The Self-reflecting Designer

By: Patrick Branigan
reflect

Meditation or serious thought about one’s character, actions, and motives. This is the definition of self-reflection.

Self-reflection is something a lot of designers don’t consciously do enough of. Yet self-reflection is something designers take part in daily on behalf of other people. We are busy addressing other people’s needs, attempting to produce through other people’s’ eyes, and realizing other people’s thoughts and ideas, in pursuit of creating phenomenal products and services. This is what we love to do and sometimes we happen to be really good at it. However, we’re also users of our own products. We are the result of our own processes. It’s worth spending time reflecting on our creative selves in order to continue to produce better for others.

Being a designer who’s able to self reflect comes with many benefits including the ability to be aware of progress, the ability to identify challenges, and the ability to become more observant.

If designers take time to self reflect, they can intermittently check their work progress. Stepping back and looking at your work as an observer, not a designer, will often reveal sequences, patterns, and trends in progress. Perhaps you notice it’s taking longer than expected to produce a piece of work. Why is that? Perhaps you notice the redesign you did last year is similar to the one you’ve just completed. Why is that? Perhaps you find that your process hasn’t evolved, yet your work has. How is that possible? By surveying your work and reflecting upon it often, you’re likely to become more aware of progress and more cognizant of growth.

Self-reflection can also help us in identifying challenging situations before they occur. We gain experience through the work we’ve created, and often remember failures more than successes. Does this project meeting seem similar to a past conversation that went awry? What happened and how did you react? Perhaps a project brief scares you because it calls for a similar result to a project that once fell through. How did you handle that? What part did you play in its failure? Failure is an important part of the evolution of a designer and therefore should be reflected on in an effort to inform future decision-making and reasoning.

Most importantly, self-reflection allows us to become more observant of ourselves when in motion. Observation produces curiosity and drives the imagination. However it also has the power to reveal negative tendencies and habits that have leaked into our processes over time. For example, you might find that you’re approaching the design of an application in the same way you’re approaching the design of a website. Is it because they both call for the same approach? Or is it because you’re subconsciously relying on the same approach due to its success in previous work? Trends and comfort are two aspects to design that, if you don’t take time to question, can hinder experimentation and progress. Being able to better observe how you’re working while you’re working is beneficial to any designer.

You’d think self-reflection is easy, but it’s not. It’s hard to find the time. It’s hard to be honest with oneself. It’s hard to occasionally focus on yourself in an industry where you’re constantly focused on the actions and reactions of consumers and peers.

Here’s a couple ways to help begin injecting self-reflection into your life as a designer:

Meet People

Surround yourself with friends and peers from other disciplines as often as you can. This will consistently provide perspective and insight into spaces and ideas you otherwise might be blind to in your everyday routine. It may allow for insight into your work that you might not have otherwise experienced.

Write Often

The rhythm and pace of writing your thoughts out, regardless of what they are, may in fact help you retain and further digest what you’re trying to express. It also allows you to reflect on your thoughts later on.

Extend Your Workspace

Work in spaces that are foreign to your everyday routine. A new space may influence both your thought process and work ethic. This presents the potential to make you question your routine and habits, therefore emphasizing self-reflection. Perhaps consider a sabbatical even.

Keep Your Books

If you take physical notes or have sketchbooks, archive them somewhere. Store them in a manageable place, in an organized way that allows for you to reference content from specific years or projects past. This allows for very easy self-reflection that will help you better understand what you have and have not accomplished in your journey as a creative. It’s motivating at the very least.

I’ve found the most beneficial quality of self-reflection to be its ability to provide a valuable perspective on your creative self. It forces consideration of what you’ve accomplished, as well as how far you’ve come. This helps in identifying future pursuits.