The Unbearable Homogeneity of Design

A few things have happened lately.

  1. I went to a design event where I was the only woman (until a few more showed up), and more to the point, I was the only person who was not a young white or Asian man wearing black, grey, and blue clothing and a 5-panel cap.
  2. Some people I follow on Twitter started talking about how “Western design” has become synonymous with “good design”, and the inherent privilege and bias in our judgement of design.
  3. A friend of mine periodically sends me popular Dribbble posts that are completely meaningless but obsessively fawned over.
  4. Jon Gold asked us all which of the 2 possible websites we were currently designing and I, for one, slumped deeply in my seat.
  5. Several people have opened up to me about not “fitting in” with the design community, even if—by all accounts—they look like they would.

All of this led me to realize,

What the fuck are we doing, tho?

Followed by,

And who the fuck do we think we are?

Let’s break it down.

Section 1: What The Fuck Are We Doing, Tho?

Call it the Dribbblization of design, but we’re all making more or less the same thing.

Here’s a random sampling of the top posts on Dribbble at the time of this writing. We have lots of illustrations done in the exact same style: evenly weighted lines, flat, minimal, geometric, symmetric. A few samples of mobile design that were carefully edited to look slick and show the best possible state. Lots of blue: a nice, safe color.

At some point, any one of these work samples would have been revolutionary. At this point, not a single one of them is. And yet! This is what we think of as “good design”.

Certainly, design should follow some basic paradigms to make whatever we’re designing easy to use. All scissors look fundamentally the same because that’s what works.

But digital design—whether it’s for desktop, mobile, VR, games, whatever—is still relatively young. We simply do not know what the best solutions are. At best, we’ve reached a local maximum. And so long as we reward predictable designs, we will never move past this local maximum.

stolen from here

So why aren’t we looking for better answers?

We could blame Dribbble for pushing these copycat designs to the top. We could blame any kind of design company, institution, or organization for rewarding mediocrity. We could even blame the non-design community for expecting our work to look a certain way. But at the end of the day, we’re the only ones to blame.

Section 2: And Who The Fuck Do We Think We Are?

When we refer to the Dribbblization of design, we have to remember that Dribbble is not a person. Dribbble is not the one choosing to showcase Yet Another Geometric Illustration. We do that.

And when I say “we”, I mean the majority of designers who are

  • well-off
  • well-educated
  • well-dressed
  • male
  • European American or Asian American
  • young
  • or maybe old but in an “I’m still holding on to my 20s” kind of way

Basically, this dude, who I’ll call Designer Dave:

The Official San Francisco Designer Uniform

Objectively, there’s nothing wrong with Designer Dave. His experiences and his aesthetic are just as valid as anyone else’s. The problem is when the entire industry becomes saturated with Designer Daves, and we pretend that one kind of person can have empathy for every other kind of person.

Before we continue, let’s take a step back for a second and go on a tangent about why I hate the word empathy in design.

Empathy means you can actually understand what someone is going through. For example: I have had a close friend commit suicide. I understand what it feels like to lose someone that way. I really do.
But I’ve never experienced something like homelessness. I just don’t know what that feels like. I can take a guess, and I can be sympathetic, but because I have never had that experience, I cannot be empathetic.
So, this whole designing with empathy thing? It literally cannot happen if all designers have the same background, the same look, the same style.

“Empathy” in design doesn’t just mean designing for marginalized people. It can simply mean designing with the understanding that there are other aesthetics and world views than yours.

Let’s look at Poland. The fledgling Polish Space Agency recently unveiled their new logo. Here it is.

A lot of people hate it. They think it’s tacky and they hate the gradients. They suggested changing it to something that would better suit a Silicon Valley startup.

Personally, I love it. I think it suits Poland, especially when you consider Eastern Europe’s long love affair with Brutalism and retro sci-fi architecture. More importantly, it doesn’t really matter whether any of us American designers like it or not. This is for Poland. To the Polish eye, this design makes sense.

Equally confounding to us Americans is Japanese web design. This article goes into more detail about it, but the gist is that it looks ugly to us, but it makes perfect sense to them.

valid web design

These might be extreme examples. After all, these designs come from completely different countries with completely different aesthetics and needs. But even within our small bubble of American designers, there is potential for more variety.

Take a look at these websites. They all fit within our basic ideas of “good” (read: Western) design, but they’re all very different. You may dislike some of them, but you have to appreciate that they’re all trying to push the boundaries of what websites should look like and how you should interact with them. And every single one of them offers an aesthetic sensibility that deviates from our usual Dribbble Aesthetic. I don’t know the background of each designer, but it seems safe to say: they aren’t all Designer Dave.

Now imagine if the whole design industry was as diverse as this group of four designers, and how much we could achieve.

Section 3: Isolation In Homogeneity

Perhaps the biggest issue with all this homogeneity is how lonely it can feel when you want to do something different.

yeah I seriously included a Pepe meme, wanna fight?

Two separate friends have told me how they don’t feel like they fit in with the design community. These two friends are guys who more or less fit the Designer Dave stereotype, too. If they feel isolated, how does everyone else feel?

By only rewarding work that looks a certain way, we implicitly say that everything else is bad. And the thing is, even if you seem like a Designer Dave, you may have unique ideas about what “good design” is. It doesn’t matter though, because that’s not what people want to see. So we’ll never see original work again.

design is hell

So what can we do? I don’t know. Maybe we can hire more designers who don’t look like Designer Dave. Maybe we could do more research about different styles of design, and try them out in our own work. Maybe we can stop liking the top posts on Dribbble… or start using Dribbble to post more whimsical work. Maybe we can create space for all designers to grow, rather than obsessing over a few. Maybe we can stop creating overpriced design conferences that self-select for the rich and privileged. Maybe we can have more fun and realize that exploration, failure, and experimentation are the only things that will lead us to truly revolutionary design. Maybe we should kill our design gods (figuratively, please).

a final image to reflect on

Thank you for reading. Here’s my Dribbble.

Note: while the title of this article is a lazy theft of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, I actually think that book is boring and would not recommend it. Still, it has a cool title, worth stealing. I just really wanted to make that clear before anyone accuses me of being a Kundera enthusiast. Please, I am not.