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Conceptual vs systematic designers

17th September 2019

Over the years I have worked with and have hired a variety of designers from a broad range of academic and self-taught backgrounds.

There’s one common trend I have encountered:

Designers often defer to the design mode that they are most comfortable working in as the place to start designing.

These modes tend to be either conceptual or systematic. Both are equally as important however, without recognising the mode needed to solve the problem particular to any given project or part of that project a designer can waste a lot of time concentrating on the wrong approach to a problem. The two typical modes of designers are often either:

1. Conceptual designers

These designers love exploring the creative space, with minimal constraints. They get to ‘push’ the brand and are afforded the luxury of saying, “This is just a concept to establish direction”.

My favourite conceptual designers are those who:

  • Refuse and challenge generic design frameworks whilst never surrendering to a grid.
  • Encapsulate the essence of the brand and direction without being tirelessly committed to design guidelines.
  • Take inspiration from all creative mediums and not just digital.
  • Do not just use ‘best practice’ or ‘in-sector’ inspiration when exploring potential design routes.
  • Are not worried about objects having the perfect ratio but have judged this by eye (true story — a designer I worked with was adamant a 12px x 9px rectangle was a square and to be fair it looked fine by eye).
2. Systematic designers

A systematic designer will spend days setting up the base-line grid and they will get excited when showing their scalable design symbols in Sketch.

My favourite systematic designers are those who:

  • Work with the appropriate tools such as Sketch, Zeplin etc. to create consistency within design files and workflows.
  • Make design files and artefacts that are well structured, logical and more importantly more usable by development teams.
  • Think about using the minimal number of elements needed to create an experience. Where possible they re-use what they’ve created, and atomic design is their friend.
  • Are often from a development/product background where scalability and re-use can sometimes limit creativity and expression.

In order to determine how you operate as a designer it’s important to recognise what mode you need to deploy to achieve the right focus.

The elephant in the room

Being aware of the differing modes needed to design across a project, product or service lifecycle is important, and many designers are able to do this. However, some are not and that’s ok.

It’s important when designing that you recognise where you are in the design process, this will help you to ensure that you are either using the right skillset, or individual, to make sure you’ve got the right mindset at the right time. 


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