Why Designers Need to Share What We Do
Thoughts on furthering our profession
Originally written for GOOD.
Most people are still, unfortunately, mystified by design and designers. Among the most egregious misconceptions: that our profession is defined solely by aesthetics and decoration; that practitioners tend to be “moody, erratic, eccentric, and arrogant”; and that we even require specific management methods to function properly in organizations. Too often these misconceptions and more lead to design being confined to a frivolous box that separates us from other fields and limits the scope of our impact.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with a designer who specializes in visual craft, but the creative process easily stretches beyond — it inherently makes us innovators and changemakers. Can you think of any other profession that looks at problems with an open and empathetic mind in order to create from an infinite amount of possibilities intelligent, appealing solutions? It’s a shame that this mindset is so often limited to aesthetics when design can robustly handle some of society’s most complex issues and even augment other practices. In fact, social scientist Herbert Simon says anything concerned “not with how things are but with how they might be” — among which he cites engineering, medicine, and business — is actually design.
Designers: in order to show non-designers the real value we can contribute, advocate for our profession in a rapidly developing and changing world, and help build a better world in which more people are creative problem solvers…
We have to articulate our profession in non-design terminology.
Design plays well with others, but that doesn’t become obvious until we’re on the same page. Avoid using industry jargon in favor of layman’s terms. Design is also better explained using objectives (“I wanted to make this easier for people to use…”) in addition to decisions (“… by consolidating this feature.”) because it highlights your rationale and eliminates the ridiculous notion that designers make random creative decisions.
Try sharing your work with your non-design colleagues and/or friends. Field their questions and try to draw relationships between your respective fields. You can even ask them to join you during your process — they’ll be able to contribute to what you’re working on while also gaining an understanding for what you do. If you’re bold, try sharing what you do publicly (Pecha kucha is a great first step).
We have to be able to teach our profession to others.
We didn’t learn our discipline through textbooks because design can’t be adequately conveyed via description or explanation — doing is really the best and only way to understand it. Student leaders of Design for America regularly lead workshops at the Better World by Design conference and at college campuses around the country, and some of the most rewarding things that students studying everything from biology to economics have said to me afterward was how they gained a whole new way of looking at and solving problems, that the design process has changed the way they understand their major. When you teach, you are not just furthering the profession of design; you are encouraging people to be more engaged citizens, challenging them to think about the world not as it is but how it could be, and empowering them to use their talents to create change.
Why not try leading workshops (here’s a resource from Stanford’s d.school) to practice teaching the design process? Start small, maybe with a few friends or colleagues, and work your way up to larger or more formal groups (a la Skillshare). If there are opportunities, consider sharing your knowledge at a local educational institution.
We should strive to be change makers and leaders in our communities.
I laughed out loud when Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote that creative people are “rarely gifted with leadership skills” in his Harvard Business Review article. The designers I know are naturally driven and passionate, undoubtedly capable of creating impact. By showing people that our work has the ability to affect significant change, we’re challenging traditional notions of design while also improving the world we live in.
Lead or contribute your skills to projects in your community (try OpenIDEO or GOOD.is) that bring together designers and/or non-designers to solve a problem. Consider joining or mentoring a Design for America team and partnering with students to create change. Maybe even start your own initiative related to a cause you believe in.
As designers, we already recognize the potential of our profession; now it’s up to us to show its value to our colleagues and peers. This is especially important with a field as broadly applicable and highly collaborative as ours, and in a society with more wicked problems than ever. We can’t afford to limit — or allow others to limit — our practice; we have to be able to share and empower others through design in order to build a better world together.