Why I Hate Telling People That I’m a Designer
Okay, before I begin:
I was going to write a positive article, really; but two events happened in tandem that sparked the fuel necessary for this article. The first: a lunch conversation where three engineers and I discussed how we don’t like telling others our profession even in the Bay Area (looking at you, antique cigarette lighter repairman). The second: Mule Design’s Question Diversity event as part of this year’s SF Design Week, where I witnessed nearly every panelist admit their discomfort in revealing their profession as a designer, be it for ethical, identity, marginalization, or anything-else-you-can-imagine reasons. I spent my bus ride home contemplating and, at the end of it all, realizing that I, too, hate telling folks I’m a designer.
Now, by folks, I mean almost everyone. When you go to a university that’s nearly trademarked design thinking and offers it for a price of only a quarter million dollars from a “school” that doesn’t actually give out degrees (Fun fact: the School of Engineering grants degrees, not the d.school), being a designer just…happens. You say you’re a design student, and that you’re learning design, and everything is designed — your classes, your extracurriculars, your life. But everyone gets it. The areas between UI, UX, interaction, and product have yet to be matured and defined, but it’s close enough that people smile and nod during conversation.
Then you go out into the world and drop yourself into the Cartesian grid of the profession designer, where the axes are labeled “would you like to be able to sleep at night” and “how much of a masochist are you.” Yikes.
When I go home to my parents, I try to tell them what I do, but it goes way above their heads. They’re not the most technical (as in, my-mom-forbids-a-microwave-in-the-house-because-she-won’t-“know-how-to-use-it”-ever technical), and only recently did they convert to smartphones. It wasn’t until last Christmas that I sat my dad down, made him open Facebook, and said, “You see all those buttons and how things are laid out? And how you know how to post a photo, or a status, or comment? That’s my job, but with a different product.” It kind of clicked, since my mom now thinks I’m IT and my dad says I do “some sort of internet thing.”
But it’s not the inability to explain what I do to them that I hate. I couldn’t care less. In fact, they’re the reason why I became a designer. I grew up in my mom’s in-house daycare and knew empathy before it was a buzzword. My dad was a set designer turned barber turned mechanic who taught me everything I knew about pre-college manufacturing and engineering. Neither had a secondary education, but they did what they could in between bouts of love that would allow me to become a financially aided first-gen Latin@ and actively pursue a career that I love.
And yes, while I hate saying it, I love being a designer. I enjoy tackling complex problems, talking to users, having a say in strategy, and working with engineers to figure out what to compromise on so our users suffer less.
And yet, I hate what my role as a designer has done to other people.
I hate that I make my mom’s hourly wage in 15 minutes, and yet she works much harder than I do sitting at my desk.
I feel a massive disconnect when my dad texts me about having to cap a two inch active waste line (Yes, as in where your feces go after you flush) first thing in the morning because his resilience and dedication to his daughter allowed her to “be better” than his line of work.
I hate that the industry I work for is pushing out families and friends who, just a few hundred miles away, son mi familia — tíos, amigos, neighbors, and people who have dreams for their children. The punishment is unwarranted, their crime an unfortunate farce of not having the resources and accessibility to education and funds that more fortunate and privileged folks have.
And I certainly don’t appreciate the lack of awareness (let alone acceptance) some of my colleagues have over their ethical and political footprint of their solutions and products. Really, it blows my mind when I meet such apathetic designers. You’re a walking paradox.
I hate telling people that I’m a designer because when I do, I get a fat reality check that I am a representative and part of the problem with the profession I love, and that I’m hurting the same community I came from. I’m sick and tired of trying to start this conversation only for it to fall silent.
And yet, I’m still here. I’ve been a UX, interaction, then product designer for almost two years, and the most expensive piece of paper I own still says “BS Engineering, Product Design.” But there’s a strange comfort in knowing now, more than ever, I’m not alone in how I feel.
There’s an even better feeling when I can take the education I received and pass on the same skillset to disadvantaged youth who have never seen a person of color, female, or their kin as this strange profession. The look on their faces when they say, “I want to be you when I grow up,” makes everyday I work with Inneract Project worth it.
And, through all the rock-climbing, craft alcohol and technology-obsessed bullshit, designers from ethnicity, identity, sexuality, and other based-minority groups can fight for representation in this space and for a (slightly) better world, or at least even the playing field for the generations like us, after us.
So I’ll keep clicking away at my standing desk and answering my parent’s late night tech support questions. I’ll tell you I’m Techie Scum, because let’s face it, I am. And I’ll follow up with how I’m paying it forward to youth, the arts, and LGBTQ+ businesses. With the abilities I have as a storyteller, empathizer, and problem solver (or, ew, a designer), it’s the least I can do.