Your job title as a designer is complete nonsense…

The exponentially wide variety of language currently being used to categorise designers excellence, is causing immense confusion, misinterpretation and the appearance of convolution when one attempts to express his/her design skillet.

I’ve observed a tendency, especially due to the popular nature of the term “UX”, for many to under-appreciate the ambiguous nature of the autodidact designer. The constant adoption of new design ‘buzzwords’ could be considered counter productive and detrimental to the overarching industry. These buzzwords generally have undefined, or extremely subjective terminology which amount to designers, recruiters and companies participating in a massive game of bullsh*t bingo

Endless undefined language

The amount of Skype calls, face-to-face interviews and casual discussions which usually start by the recipient asking you to define, exactly: “‘what do you actually do’ within the digital design industry?” Albeit, on the face of it, it is a fairly simple question. However, you tend to find It can not be answered within a string of words less than a paragraph. Frankly, you can’t even create a pre-scripted “elevator pitch” response to that question either, as it depends on who you’re talking to and why the conversation has arisen.

Only in the design industry it seems, can a simple response not be articulated. Even If you respond with: “I’m an app designer” not only are you perhaps limiting your actual skill-set to the constraints of the vague and subjective interpretation of the phrase: “app designer” (usually to simplify the particular type of work which you’re doing at that moment in time) however, a bunch of immediate questions arise, such as:

So, do you just design the UI? What about the UX? Do you go as far as stepping into Xcode, or the android alternative? How about the custom iconography and photography? Art direction? Just iOS, Just Android? What about UWP? Do you know about the common native design languages such as Google’s Material Design and Apples human interface guidelines?

This occurs due to the lack of specialism in the industry. Therefore, the subsequent amalgamation of various design disciplines, tend to merge beyond recognition — thus creating confusion among various designers (most noticeably across different generations). Ultimately, because of this, when I try to express exactly ‘what I do’ I tend to have ample discussions of the point particularly with the potent notion of the apophatic (what cannot be explicitly said, or directly described, in our current vocabulary).

After seeing so many other designers struggle to categorise themselves in the industry, it did get me thinking - Is there an easier way to define or categorise ourselves as a designers? Why do I, and seemingly so many others, find it so difficult to articulate in this day and age? Why does the term “app designer” or “web designer” for example, seem to attract so many unassuming questions, alongside ambiguity from professionals and amateurs alike?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb highlights in his book: Antifragile how the word “Antifragile” was rationalised. Nassim pulled an interesting reference from Guy Deutsche, who’s an Israeli linguist known for his book Through the Language Glass:

“…many primitive populations, without being colour blind, have verbal designations for only two or three colours. Meaning they could successfully match strings to their corresponding colours, but they do not express these in their vocabularies. These populations are culturally, though not biologically, colour blind.
Ancients even lacked words for something as elementary as blue. The absence of the word “blue” in Ancient Greek explains the reoccurring reference by Homer to the “wine dark sea” (oinopa ponton) which has been quite puzzling for many readers…”

So, this leads me to think; is the digital design industry just in a primitive state of language when it comes to giving designers specific titles and categorisation? Are we lacking the robust vocabulary to express our design excellence? Even though, we can use long strings of existing words in attempt to ample our meaning, and derive a vague understanding, surely we could be more precise?

Will the digital design industry forever be in a primitive state?

With new technology flourishing every single day, the skill set of designers has to evolve constantly. The revolution of the print-press thanks to Gutenberg allowed for design to stay in one place, paving the way for graphic designers and typographers.

Sure, the print press evolved almost every decade; with the introduction of colour, additional materials and imagery etc. Albeit, It was still relatively straight forward to explain who you are and what you did within the design industry. Now though, I find when you’re designing things for much more complex technologies, it makes it a lot harder to categorise yourself.

“UX” for example, is usually associated with web or apps. So you find yourself saying things like: “I’m a UX designer specialising in: ‘(place your hot topic, here)’…”

The problem with this is, especially if you’re someone like me, your speciality changes depending on the time of day as you just don’t participate in one genre of design anymore. As I mentioned earlier, the amalgamation of disciplines are encouraging young designers to consider all aspects of design now, not just a narrow speciality.

It’s immensely difficult to be another John Baskerville, where one traditionally spends 50 years intricately mastering an impeccable skill of creating beautiful typefaces, whilst perfecting a series of printing techniques… those days of mastering a speciality craft are diminishing fast, for more reasons than one.

Matthew Carter talks about this in a TED talk and how a lot of his career has been spent designing typefaces within the constraints of technical limitations. Most of which soon become obsolete due to the rapid evolution in technology. He specifically talks about Verdada typeface which was born out of functionality requirements; it had been designed over the course of 2 years, only to be totally redundant by the time anti-aliasing became the standard rendering format for typography on computer screens

Matthew Carter talking about how typography changes

But this rapid change seems to be only getting faster and faster, so designers have to evolve every single day, constantly checking techcrunch, product hunt, religiously watching tech events such as Apple’s WWDC, Facebook’s F8 and Google’s I/O. — There is always something new. Let me put it this way:

  • Last month you were designing for mobile
  • Last week you were designing for phablets
  • Two days ago you had to consider smart watches
  • Today you have VR/AR
  • Tomorrow? Well, you get the idea…

From my experience, all you need to learn these new skills is: an internet connection, a passion of creatively solving problems and a solid understanding of the foundation of the principles of design.

So, why do a bunch of smart arses feel the need to define job titles such as “UX Designer” on LinkedIn?

If you dismiss Jakob Nielsen’s definition for a moment. As well as the above who I tend to find in my LinkedIn feed… and break “User” and “Experience” apart and analyse the logical semantics; you will fundamentally appreciate that the practice of being “user centric” and designing user experiences doesn’t (and arguably shouldn’t) just apply to digital products. It should be an embedded design philosophy governing all professions which involve user participation.

It doesn’t matter what you’re designing, the interaction between the end product and the person who experiences that piece of design, should be the guiding compass for all design decisions.

For example: door handles, washing machine dials, cockpit interiors, store layouts, cityscapes, motorways, etc. They’re all designed for the people who “use” them. Albeit, the point I’m making is that these things and this phrase doesn’t need to be confined to the digital

So, if the term ‘user experience’ is the single phrase underlining an industry and all the subsequent lexical semantics; it is clear that it becomes near enough impossible to build a foundation of concise design titles (well, without confusing the sh*t out of everyone). Because if we use the words like “user experience” — that term can be applied to almost anything which involves user participation. In theory, a carpenter could be considered a ‘UX designer’…

I am not suggesting we stop using the term ‘UX’. I just figured it would be worth to take it back to what the core language actually represents in order to theorise why design titles have become so discombobulated.

Of course this is likely to upset a lot of Jacob Neilson fanboys, especially those super old user experience designers who have been around long enough to remember Jesus in the 5th grade. Albeit, consider my ramblings as a way to generate dialogue about a definition problem, opposed to slating one of the great UX legends.

I’m very aware “UX” has been a definitive term for a particular aspect of the design industry for the past 35+ years, but lets be honest we‘ve all heard some cracking interpretations of it. After spending over 22% of my life in the modern professional workplace, as a designer across 6 different work environments; I’ve come to the realisation that no company and no one person defines “UX designer” the same… if someone claims they know what a “UX Designer” is, tell them they’re talking out of their ____.

Asking UX’ers to define UX

When I start somewhere new, I will sometimes ask fellow designers to define “UX” in seven words or less, the results are incoherent, nonplussed and vague. Yet ironically, most of the time, each of the projects that their focused on are really specific.

I’m certainly not saying they’re definitions are wrong. Myself, considered a ‘youngster’ in the industry, I’m more than ever governed by my awareness of my own ignorance. But I witness even highly experienced UX’ers (10 years+) tend to have their own slant on it, especially when there is a mix between UI and UX in this day and age.

I enjoy listening to designers perspectives on their definition of UX, as it comes across more personal — it’s like a mantra. Sure, I prefer some definitions better than others, but as a whole, I think I’m happy with it being comfortably undefined. Or better, as a comfortably introspective definition.

You can find multiple videos online from guys who work at various tech companies, you’ll notice they all define it slightly differently. This one below featuring Charlotte Gauthier, Lead UX at the Guardian News and Media was filmed by Tom Cotterill and tackles the new tech phrase “service designer” which is another buzzword adding an additional dimension to our game of bullsh*t bingo

Asking non-design colleagues to define UX

It does get interesting when you start asking non-design colleagues to define UX. You casually hear phrases knocking about the office like: “we need a bit of UX on that” as if it’s metaphorically an ingredient with the same properties as paprika within a curry.

Depending on how much influence design has within the company, It is usually always considered as the final visual element, or the infamous “pretty bits”, never as the base ingredient which fundamentally changes the product direction.

Granted, this tends to occur more frequently among colleagues and companies who’ve never had disposable UX resource before, or are warming up to the true value of embracing UX at the beginning of all product decisions and projects. In these cases, it just takes a bit of time to understand the value and where it should fit in the overarching product cycle...

Tolerating the miss-use of UI/UX

Designers learn to tolerate the miss-use of UI/UX by product managers, tech managers, developers, HR, senior stakeholders and recruiters. We tend to learn to understand it in their context and not make such a nerd-effort to explain but rather another type of effort: to communicate, mostly by being forced to read the mind of that colleague — suspending one’s fear of making mistakes (ironically, it comes down to empathy, which is something all designers should be good at).

But the point is, there Is certainly an uncanny dependence on narratives when you talk about UX with all different manners of people. Remember: you only need a name for the colour blue when you build a narrative, but not an action — the thinker (I.e. the recruiter) lacking a word for “blue” is handicapped; not the doer (I.e. the designer).

Experiencing the experience designer…

Really, for people to understand what the modern term for “UX” is, you need to educate colleagues and recruiters on *your* processes (there’s no such thing as a right or wrong process) — take the time to show the intricacies of particular design methods, patterns and languages. Get them involved, show them sketches, draw on walls and make it part of the company culture. If you’re a designer, this will not only stop your colleagues telling you to “get your crayons out”. However, overtime, when you get a new project you’ll start to encourage senior management to embed UX at the beginning of the development process due to the evident value.

Even better, if you’ve got a good team, they should go as far to invest into research and work with you to define a set of processes which work best for you and your team (Google Design Sprint, Lean UX etc)

The key is for both counterparts to take an interest. Designers don’t want to feel like they’re undervalued or unappreciated as I’m sure they’d be relatively satisfied to act as the ‘pretty paprika’ and then go home at 5:30pm to continue on their personal side projects and build a venture of their own.

It’s imperative that there should be a sense of authentic encouragement and honest intellectual investment from management in order for this process to be initiated. (I can vouch as an INTJ, this has always been important part of the process for me). But equally, UX’ers should be taking a deep interest in understanding things from a managerial business outlook, as well as a technical development perspective — it strengthens the bond between product managers, tech managers and engineers, therefore the technical outcome will always be superior.

Semantics in the workplace…

Even taking the time to challenge particular semantics in the workplace influences how people define their motivations. I see so many companies defining themselves as a “tech company” when surely, in order to be the best in their industry they should be internally identifying themselves as a “user experience company”? Are you building the product for the sake of tech? Or are you building your product for the sake of your users using it?

Airbnb — considered one of the most successful ‘unicorns’, no longer puts their emphasis on tech but instead a huge investment into their in-house design studio, Samara.

Samara is a design studio at Airbnb exploring new attitudes towards sharing and trust. It is a space for these values to continue to evolve beyond travel and hospitality. This is possibly the best example of a company which has championed great design in all aspects from branding, UI, UX, advertising and so on. They’re consistent and evoke emotion.

Conclusion

This post was fuelled by a lot of the constant back-and-forth between recruiters and designers. What I wanted to highlight were the elements which contribute to this universal controversy, or perhaps universal misunderstanding.

Whilst this whirlwind of unspecified ambiguity looms over the industry, your title doesn’t really mean anything. Because you can’t quantify it concisely. And neither can anyone else. I use this blog to express mine and many others frustrations of recruiters, companies and designers attitudes to various designer job titles. They mean nothing. Job titles are only good at encouraging people to build self-imposed boundaries which will always hold people back. Sure, you might be a UI designer — this doesn’t mean you can’t do UX if you wanted too… Maybe you want to dabble into packaging or print design ?— Do it!

The design industry has been diluted in the same way the video and photography industry has been. For as long as technology continues to progress at the same pace it has been, It will continue to get diluted…


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