• Advice

4 Design Mistakes That Are Holding You Back

It has been called many things: entrepreneurial spirit, thinking outside the box, an affliction to authority, an inventor’s mind, big-picture thinking…

Some symptoms include seeing things in a way no one else does, ruminating endlessly on how to do things “better”, finding potential where others see none, and an inability to settle for “the way things are.”

If you have it, you know it. You’re a creator.

You can’t help but solve problems, design new things, and push the boundaries of what’s possible.

Creators are crucial in what Cal Newport refers to as the “New Economy,” but to succeed, you not only have to be able to think outside the box, you have to be able to learn new things…fast, and execute at the highest level.

“Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.”
- Cal Newport

To do that, we have to think fundamentally differently than people who work within the confines of an established order. We have to learn to design better and then bring that design into the real world.

I’ve always been a creator, and I’m damn good at execution, but I’ve seen things succeed that I had no right to and things fail where I “did everything right.” I’m not an expert, but I am a student of process and have identified four mistakes I’ve made repeatedly as I try to bring my ideas to fruition.

We focus on the solution and not the problem

Our instinct is to solve the problem, build the thing, take it to the people who need it, and check it off as a success. That is not the way life-changing, iterative design works.

I have never spent enough time with a problem before I design for it. I get so excited about the solution that I can’t stay with the problem long enough to really explore it. If you genuinely want to solve a problem for an audience, you must listen to what they need, study what others are doing in the field, and then do both of those things repeatedly as a continuous feedback loop.

This process works best when you approach the problem with no solution in mind. If you’ve already decided on a solution, then your market research will be shaped and biased by that theoretical solution. You won’t be able to stay curious long enough to understand the real issues facing your audience.

You can’t get stuck here forever; you have to start moving toward the solution at some point, but the longer you can stay here, the better. When you think you’re done defining the problem, force yourself to do a few more client interviews before you move on. And when you move on, stay curious even as you design, leaving yourself open to iterating as you continue to learn more about the problem.

We’re afraid to fail

You can’t stay in the ideation stage forever. At some point, you must acknowledge that you will continue to learn more about the problem and may think of better solutions as you go, but you have to move something forward.

So many big-picture thinkers are great at ideating but get trapped by picking one idea to build. This tendency leads to many great ideas dying on the vine before they ever have the chance to be tested in the market. This trap also leads to worse solutions because we learn by building and fundamentally create better solutions through the trial and error required to bring them to market.

I get trapped by perfection and the inability to put something out that I don’t feel 100% confident about. I’ve learned over time that I will never feel 100% confident about something pre-launch; it is only when things are exposed to the bright light of day that I can see areas that need improvement.

We can’t be afraid to fail pre-launch and must commit to pivoting whenever we need to. We watch things fail every day and often know that cutting our losses and trying something new is right. Still, we fundamentally can’t bring ourselves to do it because of the emotional and literal resources we have invested. This tendency is the sunken cost fallacy, popularized by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. The sunken cost fallacy causes us to hold on to things that are no longer giving us what we need (whether that be investments, relationships, or business products) because we’ve put so much time, money, and energy into them that we can’t imagine losing everything we’ve invested, even though it is fundamentally already lost.

When we’ve poured our blood, sweat, and tears into an idea that isn’t working, it is tough to think about redesigning it, let alone giving up on it entirely and trying something new. I’ve done this repeatedly with so many of the things I launched, stringing them along even though I knew it was time to let them go.

We build linearly

“Western” society likes to think of things linearly — time, career paths, project plans, etc. There are steps in a process, and you follow those steps in order until you get to the end and “feel done.” When we approach design as a linear process, we cannot continuously adapt our solutions to meet the world’s evolving needs. We can also not allow them to evolve as our individual context changes, whether that’s our skillsets, abilities, or capacity.

This linear mentality makes our designs less agile and adaptable and takes the joy out of the design process. If we see the end state as the goal, then we rush through all of the other stages to get there. We design for the destination instead of seeing it as a never-ending journey. The joy is in the process of solving the problem, not the solution itself. Once the problem is solved, all the fun is over. If we see design as a non-linear process, it permits us to keep solving, iterating, and learning.

We think we “own” our ideas

Ground-breaking design works best when you do it with others. Whether it is a design partner, the dozens of people you talk to during market research, or books and articles you read (hopefully all of the above), listening to others’ ideas is the only way to design something that will change the game.

Capitalism breeds a sense of scarcity and protectiveness that makes us feel like we have to think of ideas in isolation and then protect them from others. I won’t tell you that through collaborating, you’re not running the risk of someone else “taking” your idea. I will tell you that we can create so much more when working together than in isolation. The risk you take by not collaborating with others is much greater than the risk you take by collaborating.

You also have to acknowledge that your idea is not “unique” nor “yours.” Our ideas are conglomerations of the ideas of others and our own lived experiences; it is not the idea that is unique, it is how you bring it forward into the world. When you let go of the ownership of the idea, you are free to feel ownership over the execution.

Creators are constantly trying to make something new, solve a problem in a novel way, and then get it out to the people who need it most (and hopefully make some money along the way). We are the people who push society forward. I’ve learned that to do this well we have to reprogram our brains to value the process over the end goal, stay curious, and live in the moment. Designing this way not only makes for better solutions, it makes for happier designers.

Sarah Duran I'm a freelance project manager, 6-figure freelancer, & solopreneur coach. My expertise in curriculum design, facilitation, & coaching gives solopreneurs the support to get what they need.

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