Design is an act of expressing a personal point of view. It's subjective, even if grounded in hard data, experience and a fair amount of user input. It's personal, even if the designer is actually a team. Design is about making decisions… and choosing a path is always personal.
There, I said it.
Yes, there are methods, schools, techniques — tools that can help you frame the problem and your approach. Yes, you can support every decision with data and submit every aspect to A/B testings and all sorts of validations. Or follow an almost scientific process to guide your design. But sometimes, you simply follow a gut feeling, you take the risk and choose a path. And that's ok. Although, even gut feelings emerge from experience and training.
This notion of experience is crucial to understanding how designers work, because learning to design represents an investment in time, effort, personal commitment and discipline. A lot of discipline. Don't be fooled by what may seem like a complete chaos when working with designers — most of them are quite rigorous in the way they approach a problem: they simply focus on the outcome, not the process. Besides experience, you also need curiosity — you can't design if the world around you doesn't trigger questions and doubts in you — and empathy, a deep sense of caring and connecting with others.
In the end, design is about creating and nurturing an emotional space that only exists when people interact with our work – thus providing emotional responses. And this is why design is personal, subjective. It is fundamentally about people: to guide people to information that matters to them; to design an app that connects people with their loved ones; to create a service that helps people have fun or deal with a tough situation; to build a software that helps someone better accomplish his job. Involve and connect.
Form and function have their place, but they'll only get you so far. It's when you go further and explore the emotional side of the equation, that you truly connect with your audience. Think of Mailchimp or Paper (the drawing app, not the Facebook thing). They didn't just design really beautiful and well made products: they focused on creating experiences that spark emotions and transcend the mere functionality, taking great care in every detail, from the copy to the animations, the system messages, the interactions, the brand tone and voice, etc. Every pixel, every word, every decision is geared towards establishing that space of emotional interaction.
Now, this kind of connection is only possible because of the deep involvement those teams have with the product and their users. It isn't just a question of imagining solutions and features to achieve business goals or demonstrate design skills. It's personal, it represents their own expression of how to nurture that emotional space. If you change the team or the designers, the product will become something else, not necessarily better or worse, but different. And you can use all the methodologies you want — Lean, SCRUM, XP, etc.—, have all sorts of on boarding strategies, that this won't change. Because they are only tools. What matters is who is designing or building — because it's always about people, their personal commitment, their emotional involvement and their experience — and who we are designing and building for. How we make that connection, how we define that emotional space, is what defines our work. And this is deeply subjective.
It's a craft and you cannot think of it as just a simple step in the process, something that fits in a well-defined assembly line. It won't, even if the tangible outputs will. Crafting an emotional space is the expression of personal and subjective options, that rises from the deep connection designers establish between their work and the people they’re designing for. This, for me, is the core of Design.