A good designer is an Emotional Polymath — what?

Polymaths span a significant number of realities.


Daniel Egger

1/28/20213 min read

Adding new significant value to people is possible if we immerse ourselves in their reality. This means reaching beyond our context and understanding different ways of experiencing the world. I think exploring contexts that might initially seem strange is essential.

We logically understand that society is complex, composed of many 'realities within reality.' We filter and select certain people, places, and contacts to simplify this. We create routines and rituals that allow us to navigate the complex environment. The consequence is a closed mental model with many biases.

Kenneth Craik, a remarkable Scottish psychologist, described these as a "small-scale model of external reality." Mental models represent simplified, predefined ways of decision-making, allowing us to react to similar situations before they arise. We create predefined synapses, ways of thinking, and categorization, a world of biases. For any process involving uncertainty and decision-making, it is crucial to cultivate a conscious perception of our reality and surrounding assumptions.

Breaking out!

The future is said to be about experiences, emotions, creativity, and new interactions. Achieving this requires stepping out of our comfort zone. Whether you are a UX or industrial designer, algorithm expert, or business strategist, we all create for people in different realities than our own. We must step outside and question.

To paraphrase Friedrich von Hardenberg, "The goal is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar." Practically, this means connecting with unknown people, learning, listening, and experiencing. We must question critically, dig deeper, and train ourselves to perceive things and feel emotions intuitively.

Emotions are not negative. While researching emotions, some claim they are "for women" or "a sign of weakness." However, designing for emotions is the main differentiator for the future. It empowers us to satisfy people on another level and identify plausible future business solutions.

The future of design lies in emotions. The sad and the happy, trust, and the need for security. Any emotion felt by the people we design for should be respected and understood. Doing so, we gradually transform ourselves into an "emotional polymath" with new mental models about the world, going beyond our filtered reality.

Open-mindedness to create the future

When we talk about the future, many paths exist. Each is nonlinear and full of surprises. Walking these paths means shaping the future and remaining open-minded. Our values might be challenged, beliefs tested, and technology may create realities faster than imagined. We might argue and judge, ignore, and overvalue certain changes. But what we really should do is question and explore why those changes occur.

The future is not about ceteris paribus but the relationship between different parts. Technological progress will transform beyond our imagination, but those who experience these futures are (still) emotional humans with capabilities like creativity and intuition. Both are and will continue to grow in importance for designers, enabling us to connect with different segments of society.


Question: What role does understanding different realities play in adding value to people's lives?

Answer: By immersing ourselves in different realities, we can better understand diverse experiences and perspectives, which is crucial for adding value to people's lives. It enables us to design solutions that cater to various needs and experiences, contributing to more inclusive and effective innovations.

Question: What are mental models, and how do they impact our decision-making?

Answer: Mental models, as described by psychologist Kenneth Craik, are "small-scale models of external reality" representing simplified, predefined ways of decision-making. These models allow us to react swiftly to similar situations, forming predefined thought patterns and biases, which can influence our decisions and interactions with the world.

Question: How is breaking out of comfort zones significant for future design?

Answer: Stepping out of comfort zones allows us to question and explore unfamiliar realities, which is essential for future design. It enables us to make "the familiar strange and the strangely familiar," leading to innovative solutions that cater to diverse experiences, emotions, and interactions.

Question: How are emotions linked to the future of design?

Answer: Emotions are pivotal to the future of design as they are the main differentiator. Designing for emotions allows us to connect on a deeper level with people, helping to identify plausible future solutions for businesses. Respecting and understanding the emotions of those we design for is crucial to creating impactful designs.

Question: What is the importance of open-mindedness in creating the future?

Answer: Open-mindedness is essential in creating the future, allowing us to explore multiple, non-linear paths filled with surprises. It facilitates adaptation to rapidly evolving realities and encourages questioning and exploration, fostering innovative solutions that cater to the emotional needs and capabilities of diverse segments of society.