I have been drawing and designing things since I was a little kid.
I started designing cars and boats when I was eight years old. I thought they were fascinating objects, and could draw them in detail before I could even do math. However, even at a young age, my parents recognized that I always approached my drawings with an inherent curiosity and sense of originality. I would put a window on a back passenger door where there usually wasn’t one, or I would simplify edges and curves on the original object. These were early signals I was thinking like a designer—which is what I ultimately became.
After I graduated from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, which was essentially my boot camp into the world of professional design, I ended up designing cars for Maserati, Ferrari, and Porsche. There, I worked on all sorts of different projects, each one teaching me something different about what it means to be a designer and create meaningful objects in the world.
Over the years, and as I have since brought my design thinking into the world of startups and venture capital, I have kept with me a handful of timeless design principles.
These are at the heart of everything I do.
1. Imitate the masters until you have the ability to try something new.
Every beginner class starts the same way:
“Try to draw this apple the way Van Gogh did.”
When you are first learning something new, the easiest way to get started is to study those who came before you. How did they do it? What techniques did they use? What rules did they follow? What mistakes did they make? Then, you ultimately ask yourself, “What will I do differently?” This is where you become creative and see your vision of something.
The first few years of any craft—whether it’s design, writing, music, etc.—is all about learning the rules of the game.
Then, once you’ve learned the rules, progress is all about breaking them and creating your own.
2. Dedicate yourself to the journey of 10,000 hours.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized this idea in his book, Outliers.
If you want to master your craft, you have to put in the time and effort of learning how to express yourself in all the ways that are possible. I think of it like learning to speak a foreign language. When you are first learning a language, your communication is limited to the small handful of words or phrases you know. As your familiarity with the language expands, so does your capacity to communicate. You go from being able to ask for a glass of water at a restaurant to being able to articulate your opinions and emotions on a complex topic.
And the only way to reach this level of fluency is through practice.
Lots and lots of practice.
3. Think fast, move slow.
Especially in design, but this is also true for most things in life, you have to find your “why” before you begin.
“Why am I doing this?”
“What is the real goal? What am I really trying to create?”
“When will I know I’m done? At what point will I consider this complete?”
In the startup world, this is what’s known as creating your problem-solution statement (also known as value proposition).
“We found X problem, and we’re going to solve it with Y.”
Being able to articulate a value proposition from the very beginning is crucial to understanding where it is you want to go—and how you plan to get there.
4. Don’t create in a vacuum.
Collaboration is key.
Too often, designers are afraid to share their ideas, fearful someone else is going to “steal” what they have in mind. It’s not until they actually share their ideas, however, that they realize what they were thinking wasn’t so novel after all.
Being open to collaboration, new influences, and allowing other people to critique and build on your ideas is the fastest way to learn and grow as a designer. If you create a vacuum, your feedback loop is going to be very small and it’s going to take you a long time to learn what works, what resonates, and what doesn’t. But when you collaborate, those answers reveal themselves almost instantaneously—whether you like it or not.
5. When you’re done, see what else you can remove.
I call this the 7×7 rule.
Whether you’re designing a pitch deck, a car, or a technology dashboard, you never want to fall into the habit of adding more than you subtract. How many countless times have you added an extra 4 slides to your deck that don’t convey meaning or add value to the presentation? The 7×7 rule means that in an ideal case, no one slide should have more than 7 words down by 7 words across. In the context of design, this means when you’re done making a sports car, take something off. Remove the unnecessary lines, edges, scoops, and curves that you thought would make it look “fast”. In the context of a dashboard, the fewer menu options, fewer clicks, less information per page or window, the better.
6. In everything you create, make sure it sparks a reaction.
Any reaction is better than no reaction. The very last thing you want is mediocrity—design that no one notices or cares about.
Instead, aim for the extremes. Reach for edges, colors, themes, messages, and meanings that force people to pause and consider what they’re looking at. If your design blends in too much, it’s going to be skipped over and forgotten. In this sense, negative feedback or “bad press” is better than no press.
7. Never stop iterating—even when one model is done.
Car companies are famous for their ability to iterate the same general product over the course of decades.
For example, Ferraris today look nothing like the way they looked in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or even 90s.
That said, you should always push to finish the project you have in front of you. Let it be what it is. Let this model be its own idea. But when you’re done, don’t consider the entire journey of designing cars (in this instance) done. Iterate. Learn from what you notice and continue to love about the design and what you wish you had taken out in the end. And incorporate those changes into your next project, your next model, your next business.
Remember: as a designer, you are never truly “done.”