide a better user experience, or designing the best solution that I can come up with based on my own individual design understanding, throwing it over the wall to the team that will build it, and crossing my fingers.

    Bottom line: UX design values can’t just be a piece of the organization and process. It must be the value of the process – and that can’t be done by one person.