Time flies. This is a well-known and arguably true aphorism all of us eventually come to realize. This month marks the beginning of my eighth year as a professional designer. Admittedly, this might not sound exceptionally long, but time has passed on a rapid pace and things have varied multiple times during this period. Projects, colleagues and even companies have changed, yet it feels that there hasn’t been much time to reflect on any of that.

I recently started my new role as a UX designer at Leadfeeder, a lead generation SaaS company based in Helsinki, Finland, but with a fully remote workforce. And I realized there’s no better time than now to do exactly this — reflect on my personal evolution as a designer. To take the time to contemplate about my development, my successes and my failures.

A former colleague of mine, Dr. James Stanier, recently wrote an in-depth and very insightful blog post about why writing is so important. He describes that it’s the critical examination with ourselves that helps us to process and think about decisions we have made in the past. It’s the cathartic quality of sorting our own thoughts and putting them on (digital) paper that helps the human mind to reflect upon and draw conclusions. His blog post was the final push I needed to realize I need to start writing about the path I have taken to learn and evolve.

My goal is to depict the learnings I have gained over the past eight years and to deliberate on how these experiences have shaped me as a designer, as well as my understanding of design itself. On the one side, this is egoistic self-interest as described above. But, I also hope my learnings could be beneficial for other designers encountering similar situations. Knowledge that, I feel, would have helped me a couple of years back to better deal with certain situations and circumstances.

Therefore, I will establish this as a regular series of blog posts to describe what I have learned along the way and to open up these learnings to discussion and reflection, for myself and anyone else interested.

Why? Why? Why?

When we start a new gig, we will feel like everything is a reset. This is obviously not true, since we still hold our knowledge, our experience, and also our biases. We can think of this as a kind of inventory; something that belongs to us, something we are equipped and burdened with. But this inventory is universal. When we start in a new environment, e.g. at a new company, we have our arsenal at-hand, but we need to adjust it according to the challenges ahead.

For a designer, this means we need to acquaint ourselves with the existing ecosystem. We need to learn how the information architecture is structured, identify common user interface (UI) patterns and internalize the existing visual language. And, first and foremost, we will ask question upon question upon question. This is perfectly normal, and an essential part of our role, but especially if the role of the designer is new to our team, this might be perceived as alien. And we can’t blame our colleagues for being at least mildly irritated, if not totally annoyed by that.

I will shamelessly quote an old tweet from myself, where I try to describe the situation.

If we are new to a team, and especially if we are at the beginning of our professional career, we don’t want to be seen as complicated or slow-witted. We usually want to be liked by our co-workers, our team and our bosses. We want to demonstrate our viability and apply our knowledge to impress them. But too easily we are falling victim to the temptation of just blurting out rash ideas and jumping to conclusions without having grasped the full extent of an issue. We are trying to be agreeable and avoid asking inconvenient questions. But by doing this we are leapfrogging the most essential step in the whole design process — Understanding.

Maybe we’re even asking a couple of questions to get an idea about a problem. But we need to really understand the reasons and rationales about decisions and developments, to be able to truly work with them. Otherwise, our foundation for any further work will be built on assumptions and unquestioned conditions. We need to dig deep and question everything.

We need to ask why — until it even annoys ourselves.

We should not settle for the first answers received. Chances are, people will have explanations about reasonings that makes sense to them. But they are skewed since they implicate pre-existing knowledge about a history of a decision that we just don’t have, we can’t even have. This mismatch between existing and desired knowledge, especially as a new member to a team, can feel uncomfortable and embarrassing.

But we need to realize, that if we’re not a bit of a pain in the ass, if we don’t challenge the status quo, our work will never be as useful as it should be. And that’s what we are here for in the first place.

The truth is, asking a bazillion questions will mostly appear annoying to ourselves, but your team will be eventually be grateful for every question proposed.

Because every question asked will also prompt the interviewee to think about the answer. It launches a subconscious process within the mind to analyze and question preexisting knowledge about the problem. Just by having asked the question, we leverage the critical thinking within the human mind and we’re having externalized and distributed the creative process. With every new “Why?” we ask, we are feeding the process to get to the real, hidden insights.

We need to accept for ourselves but also convey to others, that the role of a designer is not primarily about having answers or finding solutions. Finding them is a by-product from the critical analysis of the issue at hand and they will emerge and evolve during the unpacking of the problem statement layer by layer. They will emerge in eye-opening simplicity once we have conceived the complete scope of the case. We need to nurture the empathy that dwells within each of us to grasp the full extent of the situation. As we have heard so often in the slightly overused quote: We need to fall in love with the problem, not the solution.

There is a lot of critical thinking and critical design theory within this mindset. We are supposed to question an existing state to open the spectrum of possibilities. And we are able to do this by using our mightiest weapon: the question. Every question will reveal a new part of the truth, another piece of the puzzle which we have to fully comprehend.

We need to question technical feasibility, as well as ethical integrity.

We need to question business value and aesthetics.

We will ask questions until we fully understand the big picture because only this weary and uneasy process to bare the roots will help us to become the best designer we can be.

Therefore, we need to realize that asking questions is not wrong or a sign of incompetence, but rather our very nature. Questions and asking why will get us to places, comprehension and ideas where we would have never gotten to without them.

So, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask question upon question upon question because in the end, this is what makes us a designer, what makes us human.