Not Anyone Can Be a Good Designer, But Good Designers Can Come From Anywhere

By Doug Collins
Editor, UXNewsMag

I like Pixar movies a little more than is, strictly speaking, socially acceptable for a grown man.

I cried the first time I saw Finding Nemo (I was 20.) And Up (26). And Toy Story 3 (27).

And maybe a few more less heart-wrenching tales that I’m unwilling to publicly admit.

What makes Pixar movies both endearing and enduring is their ability to touch our lives and hearts in unexpected ways.

When the movie Ratatouille came out in 2007 (!), I didn’t think it was a movie that I was going to enjoy. Apart from the weird-sounding name, I expected to have a hard time connecting with a movie about a 4-star rat chef.

Remy the rat talks to Alfredo in the movie Ratatouille
They may be cute, but they just didn’t seem approachable to me.

Maybe, just maybe, it was because I had not yet learned to cook.

In truth, every part of the culinary world seemed mysterious and unapproachable to 24-year old me. Though one should be careful about mixing metaphors when it concerns movie pairings as incongruous as an anthropomorphic rat chef piloting a meat puppet to advance their cooking careers and a three hobbits trying to discard a ring, but cooking felt a lot like walking into Mordor without a map.

Hot, dangerous, and very likely to not end well.

And so I avoided it, for pretty much all of my entire life. Sure, it was simple enough for me to take a few steps out of The Shire and make pasta and pre-made jarred sauce, but more than that was, frankly, as terrifying as the sudden realization that I had casually wandered into Shelob’s lair dressed as a very large fly.

Cooking chicken? What if I did it under and gave myself salmonella?

Roasting vegetables? What if I burned it and had to toss them out, harpooning my veggie dietary contributions for the next two weeks?

Toasting an Eggo? What if I left it in while I dashed off for a quick potty break, only to come back and find two-foot-high flames shooting out of the toaster licking playfully at the cabinetry above, panic, pick up the flaming toaster with my bare hands, begin to run out the front door before realizing that would cause the flames to fly into my face and singe off half an eyebrow, turn around, and run out of the font door backwards, eyebrow smoldering and flaming toaster held decisively at arms length, to be set on the ground and quenched with (and also ruined by) a glass of water?

Burned waffles.
These tried to kill me.

Not that any of these things ever happened, or if they did, would they be proof of how woefully inept I was at the culinary arts.

Writer’s Note: Do I really have to put a spoiler alert for a 13-year old movie? If so, considered yourself warned: Ratatouille Spoiler Alert! And if you haven’t seen the movie yet, for God’s sake, stop what you’re doing and go watch it. You can tell your boss I said it was okay.

There is a scene at the very end of Ratatouille where the critic, Anton Ego, is giving his final review of Gusteau’s after learning that the head chef was an extraordinarily talented and gregarious rodent. He has a bit of a long, but relevant, monologue, attempting to come to terms with reconciling the excellent meal he just enjoyed and it’s unusual source.

In many ways, writes Ego, the work of a critic is easy.

We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.

We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.

But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core.

In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.

It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

That moment started me off on my great cooking adventure. More than anything, it gave me the courage to try, though it would be years before I felt confident enough to share my cooking with anyone.

These days, if people ask me about my hobbies, cooking is usually the first one on the list. As with all hobbies, not all of one’s contributions to it will be successful, but the more I learn, the more I’m able to apply.

Even though I was a little terrified the first time I made lasagna completely from scratch, I was excited to work with new ingredients and techniques to make something truly special.

And the great thing about cooking, particularly when cooking something new, is that it has so many lessons to teach. From cooking, one learns patience, passion, technique, and love.

And one can even learn a little about design.

Though I started out in the design world in much the same way I started cooking – at first believing that I didn’t belong, and feeling that my contributions weren’t worth the effort of creating them.

Eventually I found inspiration and support for what was my new, in the form of the relationships I built online and in the real world of the Denver UX community.

The more I learned, the more I applied, and the more I was able to, eventually give back.

As Ego wrote, the world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

This basic outlook has been the defining outlook on my career in User Experience. Though I’m blessed with a certain level of skill and talent, I’ve been tremendously fortunate to have found myself in a position to use them to my advantage. It’s now incumbent upon me to turn around and help those coming up behind me in the UX world to be the best professionals that they can possibly be.

In the past, that’s meant giving advice, mentoring, writing, podcasting, and leading workshops.

On November 30, however, that all changes as I start my role as a UI/UX manager for Western Union. No longer am I called to be a great individual contributor with an open mind and heart, but I will be called to lead a group of UX and UI professionals.

My feelings right now are the same as they were when I first was learning to cook and design. Excitement, passion, and maybe a little fear.

But with the new comes new opportunities, to be sure. I’m excited to work with new ingredients, and to learn how to make a great new dish.

Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.

There’s truth there, in cooking, in life, and in design.

If you’re standing at the proverbial stove of design for the first time, excited to use new skills to create something special, I hope you’ll remember Ego’s words in your own context.

Not everyone can be a great designer, but a great designer can come from anywhere.

That is the strength of the UX design world – our ability to draw perspectives from all over the world into our industry’s kitchen, giving us perspectives and flavors that lacking in other areas of the tech world.

Is it your time to step into the kicthen?   What will you be?

You’ll never know until you start cooking.