Applying Game Theory in your design career

Tips on applying rational thinking in design.

A hand throwing a pair of Kings cards on a poker table.
Image Source

A week ago, Reddit launched Second, a simple experimentation used to test rational thinking. The rules were simple:

2. Users vote for the image they think would be the second most popular.

3. The earlier users vote, the more points they can win or lose and the higher the stakes.

A reddit screenshot of Second.
A reddit screenshot of Second.
Users get a certain amount of time to vote before results are shown. Source:Reddit

What start off as a fun experience turned into users chatting about strategy, philosophy, what they think others would pick, and how to best win the game. I was shockingly bad at the game, but I couldn’t stop playing. Most of the time I just wanted to see the results, which raises the question: is there a strategy to this game, and others like the Monty Hall puzzle? This is the concept of Game Theory.

Game Theory 101

As defined by Investopedia, Game theory is the process of modeling the strategic interaction between two or more players in a situation containing set rules and outcomes. It’s a type of analysis on any situation to help determine the most likely outcome.

A simple real life example of game theory is chess. The rules of the game are known to both players and don’t change, so everyone has all the necessary rules and constraints. Because the players know the possible moves and the effects of those moves, chess is not based on probability and chance. This means that where one player’s move would be affected by a move that their opponent makes.

Your Design Career

That’s all fine and dandy, but how does this help me?

An abstract drawing of a person frustrated.
An abstract drawing of a person frustrated.
At time, we’re the anxious designer. Image Source

While game theory cannot mathematically calculate the projection of our design career or magically carve out an IC or People management path based on our innate desires, there are a few principles I would like to discuss for both new and experienced designers. I also won’t be discussing the strategy of Second or Monty Hall since that’s been discussed many times already.

At a high level, Game Theory has two general models:

A venn diagram describing the differences between non-zero sum and a zero sum theory.
A venn diagram describing the differences between non-zero sum and a zero sum theory.
Image Source

These two approaches have very similar parallels to what I’ve been observing as a designer for the last few years. Let’s trying to apply these models to a design career:

This approach is very similar to a mindset scarcity and mindset of abundance. If you’re a ‘glass half-empty’ type of person, you’re most likely focusing on what you lack that others have. However, a mindset of abundance allows you to have a growth mindset because you view the world as having ‘limitless’ amount of resources. In other words, your gain does not mean someone else’s losses.

In our example above, applying for a design job is not a war. Know that most companies will open more design positions, and you don’t have to compete in a zero-sum model. What does this mean? Don’t be afraid of sharing your portfolio for feedback, or practicing interviews with someone else applying in the same field.

Tip 2: View your overall design career as non-competitive, meaning everyone can win, but keep competitiveness with your own secret sauce as a designer in order to stand out.

Seek Other People’s Opinions

A spectrum of someone happy to someone sad.
A spectrum of someone happy to someone sad.
Image Source

And I don’t mean just your tech and product partners. While those opinions are important, at times they can be too tactical, tunnel-visioned, or within the same echo chamber. One solution is to solicit feedback from people outside your immediate functions. How about the marketing team? Is there a data science team? What about the sales team, the folks who actually are on the front lines talking to customers? What do they think?

The goal isn’t to talk to everyone. But if we want to push ourselves as designers and look beyond what we’re immediately building, we must actively seek how other people view things and make their decisions.

This same principle applies if you’re applying for a job. Don’t just seek perspectives of people who motivate you: “You got this. Keep applying, you just need one yes. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Get people to give constructive feedback or share an opinion you haven’t heard of yet. “I think your portfolio needs some re-working. You need to change this on your resume if you want to stand out. I think your job application strategy isn’t working.”

What I like about this approach is that it helps you view and consider all the possible aspects which is applicable to so many decisions we have to make, just like in our lives.

By studying different ‘game’ forms and practicing the applications, one can start paying more attention to every possible decision of different parties without even noticing. This practice is valuable both to care all people encountered and to understand how we think.

Tip 2: Seek other people’s opinions. Widen your horizons, understand other people’s perspective better, and make wise choices.

Finding an equilibrium

A person walking on a tightrope balancing a brain and a heart.
A person walking on a tightrope balancing a brain and a heart.
Image Source

Seeking other people’s opinions may be great, but what’s the point if you don’t balance it with your own opinion as a designer? After all, we’re in the field of selling ideas, right?

Let’s say there’s you decide to go with one version of a design while a team member disagrees and thinks the other option is better. Due to time and budget constraints you cannot do any user testing (Not an ideal real-world scenario). Both of you think you are the experts and know what’s best for the user, but you’re less confident with the other design. Assuming this happens in your workplace multiple times, how can you optimize for mutual happiness over the course of time?

You can view this common situation as a game. Given the above, a lens of game theory allows you to access how the other person would react given the current information and decisions. That would allow you to reverse engineer the best approach when you present your designs to said teammate that you know most likely would disagree. Do they need to see more data? Are we scoping the right problem, not just the solution? Do they need someone else to chime in?

While we’re not using mathematical equations like in game theory, we are still ‘calculating’ the actions someone might take, such that we create an optimal strategy so that no one has a strong reason to choose another choice of action. You have defined exactly how everyone reactions to a situation.

The best strategies are such that no player has any incentive to choose any “other” choice of action. You’ve zeroed in on how exactly should (or would) both of you react to the situation. This notion is called an equilibrium when analyzing the game mathematically.

Tip 3: See your team as people before seeing them as co-workers. Identify their desires, what ticks them off, and then find an equilibrium with how you work. Treat them the same way we treat our users.


While game theory is traditionally used for economics and business, as designers we can get a glimpse of how economists approach problems. In a world filled with rules, designers push the boundaries in conventional ways of thinking by running blue sky ideation jams and sessions to find innovative ways to solve problems.

While we continue to influence our partners, we should also consider putting a bit of structure in how we approach our work to help us deliver better experiences. Each designer is a rational being that is trying to maximize the value of their own design career. Whenever there’s other people involved, we must also assume the other person is doing the same for their own career. Whether we’re making a career change or working with a new team, we must design ways to build trust and cooperation into our strategy.

I hope this article was helpful in providing an extra lens for your design career, no matter where you are in your journey ❤️.

If you’re interested in learning more about game theory and explaining how we trust or cheat one another, I highly recommend this game:

Product Designer 🖊️ Writing is an outlet for me to learn new topics, share ideas and improve as a creative.

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