AIGA San Francisco

the professional association for design


Design User or Thinker?

by Leila Singleton
illustration by Tasica Singleton

My high school math teacher once told me that there are two kinds of students: Math Users and Math Thinkers. Math Users, he said, are people who figure out how to use existing rules and algorithms to yield correct answers to common problems. Math Thinkers, on the other hand, enjoy a much more elastic skill set, innovating their own methodologies to yield results to both common and unusual/complicated problems.

The User/Thinker concept is similarly elastic, and could be applied to the graphic design profession as a superset of the titles we have traditionally used. With the implementation of this classification system, junior through senior level designers would fall under the umbrella of “Design Users.” “Design Thinkers” would encompass those senior designers who do not belong in the previous category, as well as art and creative directors.

The above application is not preferred. Utilizing the User/Thinker dichotomy simply to reinforce existing nomenclature has limited value and, ironically, demotes the concept to the level of using, not thinking: it merely builds on something that already exists—the graphic design caste system—without introducing anything particularly new. Worse still, this particular application of the User/Thinker concept operates on the fallacious assumption that the titles assigned to creatives are always accurate, overlooking the exceptions of creative directors who are neither good nor innovative, and junior designers who are spectacular, ground-breaking talents.

The User/Thinker concept is witnessed at its finest when doing just the opposite: debunking false titles and challenging a sense of “title entitlement” by posing the simple question, “Are you a Design User or Thinker?” Asking designers to consider themselves outside of their tenure and assigned stations, divorced from any degrees and certifications they may hold, is a vital first step in fostering a community of artists who consistently create relevant, inventive design. It is also a difficult one. We have all witnessed situations in which a new, inexperienced or young designer enters an established studio and outshines its most tenured staff, (hopefully) unintentionally and non-verbally implying the User/Thinker question. The ego of a veteran who has been in the business for several decades is likely to be bruised when he or she realizes that “the new guy” has presented a solution that has finesse and originality; more often than not, the implied question is taken as an affront rather than a call for artistic growth. If the veteran is particularly petty, the new designer’s thinking may be discouraged and blocked, creating an environment that demands mediocrity and squelches excellence.

Egos are only one part of the problem. The graphic design landscape is full of “traps” that create Users, not Thinkers. Many schools aim only to teach their students the machinery of design, and students graduate not with the ability to creatively approach unfamiliar design problems, but to wrestle them solely on a technical level using rules, formulas and filters. In the professional realm, design publications can and do inspire, but on occasion they sound dangerously close to a fashion week rundown: statements like “Blue is THE color this year,” and “Stripes are in!” reduce design to trends, which are little more than popularized formulas. Design annuals are yet another trap for those who are not already Thinkers, breeding epigones who default to once-revolutionary solutions that have since become but safe clichés. Finally, clients can deal the final blow to Users and Thinkers alike—even the most stalwart designer is apt to crumble in the face of a client’s preference for the formulaic, and there are always two, fatal varieties of line to consider: the deadline and bottom line.

Because of these hurdles, the question, “Am I a Design User or Thinker?” can, initially, be intimidating. But it need not be publicly embarrassing: when posed in moments of solitude, away from the pressures of clients and coworkers, the query requires nothing but a pledge of complete honesty to oneself. And unlike a job title, which is typically achieved through varying combinations of talent, tenure and politics, the User/Thinker concept is egalitarian; one does not have to rely on “workplace coronation” to reach a higher level of artistic achievement, but rather construct a personal, creative workout routine that could incorporate any number of exercises—maintaining a sketchbook, taking on side projects that allow for unfettered creativity, keeping a personal diary that critiques and challenges current aesthetics…the list goes on, and should be tailored to the needs of each artist.

Make no mistake: the inherent democracy of this concept does not necessarily imply that everyone can become a revolutionary talent. Despite the surface dichotomy, User vs. Thinker is not a black and white distinction, but rather a continuum capped by two extremes, encompassing an endless gradient of creative ability. Someone who becomes more than just a basic User is not automatically a Thinker, nor are they guaranteed to ever cross that line; that’s why DaVinci is a one-off, Einstein a true original. Regardless, we should ask ourselves the question and continue our quest for betterment all the same—perhaps not everyone is destined to be a Thinker, but there’s nothing wrong with becoming the finest of Users.


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The views expressed by our contributors are not necessarily that of AIGA SF. We welcome any and all submissions, suggestions or grievances sent to communications. We reserve the right to refuse any submission for publication without explanation.

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