How Important Is Natural Talent To Becoming A Great Designer?

Jared Spool

January 3rd, 2012

Natural talent isn’t hard to spot. We see it when someone walks up and accomplishes something with ease, something that we ourselves struggle with.

Look at any young and accomplished musician or artist. Or at those twenty-something sports stars. They are obviously talented.

Yet, how much of a role does their talent really play in what they do?

That 12-year-old pianist who is dazzling the audience with her Bach concertos – sure, she has talent. But look closely and you’ll see someone who has been practicing for years. She took classes and sat at the keyboard for hours every day.

While talent is something we’re born with, skills are something we pick up. Study hard, practice often, and given enough time, a person achieves mastery.

In design, this is certainly the case. I’ve met designers who demonstrated their stuff easily, but most of them did that after years of practice. They worked hard to learn the tools, to become literate in the ways of design. They always study the work of others, first by mimicking to master the technique, then adopting it to make it their own style.

It’s true that talent may get them to mastery faster. It might push their mastery beyond that of their peers.

Yet, everyone I’ve met who is really great (and I’ve met a lot of great designers), got there because they worked at it. It wasn’t natural.

Breadth of experience is another thing those great designers all share. Mixing up the projects, mixing up the teams they work with, mixing up the customers they design for – all that brings experience.

Every time they change something up, they have to re-evaluate what they believe to be true. They have to tweak their skills to the new environment. What used to work well now doesn’t work as well. They have to ask, “what do we need to do differently?”

Hang around me long enough and you’ll hear me utter one of my favorite aphorisms: “Good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgements.” I’ve observed that great designers make smart decisions quickly. They have years of practice at making decisions. They have a breadth of experience. They can recognize important patterns. They constantly practicing their basic skills.

Don’t worry that you’re not talented enough: get out there anyways. Learn the skills. Practice them constantly. Change up your environment to gain new experiences. This is the path to being great.

Talent only differentiates us when we’ve already mastered skills and had a breadth of experiences. What separates the great designers from everyone else today isn’t their talent — it’s their skill and experience. Talent is the least important of those three attributes.

6 Responses to “How Important Is Natural Talent To Becoming A Great Designer?”

  1. Puranjay Says:

    There’s that saying: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”.

    Our society has fed us a myth that you need to be *talented* in order to achieve something, and that hard-work is reserved for those not genetically gifted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every talented athlete, artist, or even businessman, got there through practice, not just sheer talent. Heck, even Hunter Thompson used to sit down and copy F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writings in order to perfect his sentence structure.

  2. Robert Dawson Says:

    Good point! So, how much of willpower is heritable? Or, maybe, how much does it vary given two people of equal ability in the same condition?

  3. Marli Mesibov Says:

    Talent vs work is a fascinating study. I’ve written papers on both Mozart (“prodigy”) and Steve Jobs looking into where the breakdown is. In fact, this very closely relates to the thesis I posited:

    “Was Steve Jobs the tech world’s Mozart, existing due to the perfect combination of personality quirks developed from a young age, never to be replaced? Or did he study, grow, and develop into a brilliant innovator? (the Beethoven of the tech world?)”

    I’d be interested to get your feedback on the post.
    http://blog.abovethefolddesign.com/2011/10/20/the-irreplaceable-steve-jobs/

  4. Steve Says:

    “Was Steve Jobs the tech world’s Mozart, existing due to the perfect combination of personality quirks developed from a young age, never to be replaced? Or did he study, grow, and develop into a brilliant innovator? (the Beethoven of the tech world?)”

    Steve Wozniak, Bruce Tognazzini, Johnathan Ive, and many others did the work and had the ideas that got Jobs his success. Much different than the Mozart and Beethoven examples.

  5. Johan Strandell Says:

    Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is about this, and it’s a very worthwhile read.

    I’ve seen some critique of the “10 000 hours to achieve mastery” thesis, but most of those people seem to have either misunderstood the concept or missed that there is academic research behind it.

  6. Backup Brain » Blog Archive » Wisdom and experience Says:

    [...] “Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.” – Mulla Nasrudin, via Jared Spool [...]

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