A few years ago, I was getting ready to present some new designs to a few executives for review. The research was thorough. The interactions were thoughtful. The pixels were polished.
But as I started to explain our team’s design direction, things went south. People were slightly confused and weren’t sure how we were making decisions. Ultimately, they had a hard time buying in, and it was all on me.
After the review, I realized that:
Turns out, there’s a lot more to being a designer than designing.
So how can you operate outside of your core design skills? Use mental models: simple explanations of how something in the world works. Like supply and demand, which helps us understand the economy, or the Pareto Principle , which helps us understand cause and effect.
To get you started, I’ve put together a set of seven of my favorite mental models that I use daily as a designer. They’ll help you solve problems, make decisions, and communicate ideas.
Do you need an innovative solution to a complex problem? Try approaching the problem from first principles.
To do this, take your problem and:
I did this on a project last year where we started with our problem statement. From there, I broke it down into its fundamental parts, then addressed each part, and reconfigured it to build up a solution. More on first princples here .
Are you solving for only the best-case scenario? Try inversion to get a 360-degree view of your problem. To do this, instead of thinking of ideal solutions, think of bad solutions then ask yourself, “How might we avoid these?”
This method is great in situations when you want to approach a problem from an alternative point of view, or when you want to make sure you avoid worst-case scenarios.
We did this with our Customer Experience team, which handles all of customer support. Before the project started, we met with two of our top-tier agents, and they helped us brainstorm all the ways in which the feature could potentially go wrong for our users. They helped us round out our view of the problem, instead of locking in to an early idea. Read more examples of inversion here .
Want to make sure you see the forest for the trees? Try abstraction laddering to get above your problem.
What kind of decision are you making? The hard choice model is a great way to figure this out.
Take your decision and look at:
I find that many times I think I’m making a Hard Choice, but in reality it’s a Big Choice or an Apples/Oranges Choice. This framework can help you differentiate between these types of decisions.
Should you be optimizing for speed or quality? This is a question we ask ourselves a lot. And it comes down to two things: your confidence that you’re solving the right problem, and your confidence in the solution you’re designing.
More on this model from Brandon Chu here .
Are you giving quick feedback? What, so what, now what is a lightweight way to structure your feedback.
Are you preparing long-form content (like presentations or big docs)? The diamond model works great for putting a structure around your main idea.
These models are valuable only if they’re used. So when you’re at your desk this week and trying to solve a problem, make a decision, or communicate an idea, try one of these mental models. If you practice several of these models, you'll be well-equipped for your next big design challenge.
Wes O'Haire works on the core Dropbox experience. He mentors at Backstage Capital and created BlacksWhoDesign Previously a designer for Nike and Hudl.
Charlotte Ratel studied graphic design at UQAM and at Les Arts Décoratifs de Paris. She works in Montreal for clients such as SSENSE, Le Creuset, Coeur de Pirate, FIZZ, Cirque du Soleil.
Over 100 macOS UI components ranging from buttons and push notifications to interactive browsers.