Design’s Lost Generation
A year ago I was in the audience at a gathering of designers in San Francisco. There were four designers on stage, and two of them worked for me. I was there to support them. The topic of design responsibility came up, possibly brought up by one of my designers, I honestly don’t remember the details. What I do remember is that at some point in the discussion I raised my hand and suggested, to this group of designers, that modern design problems were very complex. And we ought to need a license to solve them.
About half the room turned to me in unison and screamed NO As if I’d just suggested something absurd, such as borrowing ten million dollars to develop a smart salt shaker. (It exists. That happened.)
“How many of you would go to an unlicensed doctor?” I asked. And the room got very quiet.
“How many of you would go to an unaccredited college?” I asked. And the room got even quieter.
(And before you weigh in on the condition of today’s health care and education, which I grant are very problematic, let me just add that it’s not the level of service that we typically take umbrage with, but rather our difficulty in accessing and then affording those services, which tend to be quite good.)
Turns out we like it when our professional services are licensed. In fact, if you’ve ever had occasion to use a lawyer, I’m sure you’ve been comforted knowing they’ve passed the bar. Their certification will be neatly framed right behind their head. Not to mention that even the cafeterias of Silicon Valley’s most disruptive companies have to hang health department grade sheets where diners can see them. So while you take a break from fighting against regulations that keep passenger vehicles safe, you can avail yourself of that burger which you know is safe thanks to the regulations inspired by the muckraking work of Upton Sinclair. A journalist. Or in libertarian parlance — the media.
Turns out we enjoy regulations. When they’re in our interest.
This roomful of designers, however, was quite taken aback by the idea that our industry, an industry which now regularly designs devices that go inside human bodies, or control our medication, or is writing logic for putting driverless tractor trailers on the street, should need professional licensing.
Who’ll decide who gets licenced, they asked.
I’m confident that if other professions have figured this out we can figure this out as well. We can even look to their examples. The last runner off the blocks can generally find their way by following the asses in front.
Yesterday I sat down for coffee with a colleague who teaches design at the local art school. (Why design is taught in art schools is worth another 10,000 words. I’ll save it for later.)
“How goes it with the new crop of kids?” I ask him.
“Good! You know, they’re surprising me. They’re asking about things like sustainability, working in civic organizations, and ethics.”
“This is new?”
“Yeah. Up until recently they wanted to know about startups, funding, and money.”
And that’s when I decided that we — and by we I mean those of us currently drawing paychecks for professional design services — are design’s lost generation. We are the Family Ties era Michael J. Fox of the design lineage. Raised by hippies. Consumed by greed. Ruled by the hand of the market. And nourished by the last drops of sour milk from the withered old teat of capitalism gone rabid. Living where America ends — Silicon Valley.
We are slouching towards Sand Hill Road. We are slouching towards another round of funding. We are slouching towards market share. We are slouching towards entrepreneurship. And ultimately, we are slouching towards irrelevance. If we are lucky. Because the longer we stick around, the more we’re leaving for the next generation to clean up. And we’ve given them quite a bit of job security as it is.
We are slouching because we were born without spines. When society desperately needed us to be born with them.
The center did not hold
There are two words every designer needs to feel comfortable saying: “no” and “why.” Those words are the foundation of what we do. They’re the foundation of building an ethical framework. If we cannot ask “why” we lose the ability to judge whether the work we’re doing is ethical. If we cannot say “no” we lose the ability to stand and fight. We lose the ability to help shape the thing we’re responsible for shaping.
Victor Papanek, who attempted to gift us spines in Design for the Real World, referred to designers as gatekeepers. He reminded us of our power, our agency, and our responsibility. He reminded us that labor without counsel is not design. We have a skill-set that people need in order to get things made, and that skill-set includes an inquiring mind and a strong spine. We need to be more than a pair of hands. And we certainly can’t become the hands of unethical men.
A designer who loses their hands is still a designer, but a designer who doesn’t offer their client counsel is not.
We are gatekeepers, and we vote on what makes it through the gate with our labor and our counsel. We are responsible for what makes it through that gate, and out into the world. What passes through carries our seal of approval. It carries our name. We are the defense against monsters. Sure, everyone remembers the monster, but they call it by his maker’s name. And the worst of what we create will outlive us.
There’s no longer room in Silicon Valley to ask why. Designers are tasked with moving fast and breaking things. How has become more important than why. How fast can we make this? How can we grab the most market share? How can we beat our competitors to market? (And for those of you thinking that I’m generalizing, and that your company is different — I am, and you may be. But you can’t argue even if you’re truly different there are days you feel yourself swimming upstream.)
The current generation of designers have spent their careers learning how to work faster and faster and faster. And while there’s certainly something to be said for speed, excessive speed tends to blur one’s purpose. To get products through that gate before anyone noticed what they were and how foul they smelled. Because we broke some things. It’s one thing to break a database, but when that database holds the keys to interpersonal relationships the database isn’t the only thing that breaks.
Along with speed, we’ve had to deal with the amphetamine of scale. Everything needs to be faster and bigger. How big it can get, how far it can go. A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? You know the rest of the line. When we move fast and break things and those things get bigger and bigger, the rubble falls everywhere.
Facebook claims to have two billion users. (What percentage of those users are Russian bots is currently up for debate.) But 1% of two billion is twenty million. When you’re moving fast and breaking things (this is Facebook’s internal motto, by the way) 1% is well within the acceptable breaking point for rolling out new work. Yet it contains twenty million people. They have names. They have faces. Technology companies call these people edge cases, because they live at the margins. They are, by definition, the marginalized.
Let me introduce you to one of them:
Bobbi Duncan was “accidentally” outed by Facebook when she was a college freshman. When Bobbi got to college she joined a queer organization with a Facebook group page. When the chorus director added her to the group, a notification that she’d joined The Queer Chorus at UT-Austin was added to her feed. Where her parents saw it. Bobbi had very meticulously made her way through Facebook’s byzantine privacy settings to make sure nothing about her sexuality was visible to her parents. But unbeknownst to her (and the vast majority of their users), Facebook, which moves fast, had made a decision that group privacy settings should override personal privacy settings. Bobbi was disowned by her parents and later attempted suicide. They broke things.
A year later I gave a talk at Facebook. I told Bobbi’s story, which was public at that point. An engineer in the audience screamed out “It was the chorus director’s fault, not ours.” And that somehow managed to be the scariest part of this whole story. We’re putting the people who need us most at risk, and we’re not seeing our responsibility. And to this I must both ask why and say no.
We’re killing people. And the only no I hear from the design community is about the need for licensing. If why and no are not at the center of who we are, and they must be, the center has not held.
We need to Slow. The. Fuck. Down. And pay attention to what we’re actually designing. We’re releasing new things into the world faster than Trump is causing scandals.
Why we failed, the first reason
“I want to do the right thing, but I’m afraid I’ll lose my job.”
“Must be nice to afford to take a stand.”*
“I have rent to pay.”
“If you’re telling people how to work then you’re the fascist!”
I’ve heard variations on all of these phrases thrown at me from designers I’ve spoken to all over the world. Sometimes they’re apologetic about it. Sometimes they’re angry. Sometimes they’re looking for absolution, which I’m not in a position to give. But mostly they feel tired and beaten down.
Yes. You will sometimes lose your job for doing the right thing. But the question I want you to ask yourself is why you’re open to doing the wrong thing to keep your job. Without resorting to the level of comparing you to guards at Japanese Internment Camps, I’d argue there are paychecks not worth earning. An ethical framework needs to be independent of pay scale. If it’s wrong to build databases for keeping track of immigrants at $12 an hour, It’s still wrong to build them at $200 an hour, or however much Palantir pays their employees. Money doesn’t make wrong right. A gilded cage is still a cage.
You’ll have many jobs in your life. The fear of losing a job is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear makes it less likely that you’ll question and challenge the things you need to question and challenge. Which means you’re not doing your job anyway.
The first part of doing this job right is wanting to do it right. And the lost generation of designers doesn’t want to do it right. They found themselves standing before a gate, and rather then seeing themselves as gatekeepers they decided they were bellhops.
We failed because we looked at our paychecks, saw Mark Zuckerberg’s signature, and forgot the person we actually worked for was Bobbi Duncan.
* For the record, it’s not that I can afford to do this. It’s that growing up as an immigrant I’ve seen a little bit of the effects of being marginalized. Certainly not as much as others, but generally more than the white boys (they’re always white boys) who say this to me.
Why we failed, the second reason
I also hear from plenty of people who attempted to do the job right and hit their head against the wall time after time. (If it makes you feel better feel free to put yourself in this second group.) These were the people who looked for backup and didn’t find it. Whether it was backup from within their organization, or the backup of a professional service who protects the integrity of the craft.
Let me tell you a story. My family and I drove out to Sequoia National Park a few years ago. We stopped for dinner at a diner on the way. There was an elderly couple sitting next to us. He was wearing one of those navy caps with a picture of the battleship he’d served on. When their check arrived the old man wasn’t happy with the total. He called the waitress over and informed her the check didn’t reflect the early bird price. She smiled, and in her best voice, told him they’d been seated just a few minutes too late to get the early bird price. At which point Joe, and I know his name was Joe because his wife was telling Joe not to make a scene, reached for his wallet, pulled out his AARP card and sat it on the check. That was the end of the argument.
No one fucks with the AARP. Because the AARP looks out for their old people and they will fuck your shit up. Had that waitress not given Joe the early bird price I’m pretty sure a platoon of AARP lawyers would’ve parachuted into the diner. Joe ended up paying the early bird price because Joe had the power of a professional organization behind him.
Imagine this same situation playing out with a designer standing up for the solidity of their work. Imagine the power of a professional organization having our back. We’ve never had that. Possibly the AIGA came closest, but closest isn’t even the right word because it contains the word close. They look at UX designers the same way Donald Trump looks at a vegetable. I do believe they had an opportunity to become the organization we needed, had they wanted to be it, and had they taken the time between poster contests to do some actual work.
But every designer out there fighting the good fight is doing it with the knowledge that they’re going at it alone.
Why we failed, the third reason
The history of UX design is, until very very very recently, the history of design as defined by other fields. Our field was defined first by engineers because, let’s be fair, they’re the ones who invented the internet. And their definition of design — the people in the bunny hats who make the colors — is still widely accepted by a large majority of designers working in the field today. It’s the easy path. You sit in the corner, listening to The War On Drugs on your big expensive DJ headphones, picking colors and collecting checks.
We’ve spent the last twenty years proving our legitimacy to engineers who thought we were a waste of time. Until they realized we could magnify their power exponentially.
We let other people define the job. We complained when we were told what to do. We complained when we weren’t told what to do. We became proficient in eye-rolling. (Be honest. You proved my point by rolling your eyes at that last sentence.) We fought for a seat at the table, and once we started getting that seat, we found out a lot of designers didn’t want it.
I’m a little unfair when I say that designers haven’t fought. We’ve fought to have other people define us. We’ve fought to have other people define our responsibilities. We’ve fought to give away our agency. And we’ve fought not to have a seat at the table. We were all too happy to dribbble away our time while decisions were being made around us. (Shade.)
A few months ago, Jared Spool, who‘s been doing yeoman’s work for design for the better part of forty years, tweeted this out:
Everything in that tweet is correct. Everyone who influences the final thing, be it a product or a service, is designing. And yet, if you click through and look at the replies, what you’ll see is the evisceration of Jared Spool in defensive bite-sized little vitriolic thoughts still covered with the spittle of ego. And, even more sadly, it quickly turns into a discussion of titles. We are happy to give away all the responsibilities that come with the job, but don’t take our titles. I have seen designers argue for a week with a new employer about what their title will be, without sparing one breath to ask about their responsibilities.
Design is a verb. An act. Anyone is free to pick up the ball and run with it. And if you’re not doing the job you’re being paid to do you can’t be upset when someone else starts doing it. You cannot not design. What a professional designer brings to the act is intention. But for that, the designer needs to behave intentionally. Designers are dead. Long live design.
You just rolled your eyes. You should’ve thrown an elbow.
We are the children of capitalism’s last gasp
We are all working in a system that measures success financially. We are about how much money a movie makes on opening weekend (go Black Panther!), we pay attention to music climbing up the charts, and Jack Dorsey’s leadership was finally vindicated when Twitter posted their first profit-making quarter.
The first sentence of that linked Mashable article is chilling:
It turns out cutting back, focusing, and maybe a little Donald Trump can help make money.
Let’s look at the price of that profit-making quarter. Twitter’s profit came at the cost of democracy. When an American autocrat chose it as his platform of choice to sow hate, disparage women and minorities, and dogwhistle his racist base, Twitter rallied. Rather than shut him down for violating their terms of service, Twitter chose to expand those terms of service to accommodate the engagement Trump was bringing them. Twitter, and every employee working within Twitter, failed their moment. Their ethics failed them. The reason Donald Trump has access to nuclear weapons is, in no small part, thanks to Twitter.
And yet, all is forgiven because they’ve now turned a profit. Profit justifies everything. Silicon Valley, the engine that powers the end of America needs to profit in order to survive, and it needs profit at scale. We remain enamored with our ideas, and blind to their effects. We award golden parachutes for failing big, because Silicon Valley rewards failing big over succeeding small.
The biggest sin in Silicon Valley is a small victory.
The path forward
In August of 2017, James Liang, an engineer for Volkswagen, was sentenced to 40 months in jail. A court in Detroit, Michigan sentenced him for knowingly designing software that cheated federal emissions tests. He wasn’t the only Volkswagen employee sent to jail for this. (Thankfully.) But he’s the one important to our story. He knew he was designing something deceitful and he did it anyway. That’s an ethical breakdown.
In March of 2017, Mike Isaac published an exposé in the New York Times about Greyball, a tool at Uber designed to purposely deceive authorities. Authorities that were looking out for the safety of Uber’s riders. No one at Uber has yet to go to jail. But the stories are the same.
Two companies, both of which knowingly designed software with the express purposes of deceiving regulating bodies. Volkswagen got caught because the automotive industry is regulated. We know cars are dangerous. Uber got away with it because they claim to be a software company, (Narrator: they’re not.) and we’re just beginning to realize how dangerous software can be, especially in the hands of companies led by ethicless feckless men. But Travis Kalanick, Uber CEO when Greyball was designed, should be in jail as well.
We need to be held accountable for our actions. We’ve been moving fast. We’ve been breaking things. Sometimes on purpose. Sometimes out of ignorance. The effects are the same. The things we’re building are bigger than they used to be, and have more reach. The moment to slow down is here. Because what we’re breaking is too important and too precious. Much of it is irreplaceable.
I am part of design’s last generation. I’ve fucked up. We all have. None of us did enough. Maybe the tide was too strong, or maybe we were too weak. But as I look behind me I see the hope of a new generation. They’re asking better questions, at a younger age, than we ever did. And I truly hope they do better than us because the stakes have never been higher.
For this younger generation to succeed they’re going to need the following:
A body of oversight
You’re going to need someone to have your back. Look to history. Long hours and working weekends are still long hours and working weekends, regardless of whether the cafeteria is serving swordfish. Human resource departments do not work for you, as Susan Fowler and many courageous others have found out. They work for your boss.
I am the son of a Philadelphia construction worker. Every winter my father got laid off because it was too cold to build, and every winter someone from the union showed up with groceries. The only ones who will ever stand up for workers are other workers. Not only do you need licenses, you need a union.
And when one of you is trying to do the right thing, let them (and their bosses) know that there’s an entire brotherhood and sisterhood standing behind them.
Art has as much in common with design as a potato has with a Honda Civic. So why are we still cramming design departments into art schools? Not to disparage art schools — they’re a wonderful place to get an art education. I’m also not disparaging existing design programs here as much as I’m trying to get you more room! Design is too important and too big a field now to be given a wing in someone else’s school. It’s time to create our own. A few years ago Jared Spool and Leslie Jensen-Inman did just that. They started Center Centre, a small school in Chattanooga, Tennessee to specifically train UX designers. I hope it succeeds and that it’s the first of many.
License to practice
My friend Ryan is a professional dogwalker. Dude loves dogs. Which I totally get because at our best, our goal should be to be the people our dogs think we are. Before Ryan could become a professional dogwalker he had to get a license. He had to pass a test. As someone who loves my dog more than I should, I’m glad he had to do that. It reassures me that my dog is in good hands. I know that if my dog does something stupid, which he does plenty, Ryan will know how to handle it.
My dentist is licensed. My doctor is licensed. My lawyer is licensed. My accountant is licensed. Almost every professional I interact with is licensed. There are really good reasons for that. Not only does this let me know they’ve passed some sort of test, some sort of proficiency, but it also gives me a way to measure a standard of expectation for their level of service, and a way to address any grievance with a lack of it.
Closer to home, architecture is the hardest design profession to study and get into and has incredibly high standards. Architects can debate style and aesthetics all night, but at the end of the day, their shit has to be up to code. Architects have to make sure that engineers and contractors carry our their intention and are ready to make changes to their vision to accommodate reality. There’s no minimal viable product in architecture because bad architecture kills people. Bad UX is now just as deadly. And yeah, even Howard fucking Roarke had to be licensed.
And while I’ll be the first to agree that licensing doesn’t solve all of the problems listed in this article, I do believe that it’s the first step in addressing those problems. It gives us a chance. Let’s not spend the next ten years looking for the perfect solution at the cost of implementing a good one.
As professionals in the design field, a field becoming more complex by the day, it’s time that we aim for a professional level of accountability. In the end, a profession doesn’t decide to license itself. It happens when a regulatory body decides we’ve been reckless and unable to regulate ourselves. This isn’t for our sake. It’s for the sake of the people whose lives we come in contact with. We moved too fast and broke too many things.
Amateur hour is over.
If you enjoyed this article, it was eventually fleshed out into a book, which you might also enjoy: