As a design manager, I've been looking at the key disciplines of a designer. My goal is to create a clear set of activities that every designer displays that will push them deeper into the designer-verse and promote successful outcomes for everyone. At this point, I'm considering 5 key practices that are expected of designers.

The five disciplines of design include sketching, creative cognition, multiple options, analysis and advocating.


Designers are expected to create 'something' out of 'nothing'. They are entering an opportunity space that requires a new solution to be brought to the table. The solution to the problem doesn't exist yet. How can a designer clearly communicate something that doesn't yet exist? A cheap, and easy way is to draw it. The designer can quickly being roughly sketching out ideas that draw out what is and is not working. Since a designer's job is to find a concept or solution that adequately solves the problem at hand, sketching is a powerful way to bring many ideas to the table and discover the best path forward.

As concepts get more and more refined, sketching makes way for higher degrees of detail that can move beyond pencil and paper into full-fledged prototypes and design specifications.

Creative Cognition

Creativity can be a nebulous term. I've seen it used much like curse words, as a noun, adjective, adverb, and just about every other inappropriate use of the term. Let's get clear on what I mean by creative cognition.

Creative is defined as the intentional dismantling, combining, and remixing of existing elements in new ways to explore what's possible. It's not magic or mystical in any way. However, some people are more predisposed of thinking this way. It can be very hard for some individuals. Everyone can be creative, but not everyone will excel at it.

Cognition is defined as a pattern of thinking. It's a way of intentionally putting on a particular hat and getting to work.

Creative cognition, then is a pattern of thinking where designers discover the elements that are available (technology, concepts, scenarios, etc.) and proceed to dismantle, combine, and recombine them to discover new, exciting possibilities.

For more on creativity, see this brilliant paper by Toshiharu Taura on Creativity in Innovation.

Multiple Options

One of my mentors once said, "It's not design if you aren't exploring multiple options". Designers work in murky waters of difficult problems. To quickly and reliably solve these problems, it's critical that designers explore multiple options. Some studies suggestion between 5-7 initial ideas is optimal for forcing our brains into creative cognition, so that's the recommended target for our team. Once you have those 5-7 ideas, they will eventually lead way to more 'baby' ideas where elements are thrown own, preserved, enhanced, or added to. This process has been called "wayfinding". Designers find their way by creating many options, keeping what works, and throwing out what doesn't. That leads us into the next critical phase: analysis, but more on that in a bit…

One distinguishing point is the breadth of the exploration. If designers explore 5-7 very similar concepts, or simply variations on a single concept the chance of arriving at a new, or innovative solution is significantly diminished. There appears to be a direct correlation between the breadth of the exploration and how innovative the solution. The greater variety that's initially explored the more innovative (or novel) the final result could be.

Analysis (or Crit)

In basic terms this is evaluation and testing. Designer's aren't really fulfilling the need if they aren't critiquing whatever they produce. The reason for this is simple: eventually we need to bring something into reality and it's impossible to build all of them. As designers begin pair down the options and focusing in on a specific option, they are making decisions along the way. These decisions demand trade offs. Successful design proposals will be informed by intentional and accurate critique and analysis. These are informed by the problem we're working to solve, the context of the problem, user research, and design principles and heuristics.

This is where we expect a high degree of failure. If a designer isn't failing, they're not exploring widely enough. If we only explore "safe" designs, there's little opportunity for innovate ideas and concepts. The purpose is that designers learn from failure, which helps them better understand the problem and lead to more powerful solutions.


As designers come to the table with the people they serve, they should be well equipped by the other four disciplines to suggest a path forward. "Suggest" is intentionally chosen. At the end of the day, designers serve to help bring a solution to someone else's problem. Designers act in the interest of someone's agenda. The time spent exploring all of the options and learning what works and what doesn’t gives the designer a deep and unique perspective on the problem being solved. If a designer has really put in the effort exploring the depths of the possible solutions, then the expectation is that they should have a level of expertise and clarity on the best path forward.

With that said, a designer's understanding of problems is always evolving with new information, so they hold their suggestions loosely to avoid feeling attacked. A designer is not represented by their work. If a designer has gone through multiple options, losing one of those options is no big deal since they have a handful of other suggestions to offer.

These suggestions are typically accompanied by exceptional visuals and clear reasoning from the designer that draw in non-designers to the conversation. It empowers the people designers serve to confidently walk forward.


There are clearly more skills and disciplines for a designer, however when it comes to a person functioning more and more like a designer, these are five of the most important disciplines a designer can be consistent on. Any designer who works to make these a regular habit will benefit greatly and propel their career to the top.

A designer's main goal isn't to understand the problem, it's to create an amazing solution. Designer's aren't scientists, they are creators. They are obsessing with the solution. They are constantly pushing forward, focused on the end. Balancing and executing these five disciplines will continue keep designers oriented on the right path.

I'm deeply grateful to Nigel Cross and Bill Buxton who have provided excellent books and videos on the topic. Designerly Ways of Knowing and numerous stalks by Buxton have been amazing resources in this journey.

Want to talk?

Need help, advice or a speaker for your event? I’d love to connect and help you build novel solutions with design.

Connect with me