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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]