The 3 Responsibilities of Being a Designer
This post is an edited version of a talk I gave at the 2016 Hybrid Conference in Berlin.
I’ve been spending some time wondering about what the biggest problem we face in design is. It seems as though we’re trying to figure out a lot of things. Should designers code? How should we best prototype the products that we work on? Should we release a minimum viable product and then iterate? Should we be optimizing for mobile? I’ve been thinking about all of these questions and I think I figured out what the biggest challenge we face in design right now.
The biggest challenge we face right now in design is that the Greenland ice shelf is melting. The biggest problem we face in design right now is one in 5 children in the US is hungry. The biggest problem we face in design right now is 8,612 gun deaths in the US so far this year (that’s as of this morning by the way it’s probably gone up since then). The biggest problem we face in design right now is we are in the middle of an election campaign in which we are deciding if we want to elect someone as President who when asked if he would use nuclear weapons says “well if we’re not going to use them what do we have them for?”.
These feel like big, intractable problems. But I do believe that as a cohesive and motivated unit, the world of design can so something about those problems and many others, big and small. The moment is right and momentum is behind us.
For years we have been pleading for a seat at the table. For years we have been saying “but you should value design”. It will make your product and your company better. Stronger. More relevant. Infinitely more successful. Well the time has come my friends. We have been granted that seat at the table. We are no longer the “artistic types” who sit in the corner and draw stuff all day. We are no longer an afterthought or the final stage last layer. When the real work has been done and they need someone to make it pretty. We are no longer the undervalued creative class. We have in fact, done it. We have made it. We have convinced them of our value. We have their ear and we have access to their checkbooks. It’s been a hard won victory. But they now, after years of struggle. Value. Design. How something works IS now the design. They way we craft the interactions and flow and look and feel IS the product. And how well we execute on those relate absolutely and directly to the success of a product. And the product IS the business. It IS the user experience. Companies rise and fall based on the quality of work that their design teams produce. Power to the people. And we have been granted great power people. Pop the champagne and start the clock on the 4 year vesting schedules. But… and there’s always a but, I need to burst your balloon. I am here to tell you my fellow designers that although we have been bestowed great power, we are drunk on that power and we are reneging on the responsibilities that have been given to us. We are failing ourselves and those that have hired us. Frankly. We are fucking it up.
I believe that as designers we have certain responsibilities. Responsibilities to the craft. Responsibilities to your fellow designers and collaborators and a responsibility to work on products and projects that impact the world in a positive way. I personally believe that if you are not willing to accept these responsibilities then you really have no business in being a designer. We have a great opportunity in front of us. We can choose to be selfish and design and create for ourselves. Or we can take the harder path. The path little worn that looks for work that is the hard work. The good work. And the work that benefits us all.
When we work together on projects for the greater good we can truly make a positive impact on the experience we have on this earth and for those that come after us. As I see it these are the responsibilities we have as designers. If we can rise up and grab these responsibilities with both hands we can truly achieve greatness. Here are the 3 areas that we need to focus on and get much much better at if we are to fulfill the obligations that come with the title “Designer”.
1. A responsibility to the work
What do I mean by the words “the work”. I’m talking about the process. The phases we move through as we bring projects to life. How do we carry ourselves and what is the appropriate attitude to carry through each of these phases. Well first of all if we are to be a core part of the process we need to act like we actually give a shit. As we like to say, Design is problem solving. Or some variation on that description. It is not art, nor is it magic. It is a process and we do not embark upon the journey of design alone. We rely on many other people to bring our collective visions to life and to validate that they make sense. We need to be collaborative. Working with our partners in Product Management, Research, Copywriting and Engineering amongst many others are not necessary evils. They are a fundamental part of the job. To do this well requires humility. A recognition that we do not have all the answers. We have some of them but only when we work as a team with those in other disciplines can we be sure that the answers are right and correct.
Humility and lack of ego are key. Far too often have I seen designers walk into a room believing that they are the star of the show. You are not a special snowflake and the business problem that you are being asked to solve is not your opportunity for self expression. That’s what side projects are for. Nor is the business problem an opportunity to better your personal brand. It is not your chance to chase Dribbble likes or Twitter faves. The person who is asking you to design for them needs you because that is something they cannot do for themselves and they need you to have your shit together. If you agree upon a deadline, meet it. Make sure you read design is a job by my friend Mike Monteiro. It will tell you everything you need to know about having your shit together and being professional.
Next, I believe we need to reject the notion of “hustle”. Jamming on a side project late at night while you’re watching Netflix is not hustle. Hustle is the single mom working two jobs to make rent. Or the Syrian immigrant trying to build a life in a new country so that their children can live free of fear. There may be people in the audience who are truly hustling. To those people I salute you for you are truly heroes. We fetishize the “hustle” and we need to stop it. The idea that in a constant state of stress or hunger for success as a way to create success is bullshit. Your side project is in all likelihood not hustle. It’s much more likely to be an avenue for self expression. A chance to do something that you don’t get to do in your day job or something that you do so you can share it on social media and bolster your personal brand. Let’s just call it what it is and not assign some bullshit label to it that disrespects the people who are actually trying to hustle to make ends meet for themselves and their families.
I read a quote recently. It’s says “I think designers are in one of the few if not the only role where it seems that everyone in the company feels that they have the right to comment on your work. There’s such a culture of critique around design deliverables that doesn’t exist with any other type of deliverables. For designers, a typical day is everyone telling them what’s wrong with their work.
Well here’s the news. Get fucking used to it. When design is important, everyone has an opinion. That is a good thing. We need to be able to stand behind our decisions. The day that when once again nobody cares about design is a day to be very very afraid of. So buckle up and do the job right.
2. A responsibility to the people
People are at the center of everything we do and at the center of our experience on this planet. We all owe somebody in our life a debt of gratitude. Our parents for raising us. Our significant others for putting up with our “creative brains”. Our teachers and those that took a chance on us. They deserve to be honored. So please do not forget them or ever allow them to feel under appreciated.
We also owe a responsibility to the other designers around us and the vibrant and diverse community that they are. Designers love to argue. Let’s make sure we argue about things that matter. Leave your ego at the door and discover the benefits of community. Seeking out other points of view is a path to inspiration. We need to remember that when building our networks and our teams. Otherwise homogeneity beckons and homogeneity is the devil. No matter how good the product you make with your team of 10 or 12 white dudes, I guarantee you there is something you are missing. An opportunity that goes begging due to the homogenous nature of your team. Reject homogeneity. It is a path well documented and well travelled. It’s also fucking dull. The systems that are in place are designed to benefit people that look like me. We need to reject those systems. You cannot call yourself a designers we if you are designing for the few and not for the many. And if you are solving a problem that only exists for someone like you or the people that run in the same circles then it is your responsibility to move past a myopic view of the world and learn something. You will only be a fraction of the designer you are capable of being if you surround yourself with homogeneity. Again I can offer some practical advice. Read Helena Price’s “Techies” project and revel in the diversity of backgrounds and stories and points of view that we have in our industry. The people in this room have a special opportunity to hear about that themselves as she is speaking on that very subject tomorrow in this auditorium. Please do not miss it.
When we talk about people within the context of design. We tend to generally focus on the people that help make design happen. Our fellow designers, our colleagues, the companies that we work with. But it’s worth stopping for a second and acknowledging that what we choose to do for a living affects our families more than anyone and it is them that should be top of mind when we are knee deep in our work. I am very very fortunate to have an incredible supportive wife, Sara and daughter Skyler and I am grateful to the talented friends we have that can be an inspiration to her. People are not just design people and the most creative people I’ve met are not designers.
The third and final responsibility we have after the work and the people is to the future.
3. A responsibility to the future
We need to think long and hard about the types of things that we want to build. We need to ask ourselves some critical questions about that. Who is this benefiting? What is the impact to individuals or the community? Are we helping the few but hindering the many?
I want to talk a little bit more about the projects that we choose to work on. It’s nice for us all to be able to order dinner on our phones and have that delivered without us having to interact with another human. It’s great that I can have someone come pick up my laundry or pick out clothes for me and send them to my front door and pick up the ones that I don’t want to keep. It’s safe to say that we’ve pretty much nailed the on demand food market. But I wonder how many of the designers working on products that serve to make the lives or the comfortable a little bit more comfortable stopped to think about the wider implications of their work.
How do we avoid situations where we are blinkered in our approach to solving problems. We talk about empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others. And designing with empathy. Designing our networks and our projects with empathy. Empathy is pretty hot right now. But empathy is not enough. We actually need to hire people who can bring a diversity of thought and show us angles that our experiences haven’t shown us.
If we approach our relationships and projects from this place that sits beyond empathy we can stop thinking about the prospect of changing the world with another app to deliver us dinner.
If our political system had been designed from beyond empathy we wouldn’t be arguing about whether a woman has the right to decide what goes on in her own body. We wouldn’t be having a discussion on whether certain people have more right to be married than others. If our social systems had been designed from beyond empathy I wouldn’t be dropping $4 on a piece of artisanal toast on the way to my nap pod in San Francisco while stepping over the homeless people in the methadone lines.
If our democracy had gone through half the number of iterations as the average social media app I wouldn’t be dropping my 6 year old off at school and wondering what would happen if someone decided to walk into her classroom with an AR-15 assault rifle.
There’s an inherent selfishness to these things we call human beings. We have a great ability to say that we care about something yet at the same time turn our backs and I call upon every single one of you to do something about it.
I call on you to take our combined knowledge and creativity and ingenuity and innovation and use it to help people. Let’s not turn our backs on the things that are hard to fix.
We need big solutions to big problems and if we hire the right people with a diversity of background we can step out of the mindset of trying to design with empathy and actually find people who know something about the problem we are trying to solve. Don’t just try and imagine what it’s like to walk in someone’s shoes. Hire someone who owns those shoes and actually walks in them everyday. That’s the way we can find solutions. The purpose here is not to beat up on every tech company out there. They make our lives easier after all. Some of them. Probably a lot of them and I use these services and products as much as anyone else. But nothing comes without cost. How much are we willing to give up? How much are we willing for our Bay Area rents to rise before we actually start working on a solution from the inside. And how much does that loss factor into the decisions that designers make when they are working on a new product. It might be attractive to work on a new app that does your laundry for you without you leaving your house. Creating a new world sounds cool on a resume.
But that new world doesn’t work for the family owned launderette that has been on the same street corner for 30 years. Who know their customers by name and know their requirements and their schedules and their preferences and are now out of business because of an on demand laundry service. It doesn’t work for Neil Hutchison whose rent in San Francisco for an apartment in North Beach just went from $1800 per month to $8000 per month. No notice. No reason given.
Tech is full of straight, white dudes. That’s a problem we can do something about.
The US still doesn’t have paid maternity leave. That’s a problem we can do something about.
Women still earn less that men. That’s a problem we can do something about.
California is in a severe drought. That’s a problem we can do something about.
52,000 gun deaths a year. That’s a problem we can do something about.
But we can’t do it on our own. We can’t do it sitting in our kitchens, drinking coffee and scrolling through Twitter. There is power in our combined voice. Our ideas get amplified when we share them. When we talk about them and we riff on them. When we connect our ideas we can build the systems that can make a difference.
We can only do that when we talk to each other.
Let’s all raise our voices as one and get after the things that we can change when we work together and amplify those voices. Like telling the NRA to go fuck themselves. Like figuring out a solution that allows the teachers from the San Francisco public schools system to actually be able to afford an apartment in the city. Like solving the homelessness crisis or electing a president who isn’t insane.
But I have faith in us. Science will tell you that at a cosmic level, we are all connected. If matter cannot be created or destroyed then we really are all made of star stuff as Carl Sagan famously said. There is an undeniable bond that exists between us that a few years with an iPhone cannot possibly break. It’s wrapped up somewhere in the overlap of physics, chemistry and biology and probably some other intangible stuff. The people who live on this spinning globe we call Earth will wake up tomorrow will judge us harshly for the decisions we make today. Let’s go out there and make some good ones.