The Designer’s Bias

A few years ago, I saw a presentation from a creative director about how he helped brand an experimental elementary school. Before he shared his work, he said: “We promoted the school through videos on YouTube. My first job was as a filmmaker, so every time I see a problem, I want to solve it with a film.”

Since then, I’ve heard hundreds of people make the same kind of statement in everyday conversation: “I’m an engineer, so every problem can be solved with software… I’m an architect, so every problem can be solved with a building… I’m a carpenter, so every problem can be solved with a table.”

There’s a bias operating here. Let’s sum it up as: Every problem I encounter can be solved with things I have the training and skills to make.

Biases are neither good nor bad. They simply are. But we need to acknowledge our biases explicitly if we want to create our best work as designers.

There’s good reason for this. Go back to the statement above, about the carpenter. Let’s not treat it as a joke. Let’s play it out.

Give a carpenter a problem, and the solution will probably contain wood, concrete, or other forms of joinery. The tools she has available will be biased towards working with those materials: pencils and levels, hammers and nails, saws and glue. If she’s an apprentice, she’ll shadow other carpenters as they solve problems and craft solutions. If she isn’t capable of solving a problem on her own, she’ll reach out to people that have the appropriate skills to help.

It’s unlikely you are going to ask a carpenter to solve the problem of how to remove kidney stones with a new treatment technology, or create the next big smartphone, or increase the number of conversions for your large-scale e-commerce website. And yet this happens with designers every day.

As human beings, we get into trouble when we don’t notice how our biases influence our decision making. And designers aren’t immune to this. We’re biased towards solutions we have the skills and means to materially create. We’re biased by the tools we have at our disposal. We’re biased by our schooling and our apprenticeships in the working world. We’re biased by the communities of practice we build up around ourselves. And we’ve invited in an additional layer of bias that is unique to design — that applying the design process to problems large and small is a primary way of creating positive change in the world.

I’ve seen these biases crop up in recent work I’ve seen by design students that are fresh to the profession, by designers in professional practice, by design leaders at startups large and small, in speeches by thought leaders and government officials and people in positions of influence. Most disheartening though, was that these designers were surprised when I asked them very basic questions about how they acknowledge their bias as designers.

If we are being strategic about doing design, we bring our bias into the work because it’s what needed to look at things from a different perspective. But we have to call out what those biases are, both in how we see the world and in the work itself. We need our collaborators to help us acknowledge our biases as designers. In return, we can acknowledge theirs, and build on that understanding to make better decisions.

Designers may be well suited to facilitate the necessary problem-solving work with teams, but we aren’t the only people capable of doing it. Designers don’t “own” problem solving. We make a set of tools available that people can bring to bear on problems, if they know how to use them. Besides, not every problem can be solved by design alone. In fact, if you’re going to try and influence a really big problem, you need more than just design skills. In our work with collaborators from other disciplines, we need to be doing a better job of leveraging this truth.

Otherwise, we will be living our own joke: “I’m a designer, so every problem can be solved with design… Every problem can be solved with a thing that can be designed… Every problem can be solved via the design process… Wait, exactly what problem are we trying to solve?”

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This essay was first published on my personal blog.