niblettes | Tasty Little Nuggets of Design and Innovation Goodness

Stylists != Designers

Designers and stylists are synonymous in popular conception–and in the minds of many stylists. The reality, however, is that they aren’t the same at all.

In a previous post I took a stab at visualizing a certain perspective on the cognitive capabilities that distinguish designers from stylists.

Then recently I read Developers are from Mars, Programmers are from Venus on Hacknot which describes a nearly identical situation in software engineering. Developers and programmers are also vastly different, in many of the same ways designers and stylists differ.

Taking this article as a model, here are some of the key difference (some tongue-in-cheek, some entirely serious) between designers and stylists:

Stylists Designers
Fussy pixel-perfectionists who delight in the minute decorative details of the artifact Appreciate the fine details, but understand that they are only a small, occasionally self-indulgent part of what they do
Desireability is primary concern Utility is primary concern
Shy away from the business (the goals, the models, the metrics, etc) The business is like their second job, its success or failure is a key measure of their design work
Tactical Strategic
Remains firmly entrenched in their own idiosyncratic subjectivities Work very hard to get out of their own head, and see the world through their clients’ and users’ eyes
Obsessed with what’s cool Obsessed with what works for clients and users
Doxa Episteme
The solution to any business problem is slicker style (especially if they can make it look like an iPod) Many solutions often need to be knitted together from multiple disciplines, and harmonizing them together can be more difficult than identifying them individually
Intuition Process
The ego, the icon, the personality, the signature, the rockstar The market need, the multi-disciplinary team, edge competencies
Aesthetics of complexity–what better way to inspire the awe your self-evident superiority deserves Philosophy of simplicity–what better way to help people achieve their goals, create market value, and turn a tidy profit

By skill, approach, values and temperament, designers are very different from stylists. And just as the developer can program but the programmer can’t develop, so the designer can style but the stylist cannot design.

38 Responses to “Stylists != Designers”

  1. niti Says:

    Sweet! I wanna be a designer too!

  2. Innovation Zen Says:

    Many companies are starting to approach designers to employ them as managers, which reveal that being able to “design” is something valuable under many perspectives.

  3. Eboy007 Says:

    Wouldn’t the most successful approach be to be a designer(by your definition) who is able to make things look stylish and cool? Isn’t that what they do at Apple? Are you justifying the existance of those sad designers who can’t make things look good and be good for users and clients at the same time? There isn’t a design school in the US consistently turning out graduates who can please clients users and their own egos.

  4. Jeff Says:

    Life expectancy and sustainability is the metric. And today, sustailability is the mantra.The old fart designers of yesteryear still serve us well with their useable design… Thank you Ray and Charles Eames, Henry Dreyfus, Elliot Noyes, Isamu Noguchi, Christian Dell, Joe Columbo, Eva Zeisel, Marcel Breuer, Max Bill, Mario Bellini, Richard Sapper, George Nelson, Arne Jacobsen, Raymond Loewy, D.J DePree and Herman Miller; not to mention all the wonderful faceless industrial designers that never made it to the hall of fame. These designers had a passion for making a better objects for humanity. They were concerned about making beautiful objects for people. They were far less concerned about their sex appeal. Now, where are the famous stylists from back then… I cannot easily find find “their creations”

  5. niblettes Says:


    Yes just as developers can program, so to designers can style. Apple is a good example of the power of style, not design. I’ve owned Apples and PCs. With the help of eBay I now only own PCs.

    I’m not trying to justify anything. But i do think what is sadder are stylists who pretend to be designer. Its a pose and a fraud. And they damage the entire design profession.

    Unfortuantely I agree with your last statement. And unfortunately ego seems to come first, with clients second and users bringing up the rear. My experience with design school is that it is an abysmal waste of time and money.


    I don’t think you’ve gone far enough. For instance Dreyfuss was concerned primarily with a product’s usefulness. And his genius was to make beauty serve utility rather than ignore it or let it remain an end itself. I have one of his phones sitting next to a new Nortel phone–it holds up very well.

  6.» Blog Archive » links for 2006-10-24 Says:

    [...] Stylists != Designers Designers and stylists are synonymous in popular conception–and in the minds of many stylists. The reality, however, is that they aren’t the same at all. (tags: visual design business) [...]

  7. Paul Kirley Says:

    Designers of worth have style, and utilize it in concert with function while remaining aware of client needs, business goals, environmental impact, ergonomic performance, user safety and many other project specific, case specific needs, wants and desires …. Products that inspire users become symbols, marking technological advances and innovations in time. It is these products that are the iconic artifacts of human existence, like it or not. Some of these products excel aesthetically, some in function and some in pure pop, viral style. The true designer of worth can create concepts to meet anyone of these challenges.
    Design is a mix of innovative intellect and artistic intuition. To simplify, and divide the intellect from the artistic qualities in design is a mistake. The intention of the dismissing the relevance of style (often the product of the artistic, often driven by the needs of marketing) is another grave error. This is a great way for a person with little wisdom, an incomplete or lop-sided skill set, zero global awareness, low self esteem and a blog to rant like a naive teenager, pleading for attention from like minded, mediocre individuals.

  8. niblettes Says:


    You seem to have taken offense… at least enough offense to take some rather cheap shots. The only people I could imagine taking offense would be image-over-substance stylists whose naked emperor has been called out. Thanks for identifying yourself.

    One of the most basic distinctions between designers and stylists is that stylists have little capacity for critical thought. Their muddled thinking manifests itself in muddled communication. Their writing especially betrays this. Your writing especially betrays this.

    “Designers of worth have style.” Perhaps from a narrow, ghettoized (you sound like an industrial designer—sorry, some of my favorite designers are IDs) perspective a sense of style is essential. But what use is style in information system design? Service design? The design of new processes?? Perhaps if you torture the word “style” enough you can make it relevant, but that would be entirely uncharitable. Design is not about looking cool, or one subjectivity’s expression. It is fundamentally about solving the problems people experience (something stylists forget, ignore and deny no matter how often you remind them).

    “Products that inspire users become symbols, marking technological advances and innovations in time.” This is the kind of empty gibberish one finds on ID firm sales brochures. Its marketese. It says nothing. Inspire to what? Symbols of what? What does marking an innovation in time even mean??

    “Design is a mix of innovative intellect and artistic intuition.” Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Design can often succeed simply by discovering mundane solutions from distant domains that can be easily adapted to the problems at hand. No innovation, not much intellect, and certainly no artistic intuition. Just some plain old pragmatic critical thought, genuine curiosity in the world and people, and a will to keep an open mind.

    I won’t waste anymore space picking apart the meaninglessness of most of what you wrote. Sufice it to say, you don’t seem to be in control of your words. That’s telling.

    It seems I’ll have to take you by the hand, and slowly explain what I said. Nowhere did I dismiss the relevance of style. I dismissed the primacy of style. Surely you grasp the difference between prioritization and exclusion? Indeed style is a large part of a product’s desirability–scroll down a couple of posts and you’ll see how important desirability is to design in an iNPD model.

    Besides, just as the developer can do everything a programmer can so too can the designer do everything a stylist can do. What makes developers and designers more valuable is that they can do so much more, and put it all into proper context. I think I said that. Didn’t you read it?

    You’ll have to explain what global awareness (I’ve lived in 8 cities, in 3 countries on 2 continents) and self-esteem have to do with this issue? Perhaps if i knew more about Nepal’s royal family history I would come to believe, like you seem to, that style trumps substance (I’m assuming that’s your position, since mine is the opposite and I’ve offended you by it)?

    And “rant like a naive teenager.” Dude, please, if that were true i would have posted this to MySpace. I don’t even have a MySpace account so clearly I’m no teenager.

    I’m not sure I’ve pleaded anyone, least of all for attention. Care to specify why you think this? Unless you’re just talking out of you ass. Which is okay too.

    And lastly, does your judgment of my mediocrity (and the mediocrity of anyone and everyone who has, does and will agree with me) come from a recognition of a similar mediocrity in yourself, or from your superiority over us? Just curious.

  9. Paul Kirley Says:

    Brilliant and righteous response,
    In my haste I missed the comment “so the designer can style but the stylist cannot design”.
    My response was equally hasty as I left the studio the other day. The other personal comments came as a result of my stream of babble I spontaneously dropped in a fit of poorly constructed, insensitive, off the cuff anger and muddle pulled from my bottom side. There is no excuse suitable for my entry. In review of your response I feel that I owe you an appoligy. You are an individual with strong convictions, care and eloquence.
    Well done.

    Paul Kirley

  10. DT Says:

    Its a great article, but do you consider and align Karim on the left as a stylist? Hope not, cos that was what I thought of him and was proven wrong. Sure he may come across as fruitty, but after sitting thru one of his talks, I must say that man is every bit of a business animal one can be.

    Personally, I would divide your column into 3, Stylist|Designer|Product or Marketing Manager. This is because your points though valid, seem a little extreme and to the poles. In reality not all designers nor stylists behave in this way. Not anyone of any repute that it. Thus I would plonk Designer as the person inbetween, and leave the business focus to that of a product manager.

    In reality a designer has to wear both hats and often may have to juggle the requirements of both ends, often giving up or giving into conditions he may or may not want.

  11. niblettes Says:


    Its good to see you back here again!

    Ah Karim (that man–or at least his pubic persona–does irk me). I have no doubt he is very business savvy. But business acumen isn’t necessarily incompatible with being a stylist. He is without question a very successful stylist, but a stylist none-the-less.

    Yes I admit to being just a little polemical with this post. And yes, like all generalizations, these certainly do not apply to all designers and/or stylists. In my defense though, i was following by analogy, the structure proposed in HackNot for the differences between programmers and developers.

    And yes I agree that the designer has to wear both hats (plus a few others). This is part of what distinguished a designer from a stylists.

  12. DT Says:

    Hi Niblettes,

    Yup I’m always here, but often lurking!

    Good explaination and good read all and all.



  13. niblettes » Blog Archive » The Complexities of Style - Tasty Little Nuggets of Design and Innovation Goodness - from Vancouver BC Says:

    [...] Here is another example of the stylists aesthetic of complexity–as opposed to the designer’s philosophy of simplicity (check out Stylists != Designers). [...]

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