What it’s like to be a designer

At Habanero, designers don't slip in at the end of a project, they lay its foundation

Let’s be honest: “designer” is a really cool job title. It makes me think of layouts and palettes and words like “streamlined” and “minimalist” and all sorts of creative things. I have a hunch that many job-seekers are intrigued by the title and what it might mean, but at Habanero what is the role really about?

In this conversation with Habanero's Creative Director, Kurtis Beard and former Senior Experience Designer, Meghan Armstrong, I work my way backwards, asking them to reflect on what a designer isn’t in order to flesh out just what it is.

What a designer at Habanero isn’t

Although Meghan and Kurtis held different design roles, they pinpoint the same thing when it comes to what they’re not

Meghan suggests that the opposite to what she does is “something very assembly-line where you just do the same thing over and over—something super prescriptive.”

Kurtis agrees: “Yeah, I was going to say something where there’s a very tried-and-true approach, work where there’s an emphasis on finding the right and wrong way to do things. In design, there’s no clear right or wrong: there’s a whole lot of grey area, and it’s about how we navigate that.”

What a designer at Habanero is

Kurtis’ word “navigates” begs a question: what do designers navigate?

“Generally speaking, the design role at Habanero is quite broad. We wear a lot of different hats. Most of us are involved in different stages of project: visioning, strategy, and research all the way through to visual and creative design.”

For example, even though Meghan is rooted in experience design and Kurtis in user experience and visual identity work, they’re both involved throughout the design process, and their work is deeply entwined.

“That’s what really differentiates Habanero: designers don’t just slip in at the end of the project,” says Kurtis. “In many ways, having the opportunity to be involved throughout allows us to make the process efficient and also feel very connected with the direction that organizations are going.”

The design flow

Experience designers such as Meghan lay the groundwork for the design process. “I gather insight to identify problems or opportunities to solve. Then, as much as possible, I frame them as questions rather than solutions.”

In order to frame the questions that a project needs to tackle, Meghan is most heavily involved at a project’s beginning. Through things such as workshops and listening labs, she develops a sound image of an organization’s current employee experience. Then, she creates a visual roadmap illustrating where there are opportunities for a better experience.

Better experiences may depend on tech, or they may not. “Finding the right problem is crucial. Instead of jumping to solutioning and identifying the easiest problem to solve, we look at the whole experience. Yes, tech plays a big role, but we look at the rest of the experience around it. The work I do is actually less about screens. It’s more wholistic.”

It’s around digital experiences that Kurtis’ team ramps up, taking the information and insight that experience designers have cultivated and creating new designs for intranets, websites, or social platforms such as Yammer.

There are very consistent steps in this part of the design process, Kurtis explains. “That’s for two reasons. One, we’re passionate about bringing clients along on the journey. We want the process to feel logical, gradual, and expected. And two, each step in our process has a specific outcome.”

Kurtis lays out the first few steps in this part of the process: “The brand orientation is always how we start, so we understand the history of and the vision for brand. It’s where we uncover upcoming and anticipated changes and get up to speed on various facets of the brand: colours, typography, voice, and tone, for example. All of that comes together to influence the design questionnaire we send to key stakeholders, which allows us to unpack the brand’s personality. We synthesize our findings in the design scrapbook, a presentation and workshop where our objective is to walk away with a clear singular direction. This way, creation of mock-ups and prototyping aren’t a surprise.”

The design process doesn’t end there. It carries on to usability testing and content strategy. “At Habanero, the design role is persistent in a project’s lifecycle. This means we have big-picture understanding of users’ motivations and expectations, and we’re able to create better, more meaningful work.”

The best designers are…

“Inquisitive,” says Meghan. “Don’t come in with the answers. Come in with the questions. And,” she laughs, “some confidence in knowing you’re going to get there.”

Kurtis adds diplomacy and empathy to the list of most important qualities a Habanero designer needs. “We work with people who have strong opinions. We need to negotiate situations in such a way so that people come together and get fired up. We’re all responsible for maintaining not just momentum but also excitement.”

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