Designer vs Developer #4: are designers born or made?

The fourth episode of Google Design Advocate Mustafa Kurtuldu’s YouTube and podcast series aimed at improving understanding between designers and developers looks at nature versus nurture and, in conversation with developer Paul Lewis, asks whether design ability is innate or learned

Mustafa Kurtuldu’s Designer vs Developer series seeks to foster greater understanding between the two camps.

Released every two weeks, each episode deals with a different issue, from effective collaboration to whether too much testing and data ruins the creative process.There will be six episodes, all of which we are featuring here on the CR website.

In episode 4, Kurtuldu talks to Paul Lewis, Developer Advocate on the Google Developers Relations Team, about whether the qualities that make for a good designer (or a good developer) are something you are born with or something that can be acquired – and about how many of those qualities are shared between the two groups.

For each episode, Kurtuldu writes an accompanying essay. This time, he takes the example of Ada Lovelace to examine how much she was the product of her environment, and how much her genius was in the genes:

Imagine you’re Ada Lovelace. Your father is one of the most creative romantic poets of his generation and held up in high esteem by people from around the world. His work is an inspiration to revolutionaries across Europe, moving them emotionally with the flick of his quill. Your mother is accomplished in multiple fields including science and philosophy and committed to social causes such as prison reform and the abolition of slavery. Her mathematical skills are so advanced that your father called her the “princess of parallelograms.”

Both the genes you inherit and the environment you are brought up in would make you one of the most accomplished creatives in history. And that’s who Ada Lovelace was. At a time when women were looked down upon as intellectually inferior to men, she proved British society wrong by authoring the world’s first computer program. She even fixed significant errors in Charles Babbage’s calculations for his Analytical Engine, an early computer prototype.

Was Ada born to be this creative? Or was it the environment? The deeper question I am asking is what makes a person ‘good’ at something? As the saying goes; “talent without energy — you will be a pauper, energy without talent — you will be a princess and talent with energy — you will be a Queen.” Without the energy to see things through it doesn’t matter how talented you are.

Ada Lovelace. Artist: Alfred Edward Chalon, licence: public domain

Of course, there is another part of this equation, and that is our privilege. Despite Ada being born into a wealthy family, having private tutelage, being a polymath, having genius parents of both creative and scientific backgrounds — there were people who undermined her work. Even when she was dying from cancer, some doctors told her that her illness was due to her overexerting herself with maths.

Privilege is one of those things I have always found difficult to cope with. Being a minority in the industry, it feels it has taken me longer to get to a place where I feel comfortable in my skin. Sometimes I see others who are under the impression that talent alone got them to where they are; they are completely oblivious to their privilege. Then I remember Lady Lovelace, and I am reminded that the challenges women face are far greater than I could ever understand. I suppose the point isn’t to try and pretend to know what it is like to be someone who is at a huge disadvantage but to acknowledge our own privilege, the power that it has, and the blind spots it gives us. We must continually check ourselves and prevent ourselves from abusing that power.

Some people get angry at this idea because the acknowledgment of their privilege is deeply uncomfortable to them. They think by checking themselves, they have to give something up and sacrifice their own career. When you have never had to fight for your right to be recognised, any suggestion of making room for other people is seen as a travesty. In fact the opposite is true, as we can benefit hugely by being a diverse environment. By opening up, we give ourselves the opportunity to grow. A study published by the New York Times showed that being in a diverse group can make people smarter“Diversity prompts better critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation.” It is a shame that I have to point out a selfish benefit to promote something that seems like the right thing to do, but if it gets the job done — then so be it.

So is it nature or nurture? It doesn’t matter, so long as we get on with it and explore our passion without leaving ourselves with any regrets or excuses. Sometimes it will take longer, and yes that does seem unfair. But we have to keep on going, so long as there is that burning desire to design and develop we have to try and push society forward and change things for the better. Because if there is anything that we can learn from Ada Lovelace, it is that it is the passion for what we do that makes us who we are.

This article is inspired by a conversation I had with for our Google Chrome Developers YouTube series called “Designer Vs. Developer”. You can also listen to a longer version of the conversation by downloading our podcast.

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