Pinterest's Founding Designer Shares His Dead-Simple Design Philosophy

Design isn’t just wire frames or visual style; it’s about the product as a whole, writes Sahil Lavingia.

"Designers, designers, designers" has become the new "developers, developers, developers." Witness the ever-growing list of job postings for product designers, UI designers, user research designers, UX designers. They’re posted faster than I can read them. Someone needs a "senior design champion" (versus a normal design champion?), while another is looking for a "catalyst of creativity." Designers are becoming the new hotness, just as front-end engineers blew up job boards when businesses started taking the web seriously. We need a designer. You need a designer. We all need designers.

I agree, we all need designers. But I’d argue that we already have them. They’re us: you and me. Design shouldn’t be designated a specific function or industry. The discipline is just as fundamental as technology and profit are to a business that it doesn’t need to be isolated to a single role. It should be considered part of every role.

Design is shrinking the gap between what a product does and why it exists. Designing is not just about picking the right font or gradient. Stop thinking about design in terms of wire frames or visual style; it is about the product as a whole. Designing is figuring out the purpose of your product and how you orient everything else around it. And that means that everyone within a company plays a role in the design process. And that means that everyone in a company needs to learn design literacy. It’s a hard task. Everyone tells their MBA-wielding friends that they should learn to code: "Anyone can do it," or "It’s going to be the new literacy." People think code is the basis of a working product. But what about design? How often are people told that they should "learn to design"?

While everyone involved should know how design works, they should also understand that it can be practiced on anything you make. The design instinct, above all, is about viewing the world around you as a place filled with opportunities to add more thoughtfulness and care. Thus, your organization deserves to be just as well-designed as your homepage, and your company’s tweets as crafted as your account confirmation emails.

Which is to say that design should be considered a facet of everything you do, as well as a means of improving your business. Imagine if your site were to slow down. What would you do? You’d try to make it faster, or find an engineer that could. You’d make a conscious design decision to make your site quicker to use, because you understand that doing so will make your offerings more accessible and user-friendly. Apply that principle of improvement to everything else.

At Pinterest, we required every new account to be set up and connected with either Facebook or Twitter. We made a concerted design decision to do so. We know that Twitter and Facebook can do something that we can’t do as well, and we realize that our focus on what we are good at is just as important. Now, we don’t have to worry about a traditional sign-up process or a user ever starting with zero friends. It allows us to spend more of our time and mind-share on our own (unique!) design problems and solutions.

Good design is using reason to make decisions and to solve problems. Every man-made object you use in real life is designed, from forks and desks to keyboards and grocery bags and are the culminations of many hours of thinking and many more hours of trial and error. Why does a board on Pinterest look the way it does? Because other people determined what a pin board should look like and what it is used for, what ‘to pin’ means, and what it implies. Good design means building on earlier ideas, just as in math or physics.

Figure out your product’s purpose, and keep designing and re-designing it. Shrink the gap between what it does and why it exists, and don’t stop until the gap disappears. As the founder of 37Signals Jason Fried has said, "The design is done when the problem goes away."

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

[Images: tovovan and Michal Kowalski via Shutterstock]

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  • Lela Feldmeier

    I would love to hear more about the grid design that powers Pinterest in this article!

  • Zsuzsa Katona

    You said it well in your article: "The design instinct, above all, is about viewing the world around you as
    a place filled with opportunities to add more thoughtfulness and care."

  • kyle

    Remember back in 1998 when everyone with a semester of HTML under their belt thought they were a web designer? Let's go back to those days! wOOt!

  • Veli Moilanen

    Design is more than just picking colors or fonts. I agree there with you. But just having and idea is not design either. Everyone is NOT a designer.

    When you design a product, user interface or signage for airport it is important to consider who you are designing it for. What problem you are trying to solve for example. But this thinking process leads to actual concrete design where form, colors and fonts matter. If you want to design something well it is impossible to completely separate these two phases.

    What you are trying to design decides what design professions you need. If you are trying to design a phone, you might need interaction designer and industrial designer. If you design your new office, you might need interior designer instead.

    Management will decide the direction and engineers design the technical details but design is still a different profession in the mix. Best designs just look so simple so it is easy to think everybody can do it.

  • Carolyn Robbins

    As an interior designer of nightclubs and restaurants, I look at every detail the customer sees. Do they look into a bus pan with dirty dishes? Is there a spot light on top of someone's head? What would be better? I value the typography on a page, or the pavers in a doesn't matter what's designed. As long as design exists as a component!
    I find web design is one of the most grid oriented, often copied, place-card holding, done-that been-there place, on the planet. Although the newly incorporated functions have blown my mind, the over-all design of most websites seem boring to me. I totally loved your article because it speaks for the designer in me and the designer I imagine in every one of us. Soon we will be out of the grid. Blog templates won't be stationary. People will want to go directly to a blog front page and not rss feed to see what's happening on the whole page, as it can change too, and not just the daily post region. What's happening, in my opinion,  is that we have been dulled, as a society,  from appreciating design....we want content so fast and so furiously, we forfeit intrigue and mystery and subtlety. When we can see the beautiful effects of how the corner of a page can quiver, instead of the whole animated page turn....we will see all the variations in between. When artists and designers and technical engineers can work together, then we will have a vital universe on the internet! But an artist's vision is different than an engineer's or website developer's vision.

    Now how can I find the right engineer for my the next question I would love your answer to...wish wish wish....:) Carolyn

  • Zoe V

    Designers shouldn't be angry at this article - the statement 'everyone's a designer' implies that everyone should think and use the design process in everything they do, which is a great statement!

    Designers are problem solvers and the design process is a solid and logical way to solve problems, so why shouldn't it be applied to other people's/industries working process.

    I'm a graphic designer and I like this article. I like to think I add more to a product or strategy than just picking the placement of text on a page, or choosing an image, and I'd like to think I do this through my design process.

  • ptamzz

    Something in this article lets me reckon you don't know much about 'Design' although I can see your description reads "Designer/Founder/CEO".. maybe it's when you say something which very much sounds like "Everyone can design".

  • nobody22

    Mr. Lavingia:

    Quoting Jason Fried is no way to get traction with your designer colleagues. Maybe 5 years ago, but not today. Basecamp IS the problem that won't go away. My clients keep wanting to use it even though it's a waste of time and ends up getting abandoned later.

    Also, saying that Pinterest required users to have a Facebook or Twitter account is a blatant lie. It's all about going viral. And it worked – fastest growth ever, or some other stat. Next, you'll start sneaking in the ads, just like Chill is going to do. You can talk about being a designer all you want, but you're really  Just one ad per page, with all those millions of pairs of eyes, is all it takes. Just one little graphic, perma-pinned to the top right for a week, and you're loaded.

    So, good job. You designed a new way to show ads.

  • Rob

    Poor article from the 'next big thing' soon to be become the next forgotten thing.

    Loosing my pintrest quickly. 

  • Rob

    State the obvious why don't you.
    Plus not everyone can design! This really makes people think that anyone can do it.
    I wouldn't want my house designed by an non designer.

  • Gareth Evans

    If I have a leaky tap I can probably fix it satisfactorily yet not as quickly or efficiently as a trained plumber. Everytime someone solves a problem, yes they have developed a solution but this shouldn't devalue the role of a trained Designer/Developer. Which seems to be the general tone of the article. Fascinating read though

  • Paul Daly

    Not another 'everyone is a designer' article.
    As a designer who facilitates design workshops with non-designers... not everyone is a designer.
    Sounds like Pintrest didn't design the experience so that its users don't potentially get sued for using their service.

  • Tim McTigue

    As a designer myself, i love that this article suggests the whole world is just a canvas and we are all designers.

  • Alyssa Andres

    Great article. Very thought provoking. I think you hit the nail right on the head.