10 Ways to Spot a Designer

I wrote this back in college with my friend Rick in April of 2010 when we kept noticing how similar our mannerisms (and those of our classmates and teachers) were. More than 5 years later, it’s still reasonably accurate…

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If you watch closely enough, you can catch it. It doesn’t take any special binoculars or anything, you just need to know what to look for. We aren’t talking about a rare wild animal, but a more clever species… the designer. A certain few mannerisms have become a staple in everyday conversation between modern design consultants, professors, and students. Unfortunately once you begin to notice these habits, you can’t stop noticing them. Someone had to write something on the web to confirm that this is not happenstance, but a global disease that has hit designers nationwide.

DISCLAIMER: If you are a designer, reading this article will make you so self-aware that you may end up stopping mid sentence during meetings. If you are not a designer (or new to the field), what you are about to learn is very contagious so please tread cautiously.

1. They use the word “notion” to let you know that they get it and you don’t

Designers pride themselves on their ability to think in the abstract and act intuitively. One way that they like to make others aware of this ability is through wanton overuse of the word ‘notion.’ When a designer is explaining that he or she has a “notion,” what they are really saying is that they have an idea that is so highly abstract that even the designer struggles to articulate it effectively. The only way to proceed when you have only a notion is to use your designerly intuition.

Author’s note: Right now, I’m having trouble explaining what a notion is and how it’s used. What’s important is that I know what it is, and I know what I mean, but it’s very hard to explain. You don’t need to worry about it.



3. They will take any excuse to use the word “space,” and not referring to “outer”

Problem space, design space, negative space, activate the space, conceptual space, step away from the space for a bit, domain space, let’s explore the space… Like #2, this is one of the primary gadgets in the designer’s “Buzzword Bat Utility Belt.” Using the word ‘space’ abstractly shows that the speaker thinks in all three dimensions and is truly immersed in his/her work. Or maybe they’re just trying to sound cool.

4. They say the word “Right?” between every other sentence

You may have seen this outside of the design community, right, and this is a train that isn’t stopping anytime soon, right, like when you have fourteen-hundred new students entering a good design school, right, and learning the same mannerisms as their professors, right, because it seems like something someone really really smart would do. Try counting the amount of times it can be used in one sentence. Are we really that unsure of our sentences that we need to be reaffirmed four times before we reach a period?

5. They wear tight dark jeans, plaid and argyle, and sport thick-rimmed glasses

It’s a great trick where you can’t tell when they are dressed up for a nice evening or going out casually with some friends. A popular alternative to the argyle look is wearing the pull-over sweater over a white button-down shirt. You may also find them with a messenger bag, skinny tie, plain colored t-shirts, and a perfectly shaved head. Designers can also be mistaken as walking Apple commercials.

6. The more important they think what they have to say is, the quieter they speak, so you have to listen to it harder

Sometimes, in a room full of shouters and chest-puffers, it commands more attention to lower the volume. Designers have developed a wonderfully passive-aggressive strategy of saying “WELL…” or “SO….” loudly enough to turn heads, pausing meaningfully, and then explaining their idea in a soft, slow whisper. It projects a cool confidence, forces the audience to listen very attentively, and makes anyone who tries to talk over them just look like a bully.

7. They love to put stuff into abstract and largely useless categories

You can almost always find a designer trying to sift through a mess of data, requirements, constraints, and information. One way they’ve found to cope with the overload is to cluster similar things together into affinities, as a way of scaling down complex problems. However, they have a tendency to run slightly amok with this practice. If you hear anyone talking about “the three schools of thought on making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” you have run into a designer putting ideas into abstract and largely useless categories.

8. They’ll go out for drinks and talk about what the laminate on the bar is made of

Designers find materials fascinating. Most designers have passionate thoughts about materials, and a wealth of stories about ones they’ve used in the past to create prototypes, models, or products. This quirk often makes them stand out at happy hours, pub crawls, and other social gatherings, because they’re the only ones enthusiastically scrutinizing the furniture, use of space, and glassware. It’s not a good way to meet new people.

9. They have an obsession with analogies

Using analogies is like putting on glasses for the first time. Things may have been a bit blurry at first but once you try looking at things in a new way, everything finally becomes clear. And good clarity is really kind of like a rare chocolate, where often we become used to one type that seems perfectly fine, but only once we get a taste of something unique and delicious are we are truly full. In all honesty analogies can be quite helpful. They are creative and can help get a more buy-in to a different way of looking at a problem, but it’s funny how frequent they can be in the design community, and that even if they are a stretch people seem impressed.

10. They have even more of an obsession with tentative language (sort of)

It’s the idea that designers like to leave things out in the open so people have to think about them more. This one is sort of similar to #1, kind of similar to #2, may be related to #4, and possibly #6. It’s also a great defense mechanism: In retrospect, it was only IN A SENSE that I covered your child from head to toe with sticky notes, I didn’t ACTUALLY do it.

Great! Now I can spot a designer in the wild. What now?

Some folks over at MAYA Design have been toying with the idea of playing ‘Designer Buzzword Bingo’ and trying their luck during meetings. Try making your own card and using the 10 tendencies as a starting point. Need a few more to fill up your card? Try, “Wrap our heads around”, “Ground ourselves in the problem”, or “Get a feel for”.

If you have any more tricks to spot a wild designer, or have noticed changes in the species since we wrote this, leave a comment!

Written by

Design Director at Figma in SF. Previously led the UX team at ClassPass in NY, before that the iOS Google App in Mountain View. Carnegie Mellon Alum. ENFP.

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