This essay was originally written for Opt In: Insights on Leadership in Extraordinary Times, a short book curated by the Microsoft Design team and designed by Studio Mega. Opt In features essays on design leadership from Albert Shum, Microsoft’s CVP of Design, Jamie Myrold, Adobe’s VP of Design, Jae Park, Amazon’s VP of Devices & UX Design, and me. Opt In was originally published in October 2019, and is now available as an ebook on Adobe Xd.
Did Design school prepare you for the work you do now? School can’t prepare us for everything of course, but it’s remarkable just how drastically and rapidly the design profession has changed in the last 15 years. The pervasiveness of software and services, the deep embedding of design in to companies, the massive scaling of design teams, the global reach of the products we build and the emerging social consequences — any of these are significant professional developments on their own, but together they have completely reshaped the work of Designers today. We weren’t prepared for this.
Personally, I found my way in to design the old-fashioned way: I went to art school.
As I finished up high school, I struggled to decide what to study in college. Choosing a major felt like a commitment to a discipline that might include some of my interests but exclude others. I wanted to know everything about art, creativity, science, technology, and engineering, and I found entry to all of that through design. Every class I took it pulled me in more. I enjoyed the focus on solving problems for people, and the variety of methods, tools, and inspiration that could be involved in solving those problems. Some projects were more creative or aesthetic, some were more technical; some days you’d be working on a lamp, other days you’d be working on MRI. Every project was an opportunity to learn and try new methods. I enjoyed that it was a field that was open ended, always changing, and something you could take in many directions. It was fun and exciting, but apparently, a kind of work that wasn’t well appreciated. This was before the iPod and iPhone, before Design Sprints and long before the many sophisticated collaborative design prototyping tools designers enjoy today. Small companies like IDEO were still working hard to convince the business world on the merits of design. I remember a professor telling a class that most of us would never get jobs, and the jobs that were out there didn’t pay well, so if we weren’t absolutely sure that we wanted to be designers we were probably wasting our time. It was a labor of love so you’d better love it, and I did.
The opportunities or Designers started to change with the expansion of a surprising partner — the Tech industry. As technology grew out of being a niche interest and found its way into the homes of regular people, Design became a solution to making it more useful and usable. As technology products competed for attention, Design became a solution for companies to differentiate and attract customers. The Design industry exploded. Design suddenly became a popular and well compensated profession, with an abundance of jobs available and not nearly enough talent to fill them. This is truer than ever today, and the opportunity for the Design industry, Designers, and Design leaders has grown by orders of magnitude.
Alongside this growth came a transition in the Design industry from designers as consultants to designers as owners. With the rise of the tech industry, most new design jobs moved in-house, and the consulting industry shrank. Most Designers now work inside companies to shape products and strategies as partners with a stake in the business, rather than consulting from the side — which allowed designers to more directly transfer design into business value.
Designers had long argued that design could help businesses grow with design tools and process — By helping them understand their customers, through creative problem solving, by building experiences, by caring about quality, and storytelling. This is hard to prove from the outside. Working in house gave designers more opportunities to demonstrate and share their ways of working and thinking. Companies that adopted a customer focus built better products, wasted less time making things their customers didn’t want, and attracted more customers. These companies thrived and grew quickly. Today, a customer-centric focus is pervasive across most of the Tech industry; Designers aren’t alone in building this way of working, but it is the future of business that we dreamed of a couple decades ago.
10 years ago, a successful product might have millions of customers — tens of millions if it was a smash hit. Now it’s not uncommon for designers to work on products with hundreds of millions — or billions — of customers, in countries around the entire world. It’s hard to learn how to design at that scale; The methods you use to design for such a large number of people are different from designing a product that is used by thousands. When I studied Design in school, this kind of product reach was unheard of. There was no class for designing for billions. I learned how to design for scale on the job, and I assume that’s true for most designers who found themselves working on products at massive scale. This new scale brought new tools, new systems, new incentives, big teams, and powerful partnerships. Big opportunities for design leadership emerged to guide designers in to this exciting new territory. Designers took on prominent leadership roles leading extremely large teams at multi-billion dollar companies. Some designers leaders took a step beyond design to lead product and engineering teams. Building on what they’ve learned working within Tech companies, many designers are building products of their own, starting new companies, and investing what they’ve earned with equity back into the tech startup ecosystem.
With massive scale however, also came new consequences and some reckoning. The products we design are bigger and reach farther than ever before. Their impacts are more apparent. From the contributions to climate change and gentrification, to online abuse and misinformation, designers are having to grapple with the societal effects of their work in ways that schools do not prepare them for. This is perhaps the biggest change that the design industry has gone through in the past 10 years: real-time learning in a global arena. It is no longer possible to take a packaged set of traditional design skills out of school and focus on refining them over a 30 year career.
The last decade of growing up with the Tech industry created a monoculture of design leadership with a narrowed view of success oriented around growth. Big products, big teams, big systems. The challenges of designing at scale turned the work of design leadership into how well you can oil the machinery, so leadership in design became focused on hiring teams and building systems. Humans became data points. Design success became measured by company valuation.
As the consequences of the things we build have snapped sharply in to view, Designers find themselves asking some difficult questions, and finding uncomfortable answers. Customer data points are real people with real lives, it’s not fantastic to fill the world with plastic, and big valuations don’t matter when you don’t feel good about your work. As a field, Design has always been focused on helping people and believed in making the world a better place. We all want our work to have an impact on the world, and of course, we want that impact to be positive. It used to be easy to know whether you were working on something positive — or at least, so we believed. So what do we do when that answer isn’t so clear?
Many years ago I had the opportunity to work with Bruce Mau on a project. Late one afternoon, the team got in to discussing some of the problems that kept us awake at night. The weight of them all started to feel crushing. With an understanding and comforting smile, Bruce gently said, “Look, we design forward.”
Does Design matter? If it does — and I believe it does — it only matters in relation to the problem it’s solving. There’s a lot of problems in the world that need help solving; some of which Designers have had a hand in creating and will need to take responsibility in correcting. Building delightful and usable consumer products has been fun, but as an industry we’ve largely mastered that. Bigger problems are waiting for us.
If the last 10 years was about Design embedding itself in businesses and learning to work at a extraordinary scales, the next 10 are going to be about merging those skills with activism and specialized knowledge in critical issues like the environment, health, energy, education, information, security, and policy. The problems the world faces aren’t going to get any simpler. Climate change is getting worse. Misinformation is going to get more complex. Inequality is compounding. I’ve always appreciated Bruce’s sentiment, but I see it now as being too passive. To Design ourselves forward will require acquiring new skills and knowledge that aren’t common for designers today. Design school didn’t prepare us for the last 10 years, so it definitely didn’t prepare us for the next 10. Designing your way forward will require proactively studying topics well outside the scope of Design books, schools, and conferences, because they don’t have the answers to the problems we need to tackle. Once again, new opportunities will emerge for designers and design leaders that are paying attention and learning the necessary skills. Designers like Emily Cunningham — who is fighting to make climate a top priority at Amazon — are already showing the way. Great leaders will take some of the dystopian problems we face and make good of them.
The field of Design is changing again, perhaps not entirely because it wants to, but because it will have to.