How photography made me a better designer

5 reasons why photography is the best hobby for designers

If you are a full-time designer like myself, you’d be surprised at what you can do with photography, and how it can help you in improving your design skills. I personally know that there are a lot of designers use photography as their side hobby and some even offer freelance services to make a side income. I also learned a huge amount of lessons and experiences from this hobby.

The objective of this post is to share some key takeaways that, hopefully, will be valuable to other fellow designers out there. (This post will not be covering the technical side of taking photos.)

1. Build empathy

I love to capture stories of people going about their daily lives. When I’m photographing people and their environment, I would often try to spend some time with the subject before clicking the shutter button. In many cases, I’ll try to have normal conversations with them and also listen to their stories. By spending more time building the rapport, I’m able to better connect with the subject and in return make them feel valued and respected. By allowing myself to immerse in this whole process, it helps put my own life in perspective and make me a more compassionate individual, something that is important in the world we live in today.

“Without the participation of intuition, sensibility, and understanding, photography is nothing. All these faculties must be closely harnessed, and it is then that the capture of a rare picture becomes a real physical delight. ”
— Henri Cartier-Bresson

2. Deep observation

One of the most important interpersonal skills being a designer is deep observation. Designers are naturally curious people. We are the type who is constantly fuelled by the desire to know. In design, I’m not just talking about having an eye for UI details and spacing, but also being inquisitive about our end users and their behaviours. Dig deeper into their needs to try to uncover all the ‘why’s.

Deep observation demands not just the eyes but all the senses, and with photography, it gives me the opportunity to practice this skill on the highest level.

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
— Albert Einstein

3. Embrace the Beginner’s mindset

The beginner’s mindset refers to maintaining an attitude of openness, eagerness without thinking about achieving anything. I’ve learned that in order to be good at photography (or anything), I need an exceptional amount of deliberate practice. Don’t be ashamed of failures, it’s okay if the result didn’t turn out well as long as you are eager to learn and grow.

Most of us have these bunch of assumptions in our head that keep us from seeing new opportunities. This expert blindness symptom is the death of creativity. Henri Cartier Bresson was great because he spent a tremendous amount of time consciously perfecting his crafts.

“In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

4. It’s the process, not the tools

For my photography setup, I’m using with the ‘one lens, one camera’ approach. The popular belief that “more lenses and gears = more creative, better picture” is a myth. Acquiring a lot of equipment in terms of lenses and accessories won’t necessarily improve your photography,

If we are always thinking of which lens to put on before taking a picture, we will never be able to truly enjoy the whole shooting experience. And worse it’s that they tend to confuse you and can slow down your workflow.

Most designers always wanted to stay up to date on the latest design-related tools. Take prototyping tools as an example, there are so many different tools out there like Principle App, Figma, and many more.

I think that it’s good to try bits of everything. However, always ask yourself, 
1. “Will this XYZ tool helps me in improving my current design workflow?
2. “Will this XYZ tool enables me to achieve better results (deliverables and time)?

Pick a tool that will take less time and effort to complete a task, like using Keynote for rapid-prototyping. Having to know more tools will not make you a better designer. What’s important is knowing which set of design processes to use within the given context and timeline.

“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

5. Simplicity

The ultimate goal of photography conveys a message to your viewers. Hence, to achieve that goal, a photo needs to have good composition, colours, subject matter, and lighting. When I’m taking pictures, I will try to see which elements in the scene that I can leave out to make the overall message stronger. Random objects and glaring elements in a photo can distract your viewers to focus on the main subject and its story.

This is very true with design, too. The design that we create must be able to address specific pain points and at the same time, support the business objectives. There is no room for fancy and clueless UIs that ended up looking ‘nice’ but unusable.

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” — Ansel Adams

Final notes…

Lastly, my journey to become a better photographer have been a steep learning curve, I am very grateful for all the feedback from peers and professionals. The more I shoot, the more I learn as there are always new ways to approach things not just in photography, but also in design.

Photography shouldn’t be reserved for selfies. Every shot captures a unique moment to tell a story. There is something about the story of an image that opens up for interesting conversation and discussion. Well, the same goes for design, we should not design ‘nice’ things for the sake of attention, instead, we should focus purely on solving real user problems.


1. Build empathy
2. Deep observation
3. Embrace the Beginner’s mindset
4. It’s the process, not the tools
5. Simplicity (Keep in simple)

I am always open to hearing your stories and lessons. Share your thoughts in the comments!

Thank you!
Twitter @choongchingteo

Lessons Learned from running Sketchstorming workshops

Sketchstorming session at UX Copenhagen 2018

Sketchstorming session at Viki Office

Just like any other skillset, the only way for you to be good at it is to keep doing it. This is the same for facilitating design workshops. Over the years, I had the opportunity to facilitate many Sketchstorming sessions.

Along the way, I’ve clustered a few big areas that need improvements. Most of them are the mistakes that I have personally made in the past while conducting these workshops, and many of them were feedback given by participants themselves.

I hope this sharing will benefit those designers who are planning to run their first similar ideation workshop in the future.

“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.” — Anton Chekhov

Mistake 1: Lack of warm-up prior to the session

Your colleagues who will be joining the workshop might have just got out from another meeting. While they might be physically present in the room, their mind might still be thinking about other discussions.

To get them into the mood, I will always start by instructing them to sketch the 30 circles exercise. This helps them to loosen up a bit and get into the momentum of sketching more later.

Participants weren’t prepared for what they have to do for the session. Many wasn’t that enthusiastic to do sketching and sharing. Always get them to do warm-up exercises before the real fun starts.

Mistake 2: Design challenge too broad

What are the goals of this session? State clearly in your meeting invites with notes on the objectives of the session. As for the design problem, make sure that they are not too narrow or too broad. Print out the problem statement on a big piece of paper and paste it on the wall, this is to make sure that everyone will stay focused on the same topic. A well-framed problem statement helps the team to generate more impactful of ideas.

Too broad: What can we do for John’s birthday?
Too narrow: What kind of birthday dinner celebration we should do for John?Just right: What is the most memorable birthday experience we could do for John?

Framed design problems were often too narrowed or too specific. Resulted in a vast of similar ideas from the group. Always identify the objectives with your team members prior to every session.

Mistake 3: Invited the wrong group of participants

When you put together a group of people from diverse industries and disciplines into your ideation session, the chances of getting fresh and unfamiliar ideas will be way higher than a team of designers from the department.

Breakthrough ideas happen not from same industries or disciplines, but rather across them, says Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect: “When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas.”

Here is the list of people that I will invite them into the room:

  • Customer Support (CX)
  • Front-end engineer (Dev)
  • Project Manager (PM)
  • Researcher (UX)
  • Designer (UX)
  • Back-end engineer (Dev)
  • TL:DR:
    Sketching sessions ended up with lots of repetitive ideas. Always invite a diverse group of people that are able to give unique perspectives for the given challenge.

    4. Lack of Supplies

    As a facilitator, it can be helpful to keep a pile of supplies in the office. There’s nothing worse when your participants are ready to brainstorm and you only have a dozen of dried-out sharpies! This may seem trivial but believe me, it happened to me a couple of times before.

    Always be sure you have all the supplies needed and prepared. Always prepare a supply checklist: colourful post-its, sharpies, Blu-Tac, stickers and stacks of papers are must-haves.

    5. Unsuitable venue and space

    Where will the workshop be held? How many participants will be attending? Is space brightly lit? The venue should feel inviting and open to encourage sharing among the team.

    From my experience, I tend to book a large room with tables and chairs that can be moved around easily, so that participants can have the flexibility to move around to draw or discuss in groups.

    Make sure there’s plenty of wall space and whiteboards as this conveys a sense of being invited and will encourage sharing among the team.

    Picked the right types of rooms for sketching sessions. Make sure that space/location is suitable for individuals to do what works for them to stay focused and ‘in the zone.’

    Mistake 6: Poor time management

    Timing activities efficiently is a skill. Always estimate and forecast how long a session will take. Spend time planning the flow of the session and its objectives so that it makes the best use out of everyone’s time. It may be a little more work for you — but it will be a better experience for the participants.

    The sketching sessions can sometimes extend longer than it was initially planned for due to some off-topic chats between the participants. So to manage the class well and instruct the participants to quiet down so that the session can end on time without any unnecessary interruption.

    Sessions seem to be getting longer and generating fewer results. Set a strict time limit for your meeting and make sure you stick to it! Encourage participants to stay on track and focus on producing as many ideas as possible within the allocated time frame.

    Mistake 7: Insufficient time for reflections

    Reflective conversations are important in any learning process. I would open up the floor for a 10 to 15 min conversation. Everyone has an equal opportunity to be part of this conversation. There will be some dominant voices in the group, do give the opportunity for the introverts to speak up.

    One way to easily incorporate reflection is by asking your group debriefing questions after the activities. I would often prompt questions like:

    • Tell me your impressions about how that went
    • What surprises you the most?
    • Which part do you struggle with the most? Why?
    • If you could go back and do the same task again, what would you do differently?
    • How were decisions made? Were everybody’s ideas listened to?

      Always try to allocate time for group reflection because it allows participants to look back on, think critically about, and learn from their past experience. This may include observations and ideas about anything regarding the session.


    So there you have it — these are the main challenges that I faced when facilitating Sketchstorming workshops. Here are the summary of the key mistakes:

  • Lack of warm-up prior to the session
  • Design challenge too broad
  • Invited the wrong group of participants
  • Lack of supplies
  • Unsuitable venue and space
  • Poor time management
  • Insufficient time for reflections

    I am still learning, day by day, to be a better facilitator. I believe that the best way to grow is to embrace your mistakes and learn from them. Any other useful tips for running an effective ideation workshop? I am always open to hearing your stories and lessons. Share your thoughts in the comments!

    Thank you!
    Twitter @choongchingteo
  • 1
    Using Format