Check Your Design Ego

“You’re one of the most humble designers I’ve worked with. It’s very refreshing,” said a new coworker to me in an off-hand way. She’s recently joined our small team from a sizable and successful startup, and I pressed her to elaborate. She obliged, saying that in the last few years the San Francisco design community has become rather stuck up and full of itself.

Hm…. How do I process that? On one hand, ooh, a lovely complement — thank you! On the other, damn, is that really true? Have designers been coddled and raised to hero status only to degrade from magical unicorns into stubborn rhinos? — a definite staple in every zoo, but honestly, would’t you rather see the penguins?

I’m quite proud to be a designer and feel lucky to be living in today’s renaissance of design. It’s a fact that in the last decade, design started to get the level of respect, previously reserved solely for engineering. To clarify — it’s really a handful of great designers who’ve pushed our craft up the totem pole, showing what design can do for a business. In their hands, we’ve watched products become smarter, sexier, and more awesomer. These design champions had launched an appreciation for design, which has apparently snowballed into plain, ugly design arrogance.

My daily diet includes perusing a good few design publications, as I’m sure is true for many in the industry (or at least we reverently pretend it is. But that’s for another time). And there’s plenty of reading material to satisfy my commuting needs. There are articles about the virtues of design process, blog posts detailing today’s best design tools (because there is the inevitable new list for tomorrow), and let’s not underestimate the intoxicating draw of some mindless eye candy. Dribbble is not evil. We’re all apparently just very jealous.

I’ve written a few of those articles myself, and damn proud for it. A little confirmation bias doesn’t hurt anyone, right? Only, maybe it already has. Maybe instead of fighting for design, we’re just fueling for our design egos. And our co-workers are starting to notice it.

So how did it happen? The basis of product design is design thinking. And the base of design thinking is empathy — the fact that we have to look outside ourselves to get insights for building useful products. It simply means that we don’t have all the answers. How someone can be arrogant and empathetic at the same time is beyond me.

Designers are ambitious. They must be if they want their chance at success. They should want to design better. Period. They should want those millions of app downloads. They should want to fix the kerning of the world. I certainly do! Everyday on the train, I stare at the emergency exit sign and everyday one of its numerous flaws in particular kills me just a little. I know it’s there. I know it’s not going to change. And I look at it everyday.

The arrow is not parallel. Why isn’t it parallel? Didn’t they see it’s not parallel?! What’s wrong with you people?!!

But ambition is not arrogance, let’s not get confused. Ambitious people are a great asset on any team. They make decisions and move projects forward. Arrogant people are just unpleasant to work with and should go find other arrogant people to cohort with, so they can aggravate and out-arrogant each other.

That short conversation got me a little worried about us, my fellow designers. Granted, I get worry a lot, about a lot of stuff. But the bottom line is that I want to design products with lovely and talented designers. I want to share the success and learn from the failures. I want to work through problems together and have everyone pushing each other to do great work.

One thing for certain — I don’t want to work with a rhino.

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