Whole brain design

In 2023, it’s a bit passé to label an activity, person or job with ‘left-brain’ or ‘right-brain’. But most of us intuitively understand the difference. Left-brainers appear to be more organised and good with details and right-brainers thrive in creativity and innovation.

Designers lean on their right brain to empathise with people problems – “how products and services fit within people’s everyday lives as well as where they fall short, and who’s left out.”

Since the rise of consumer-friendly technology, designers have settled into the left-brain world of software, complementing the disciplines of product management (analytical and often with technical background) and engineers who ensure the systems are stable, performant, correct and maintainable.

Luckily, it’s really not so binary. Although designers are on the hook for how the product looks, we are largely concerned with making it enjoyable, learnable and effective for the user. From the tools we use like Figjam (right) and Google Sheets (left) to the skills we need like designing for emotion (right) and information architecture (left), designers need both sides of their brain firing. Xero sums it up perfectly: “You’ll have an analytical side and a knack for crafting beautiful user experiences.

What makes product design so interesting is that there’s never a one size fits all approach to problem solving. There’s no right or wrong here. How you approach design problems will be shaped by your customers and their goals. At Xero, our payroll customers and the compliance rules they must follow are detail-oriented by definition.

All this might sound obvious, but I think friction can arise if designers don’t take the time to recognise the influence of their own thinking styles and patterns. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear a designer frustrated by “documentation slowing us down” or want to “lock down a solution asap”. These are two sides of the same coin, and might be avoided with some reflection.

Here’s a few simple questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I bias more towards right or left?
  • Am I uncomfortable with uncertainty (sometimes at the cost of creativity)?
  • Am I avoiding (potentially useful) design methods because they are unfamiliar?
  • Could I approach this problem more objectively?
  • Am I thinking about this problem the same way as my cross-functional partners?

Effective designers should feel empowered to leverage either side of their brain, from beginners mind to the latest and greatest prioritisation framework. With our personal development it might help to purposefully focus some of our time on skills where we do not excel, to balance out our strengths.

By taking a step back and being intentional, we can focus on being more creative or systematic where needed.

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