Dear Designers

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.

This year marks a decade that I’ve been learning from you. Finding my heroes among you. Aspiring to impress you. Ten years ago, I decided I’d try to make a living solving problems using design methodology and I’ve never regretted it.

Last week, I found myself sitting in an immaculate theater in Manhattan listening to a few of those heroes wax poetic about making ideas happen at the 99% Conference. I’ve come home conflicted. My head is full of professional tips and inspiring quotes, but I think we need to have a talk.

Fabulous is fun and all, but our reciprocal flattery is getting us nowhere.

We go on and on about the necessity of diversity, but I gotta tell you: we are not a very diverse bunch. We’ve diluted ourselves into believing that diversity actualizes as nothing more than neutral hiring practices related to things like gender, age, skin color and proclivities in the bedroom. Très shallow! We read the same things. We eat the same things. We buy the same things. We speak the same way. We dress the same way. We vote the same way. And I know all of this because we also talk about ourselves incessantly.

That’s the opposite of diversity.

The majority of designers I know live enviable lives. They’ve designed it that way. The only trouble is that many of them have done too good a job of surrounding themselves with nodding heads. Find a handful of people who hold convictions opposite yours, and instead of responding with mockery or disdain — or worse, apathy — try moving toward them. You may convert them. They may convert you. But either way, you’ll be a better designer.

Admittedly a challenge in her oversized Disney hoodie, but can you fall in love with Jennifer?

The average American is a 37 year-old white woman who lives in New Jersey. Her name is Jennifer. She’s married and has two kids. She works full time and makes about $25,000 a year. She’s a little chubby. She loves her dog and watches a lot of television. She considers herself religious and prays regularly. She does most of her shopping at Walmart and recently purchased the new Nickelback CD for her husband.

These are people you unfriend on Facebook, if you’re even on Facebook. And that’s just the start. Admit it: you sort of hate these people. I’ll need your help with this part, but I’d like us to hold each other accountable to truly understanding and empathizing with the people that we work for. That’s the client. It’s the end user. It’s the target market, and it thinks you’re judging it. And it’s right.

We love to celebrate the wrong things.

Design claims to be about lofty goals like openness, clarity and progress. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but lately we seem more interested in things like exclusivity, celebrity, excess and vulgarity. In our relentless drive to remain relevant, we’ve become very crass.

We’ve taken the charge to be critical as an excuse to be cynical. We eschew wisdom in favor of irony. And, perhaps most damning, we choose fashion over formation. That is to say, we want to take credit for building culture even as we (merrily) chip away at it’s very foundation.

We seem content to build beautiful cogs for hideous machines.

For a group that spends so much time thinking about ourselves, there are some glaring contradictions behind our chic exteriors. We spend our lives making things. Wonderful things. So they will be consumed. Most of us are in pretty deep denial about that last part. The stuff you’re making — whatever that stuff is — is for human consumption. And most of them won’t realize how well kerned the headline is. They’ll have no sense of your obscure cultural reference. Color palette lifted from a little-known Van Gogh? Haven’t the foggiest. But still, because you’re good at your job, they will consume. And while they consume what you’ve made it will shape them. They’ll spend their money and — more valuably — their time. They’ll spend their lives trying to become what you tell them they should be. That’s a pretty huge responsibility. Is what you’re making helping humans flourish?

Never before has there existed such a huge class of well-educated people with such endless resources and a persistent state of global connection. You have access, capital and vision. Just don’t let it go to your head.  It’s not about you.

The world is not yet finished and we have such tremendous opportunities. Opportunities to right wrongs and communicate things that are capital-T-True. Seems to me, this usually happens in ways that are not all that flashy. This kind of design doesn’t win a lot of awards. It is not self seeking. It looks like quiet disciplines and a deference to the people we serve. Seek correction through criticism. Find insight in input from people who are nothing like you. If you’re feeling depressed or cynical, humble yourself to the client. To the team. To the work.

If you’re not interested in doing that, I respectfully ask that you find a different profession and stop besmirching a title that I love: Designer.

23 Replies to “Dear Designers”

  1. This painted a picture of far too many designers I know and have had to work with. They act elite and too good for those that they make a living off of sometimes. Stroking each other’s egos, withdrawing from the real world and focusing only on their design circle. Well said. Thank you!

  2. When I have to tell a designer working with us to chill out, I know that the project will never hit it’s mark. We work really hard to make sure the design process is as truly collaborative as possible. After all: our clients know their audience better than we ever could – we need to let them be a part of the conversation. Projects with healthy collaboration and true understanding are always more successful than “Let us tell you what’s awesome” design demands.

  3. Thank you all for the kind remarks.

    @Andi — I think you’re exactly right. We begin to lose our bearings as soon as we think of the client as an impediment to great work. If we earn their trust by proving the efficacy of our contributions and really listening to them, it frees clients up to be what they typically are: the very best source of much-needed insight.

  4. Thanks for writing this article. “Is what you’re making helping humans flourish?” is the kind of thinking I’d like to see more of in the design community at large. I’d love to gain a critical mass with all those designers focused on creating the next photo-sharing/social/blogging/to-do/how-to app. Let’s join together and focus on bigger problems worth solving, applying design methodology to issues first, not platforms first.

    “Seek correction through criticism. Find insight in input from people who are nothing like you.”

    Designers are problem solvers (and I’m not talking about artists or ‘creative’ designers). To get to the solution part, the majority of the work has to be focused on the problem part. And that comes through seeking insight, criticism and input from people who aren’t designers, from the people who will be consuming the outcome of the design solution. To be a better designer is to be a better communicator, to have a distinguished ability to ask better questions, and to translate and transfer questions and answers seamlessly from one head to another.

  5. “We’ve diluted ourselves into believing that diversity actualizes as nothing more than neutral hiring practices related to things like gender, age, skin color and proclivities in the bedroom. Très shallow!”

    I don’t know if we’ve deluded ourselves into that belief when we haven’t even uniformly applied that practice.

    Maybe your experiences are different from mine, but at most agencies, top-to-bottom, there is a serious lack of cultural diversity.

    It would be naive to disregard that cultural diversity has an affect on sub-cultural diversity. Are we surprised that design has cultivated a sub-culture of elitism and uniformity when at a surface level we’re pretty homogenous? I don’t know how even in jest, it could be called shallow.

    Narrow-mindedness is a prevalent cognitive trait, and arguably it’s not always a problem. The fact that we’re cultural authenticators and communicators puts a burden on us to reduce our narrow-mindedness.

    For instance, your own responsibility in this post, and going with an ironic joke over wisdom.

  6. @Sharlene — Thanks for your insight. I didn’t mean my comments about diversity as an ironic joke — in fact, quite the opposite. I may be missing something, but I think we’re getting at the same thing. When you say ‘The fact that we’re cultural authenticators and communicators puts a burden on us to reduce our narrow-mindedness,’ you hit the nail on the head.

    I’m by no means discounting concerns about a lack of cultural diversity, I’m only questioning whether things like skin color and religion should be the primary litmus test. I would label as narrow-minded any attempt to achieve diversity through a preferential hiring mandate based on those kinds of traits.

    I’d even call it shallow.

  7. Thank you for your insights. I applaud you for your courage and enthusiasm. I have found that when empathy is the top priority, the design is the most successful. Design is a form of communication, therefore, the ethics of that communication should be taken into account.

  8. Needed saying. Irony over wisdom is a huge issue at the moment. Everything responds, refers, is ‘retro’; nothing initiates, changes, makes the future.

    But I wonder if there’s a contradiction in your exhortation to ‘help humans flourish’, not just encourage them to consume, and your agreement with Andi that designers should pay more respect to clients.

    Clients are people who have the money to pay you. They get this money from encouraging people to consume. Often to consume the wrong things, since the wrong things are more profitable, and there is no mechanism within capitalism to correct that.

    The strength of designers in the world is that they only get good at design by having a deep understanding of liberal arts. And the word ‘liberal’ didn’t get in there by accident. People who don’t care about other people don’t make good stuff. That limits how successful they can be. Thank goodness! But only if people who do care refuse to make good stuff under their names.

    Pushing back against clients is exactly what designers are supposed to do and an important way in which designers can change the world for the better. They just need to do it for the right reasons, not because they’re being prima donnas.

  9. Great observation, well said and insightful.

    “Is what you’re making helping humans flourish?”
    -Gives me inspiration behind what I should be doing.

  10. Wow. This is one of the most thought-provoking articles on design I have come across, and I welcome the message. Extremely well-written, and the comments are equally considered. I look forward to reading more! Thank you for putting it out there.

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