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The Professional Designer
by Thomas Grove on 01/14/13 11:14:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[What separates a professional from an enthusiast? This article is specifically about being a professional designer - incuding game designer - but many of the points are transferable to other professional occupations.]

A Human Endeavor

Design is about providing solutions to problems. When I talk to engineers they say: "that sounds just like engineering" and when I talk to marketers they say "that sounds just like marketing". There is indeed a lot of crossover.

Design is a human endeavor, it isn't just for designers. Whenever you decide to do something one way instead of another, because you've determined that it is better, then you are engaging in the act of design.

Janitorial staff engage in the activity of design when they have a choice of several cleaning agents and several scrubbing utensils like a brush or a scour pad or a cloth. If they do not use their power of discernment, and just use the same solution to every problem, they will damage a surface.

When you do steps 1 through 3, just as your boss instructed you to do, you are not engaged in design but instead in menial labor. When you exercise your powers of observation and discernment you are engaged in design.

A Commitment to Self Improvement

If everyone can design, then what is the difference between a professional designer and any person engaging in the activity of design?

It might be helpful to think about the difference between a professional athlete, an amateur athlete, and someone who is able bodied but not athletic.

Take a moment to visualize what the differences might be.

Taking tennis as an example; any able bodied person is capable of swinging a tennis racket.

An amateur or enthusiast tennis player probably plays with their friends every weekend for fun, they're so much better than the non-player but still the difference between them and the professional player is pretty big.

The professional player practices every day. They practice with the intent of getting better, not just having fun. They practice serves over and over again. They practice returning serves over and over again. They do simple drills over and over again. They are committed to their craft.

Their craft is burned into their muscle memory, and their perspective on life is changed forever.

A professional designer is just like this.

The difference between an amateur and a professional is their mindset. For the amateur the activity is fun, for the professional it is life or death. The professional has made a commitment to improve their craft every day.

If you would like to become a professional designer, or a professional anything, the first step is to change your mindset. Say: "I am a designer and I want to become a great designer", then set about practicing your craft year after year until you one day wake up and realize that you are a professional.

If you don't have this kind of passion or commitment for your current occupation — stop — pick something that you really want to become better at and throw yourself into that activity.

Getting Paid to Design

Of course one mark of being a professional is that others are willing to pay you for your services. It is hard to imagine a world where a non-professional tennis player can get paid to play their game, but people without this kind of commitment get paid to work as designers all the time. Tennis is perhaps more honest.

Professionalism vs Mastery

You can be a master at something without being a professional, but you still need the same commitment to continual self improvement.

You can be a professional at something without being a master, you just need to provide value to your client, customer, or employer.

There are professional monks who perform funeral rites. They may not be zen masters at all. There are zen masters who never perform services for patrons. 

Professionals and masters both have high levels of skill. While mastery implies the highest tier of skill, it carries no financial or client satisfaction expectation. A professional is someone who strives to provide value for their services. They must look at the bigger picture.

The Big Picture

My zen master (who is a senior consulting architect) once told me that design is the balance of form, function, and cost; three legs of a stool or table, if you neglect one the project will fail.

I've thought about this model for years and think I have an improvement to it: design is the balance of form and function within constraints.

The balance of form and function, this is the observation and discernment skill mentioned before. This is the core design skill. But what separates a professional designer from an enthusiast designer, more so than the commitment or the pay check, is the stoic consideration of a project's constraints.

Constraints are all of the issues that producers and project managers concern themselves with:

  • Project budget
  • Deadline
  • Skill of team
  • Number of team members
  • Government regulations
  • Health and safety best practices
  • Hardware limitations
  • Client mandates
  • Client feedback
  • etc

As a professional designer you can't just make the building or game or car or website that you want, because you think it is cool. You must fully take into account your proposals' impact on — and adherence to — the project's constraints.

I once read: "A designer's job is to ask for more and a producer's job is to say 'no'."

If you're designers are not professional, then sure, your producer will have to enforce the constraints, but good designers should have taken those constraints into consideration in the first place.

Talent Isn't Enough

One of my best friends is the most talented designer that I know. He has been doing paid design work since he was 15 and has worked in senior and director level positions at top fashion magazines and international design thinking firms. He is a professional today, for sure, but as a youth he wasn't. He lost a huge client in his youth due to missing a deadline.

Talent isn't enough, you need to mature to become a professional. No one is going to hold your hand. You have to deliver value, which means you have to deliver the expected quality on time and on budget.

If you're young, you probably won't take this seriously enough, and it won't be until you lose your job or your client that the sting of failure teaches you. That's ok. Maturation is hard to force, so please focus on the rest of this article: commit to your craft, provide value, consider the big picture. Do this day after day until one day you realize you're already a professional.

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Glenn Storm
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'Very much Like these thoughts! Thank you, Thomas.

Choice snip:
As a professional designer you can't just make the building or game or car or website that you want, because you think it is cool. You must fully take into account your proposals' impact on — and adherence to — the project's constraints.

This appears to be the difference between ideation and design. Everyone has ideas, however, coordinating the pool of ideas to address the project's priority needs, and to work in the context of the project's constraints, is the job of design.

Curtiss Murphy
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I liked this quote: "design is the balance of form and function within constraints." After that, the post winds a bit. A strong article that would have been stronger with fewer words in the last 2 sections...

Bart Stewart
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I think all these points are valid, but there's something crucially distinctive to "design" that's missing from this discussion: creativity.

Many fields need an analytical function: X is likely to be better than Y for achieving Goal Z. That's certainly an important part of what a designer does -- weighing the characteristics of systems and judging their fitness for a purpose.

What makes Design different from other productive activities is that it requires both analysis and synthesis. It's partly about assessing the fitness of individual systems, yes, but it's also about being good at organizing collections of systems in ways that maximize the fitness of the collection as a new thing. Design is about understanding why X + Y is better than A + B at achieving Goal Z, and about being able to imagine a C + L + Q combination that might be better still in certain circumstances.

This synthetic, creative function for mentally manipulating abstract concepts, which groks the nature of functional systems and and can "see" the likely results of connecting them in particular ways, is why marketers and engineers and janitors don't primarily consider themselves to be designers. Talent may not be enough to do that kind of thing well... but I'm not sure that education is enough, either.

The analytical ability definitely does matter to a designer, but I suggest it's only one side of the coin. Conceptual creativity also matters. And the extent to which that can be taught (versus having it naturally) is, I think, open to debate.

Thomas Grove
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Thanks for the thoughtful reply Bart. I agree with what you're saying about design but I don't think it is what separates the enthusiast from the professional -- an immature but talented enthusiast designer is probably really good at creativity.

Most of my team are not at even this enthusiast level so if you have any ideas about exercises that I can put them through, I'm all ears. Maybe we can find out the extent that it can be taught.

PS. I thought about having the statement read "design is about providing creative solutions to unique problems" but that isn't quite correct either since there are many cases when it is good to use already existing solutions (design patterns) and so I went with the more encompassing definition.

Luis Guimaraes
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It can be taught, the problem is not everybody has the capacity to learn, which starts by being open to do so. Exercises and challenges are surely the only way I can think about.

Calculating 2+2 is not a skill (not for most people, except human calculator geniuses).

Creativity is a skill. And it must be constantly practiced. You can teach one forms to practice it.

But creativity it's also a frame of mind, of wanting to pursue higher quality in a subjective spectrum. High standards are a hard thing to teach people. So is the searching for untapped potential, unexplored routes, uninvented solutions. Not everybody is self-taught, and people that aren't can rarely see past what they already know.

But nothing is impossible.

One "exercise" I like, if it can be called so, is to go to some website full of professional and/or amateur portfolios, look at pictures and make up a game out of them. That's not an exercise really, just a tool to find different ideas.

Kuba Stokalski
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@Thomas - for some time I've been putting my team through a weekly variation of a classic 10x10 sketching exercise. Each monday we meet, select a topic (usually relating to player experience such as "A game where players must cooperate to progress but betray to win" etc) and then set aside some time each day to generate 10 as different concepts that satisfy the topic as possible. After generating 10 rough but diverse solutions we select 3 most promising (intuitively) and generate 10 variations on each of these. The next monday we meet and critique the concepts.

This doesn't solve the "constraints" part of your definition but it's a valuable tool for training focused creativity. In fact I'm not quite happy with the weekly interval. It's most effective if you do it daily, within a timebox. Personally I set aside 15 minutes each day and try to fit as much of this procedure in as possible.

Another thing we do is training brainstorming sessions; focusing on proper execution (in my experience it's easy to mess up and waste everyone's time). When training it's best to focus on form, such as IDEO's:

Thomas Grove
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@Kuba: is that 10 per person or 10 for the group? Anyways, great suggestions, thanks!

Kuba Stokalski
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Thats 10+3x10 per person, ideally. Sorry, I didn't explain this clear enough, the exercise goes as follows:

1) Select a goal/topic (can be anything from high-level player experience stuff all the way down to "A "Start Game" button that improves clickthrough by at least 3%;))
2) Generate 10 wildly different ideas on how to meet the goal
3) Select the top 3 you think have potential
4) Generate 10 variations on each of the 3 concepts
5) Select the best one(s) and critique them with peers

Oh, and I should mention it's originally a sketching exercise - the ideas should be presented graphically or as physical sketches (that almost never happens though). It's not up everyones alley, especially our systems designer has an issue with this;) but I find it beneficial to encourage everyone to think in pictures/stories; it builds communication skills and of course, seeing an idea >>> hearing about an idea.

In truth, this can be done in a group workshop format too, you're just loosing the sketching training for everyone.

Ideally I'd do that every day but especially the latter part (3x10) can be quite time consuming. At the very least I sketch the first 10 ideas and critique the 3 best ones. I found if you keep doing it every day it really stretches your idea muscle - but in a good way, always focused on the objective. That's why I call it "targeted creativity". I'd highly recommend it to any designer:)

Jack Nilssen
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Thanks, I've been meaning to write something along these lines for ages.

Jacob Crane
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This was great

Adriaan Jansen
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Awesome post! Thanks!

Rick Gush
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No offense Thomas, and I'm familiar and quite respectful of your own body of work, but to me the article sounds like something a non-professional designer would say. All of the really good designers I know don't really care to spend time defining what a designer should do. Perhaps those who can do do, and those who want to do, talk about doing? I'm a fairly seasoned pro designer and I couldn't care less about defining the process. My experience is that an effective design process is wildly different for every project.

Thomas Grove
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Are you the Rick Gush who designed Legend of Kyrandia? If so, respect.

I am compelled to define this process out of compassion. I can not sit by as my "game designers" turn in mediocre work with obvious quality and usability issues. As wages in Vietnam continue to rise, my game designers will be measured against talent in the rest of the world which is, quite frankly, much better. I must find some way to make them understand the gravity of their situation. They must stop being designers in name only if they want to have a job as a designer in the near future.

As far as "those who can do do, and those who want to do, talk about doing", it sounds a bit like "he who knows doesn't speak and he who speaks doesn't know" from the Tao Te Ching. But that didn't stop David Sirlin from writing about playing to win or about balancing asymmetrical competitive games, or Edward Tufte from writing about the graphical display of information, or Buddha from talking about enlightenment.

Luke ParkesHaskell
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I disagree with the fundamental underpinnings of this article - and so for me it's falling flat on it's face.

A professional designer is someone who designs as their occupatory vocation; they design as a means of livelihood. This is the meaning of professional in it's dictionary-definition, and that's what makes someone a 'professional'. What you've described are traits that might help one become a professional or be expected of one.

A person who paints, or practices playing an instrument every day may simply do so out of the interest in furthering their skill in the craft. If it's not their occupation then they are not a professional, even if they could be considered a master.

Thomas Grove
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That's kind of what I said. Read it again?

Vin St John
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@Luke, I think your issue could be satisfied just by changing "a professional designer" to "a successful professional designer."

Lewis Pulsipher
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Excellent analysis, excellent explanation, but I agree with Bart that you've left something out. It's fashionable these days to say that anyone can become an expert at anything through long practice (assuming the practice is of the right kind and pursued with dedication). That's only true up to a point. Whether we call it talent or creativity or something else, virtually every design discipline requires it if you're going to become an excellent designer. Without it you can become a decent, perhaps even good, designer, but then you run up against a wall that practice cannot overcome.

So in games, a great many people can design a decent game, one that works well enough, but not nearly as many can design an outstanding game.

Though as with many other things, chance plays a great part, sometimes a decent game design (like Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride) hits the right niche at the right time and becomes very popular, even though as game designs they're open to strong criticisms. Monopoly is a really weak design, but obviously it hit the right spot. Popular does not equal outstanding.

Rick Gush's comments remind me of the approach some people take to project management of any kind, called "fire-fighting". They suppose that a project is so varied each time that there's no reason to plan or to try to stick to a plan, and they react to problems as they occur. But long experience shows that those who plan and pursue the plan as it changes, who try to systematically anticipate problems and avoid them, get better results than the fire-fighters. His description of professionals makes game design sound like fire-fighting.

Thomas Grove
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Yes, just because you practice tennis every day, that's no guarantee that you'll play on the pro circuit.

But if I can get even half of my designers to become decent, or perhaps even good, that would be a huge win for our studios.

Lewis Pulsipher
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Is your problem with your designers, Thomas, the "artiste problem", people thinking they are artists and can do things however they want, and that any kind of organization or method suppresses their creativity? Or people thinking it's all creativity, when game design is really "10% inspiration and 90% perspiration"? Those attitudes are common amongst young adult game design students, for sure.

Thomas Grove
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No, the problem is that educationally and culturally they are not encouraged to think for themselves, or to be creative, or to care about subtle quality, or to be proactive. To be where I want them to be they will need to fight against a lifetime of education consisting of rote repetition and not questioning their elders. They also need to gain the confidence to let their idea be heard, even though they might be younger or lower in the organizational hierarchy.

They are smart, they have potential, but they are stuck in mental handcuffs and I can't find any LSD, so design exercises it is.

Luis Guimaraes
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"they are not encouraged to think for themselves, or to be creative, or to care about subtle quality, or to be proactive", "will need to fight against a lifetime of [...] rote repetition and not questioning"

Sounds like anybody growing with today's games, regardless where they're raised.

It's what I said in the comment above: it's all a frame of mind.

Arnold Hendrick
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As a designer and producer with 30 years experience in computer games, plus additional years in paper games prior to the computer era, I cannot disagree with any of the above. However, I think the discussion of "self improvement" and "mastery" needs some expansion. With outrageously rare exceptions, games are 5% new ideas and 95% ideas carried over from previous games. The is considerable art and judgement needed to decide what to use from where and what to discard. Since new games appear constantly, a good designer is constantly playing new games as well as selected older titles. Just "keeping up" is a major effort, especially now that social and mobile platform provide so many new lessons in game design (both positive and negative). I know that my perspective on design constantly evolves as I observe successes and failures. Remember, you can learn as much from a failure as from a success.

A designer also needs familiarity with pop culture going back a century. A good "liberal arts" education that gives facility with literature, art, music, science, and of course mathematics is invaluable. While I have hired senior level designers who didn't have a B.A., they did have wide-ranging knowledge and intellectual curiousity. There are spots for designers with narrow technical specializations, but in 5 or 10 years the industry may abandon that specialization in favor of something new.

The acid test I use to separate professional designers from the rest is this: are they creating a game for themselves, or for the audience of that title? A professional designer creates for a defined audience. Yes, there is always interaction between the audience and the creator, but in game design that interaction is subtle and long-term, unlike the immediacy of music or theater.

Finally, the producer in me entirely agrees with the "big picture" philosophy. You can't design for some fantasy of unlimited time, money and staff. You design a game that the dev team can execute successfully with available time and money, and that the live team can operate. The hardest part is judging what's necessary for a MVP (minimum viable product) in your chosen marketplace. Ask too much and you're over budget and cancelled. Ask too little and the game dies at launch.

Lewis Pulsipher
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Hey Arnold,

I'm glad to know there was a life in games for you after Dwarfstar went away.

Game students almost always want to design a game for themselves. It's often difficult to persuade them to design for other people, because there are some pros who designed for themselves who are lucky enough to have been representative of their target market (Carmack and Romero, e.g., and perhaps CliffyB).

Martin Zimmerman
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I liked the article, but I don't care for the example of the janitor. I don't think simply engaging in an informed choice is sufficient to qualify as design. Nor do I think it is simply maximizing fitness for a particular function. Understanding what you are giving up is as central to design as understanding what you are getting. And if there aren't multiple solutions with substantively different outcomes which fulfill the core goal I don't think it qualifies as design. Or to put it another way, if there is an optimal solution to the problem you aren't really designing. If you've got a 4mm bolt to tighten you aren't a designer for picking the 4mm wrench over the 5/32 one.

Thomas Grove
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You're right, that example is a bit of a stretch. One friend commented that what I'm describing there is engineering, not design. My main point is "don't just do steps 1-3 because that's what someone said to do". I still like it in a poetic sense, even if it isn't literally true...

Still, there may be cleaning goals without clear cut solutions! At that point it is up to the taste of the janitor.

Rick Gush
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I like how this has now turned into a fairly interesting discussion of the craft. There's been a lot of interesting comments. I do feel like my work is very much like a frenzied firefighter. And thanks Thomas for your kind comments.

I think my design style resembles walking into a typical boring cocktail party and asking "What can I do to make this more fun and interesting?" I'm a provacateur and a party host, and my goal is to somehow create a situation in which people have more fun or interesting or pleasurable experiences than they would have otherwise. The producer side of me attempts to minimise the stains on the carpet.

As far as practice, as to what a designer should do to practice their craft, I think they should go out into the public often and attempt to make various persons' lives more enjoyable. The observation and interaction with people that makes that possible is great practice for knowing what actions in game format might have similar results.

Thomas, I'm jealous of your job. pretty cool. If I had such a gaggle of students, I'd send them out in the public to interact with the people in the streets. For example, I think building impromptu sculptures out of trash or driftwood or whatever is a nice design student exercize. Game design is a lot like that sort of performing in public I think, in which one creates the experience with what is at hand.

Thomas Grove
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+1 thanks, i'll get them outside! A bit less playful, but along the same lines, traffic circles in Vietnam just don't work. I want my designers to observe a traffic circle, and examine it's geometry and the behavior of those interacting with it, and come back with a solution on how to make them actually work. Problems in meat space feel more immediate and relate-able than abstract design problems in a virtual space.

Chris Charla
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Great article! I do think the best professionals also have fun, or at least derive some satisfaction from what they do, but I agree that the perspective is vastly different than that of an enthusiastic amateur.

Sara Thomason
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Very inspiring, Thomas, thank you.

I would like to add something, maybe it wouldn't be considered an integral part of your model, but I truly believe in one aspect that is too frequently overlooked when discussing with my peers about the design of our next software.

Empathy. It may sound silly, but it really surprises me how often I remind others to step outside of their own views and act as if they were our customer. Sure, there are obvious answers to some design questions, but what may seem like the logical solution to a designer is not always the best way to allow your user to interface with the program or get the most out of their product. We design, we produce, and we ship out software every day to the point of monotony and it's very easy to get lost in the perpetual production cycle. The ability to take a step back and allow yourself to think from multiple perspectives is invaluable and it is a quality that I will always impress upon other designers.