Matisse’s take on the Icarus myth

Myths About Good Designers

Deconstructing barriers that breed complacency and keep people out

Stephanie Engle
Dec 9, 2015 · 10 min read

The other day, a member of the HH Design Facebook group posted the image below to the community. A single glyph provoked a heated discussion about gender, symbols, and inclusivity.

Though a seemingly small event, this discussion reminded me of my own role in the problem of inclusion, why sourcing diverse opinions for designs is important, and that as an industry we still have far to go in the way of being systematically empathetic and inclusive. The Yik Yak design team’s embracing response makes me optimistic this is achievable, but it won’t happen if we leave these discussions to comment threads — hence why I’m writing this.

It is not my intention to single out any one group or source. Inclusivity is a difficult but necessary subject to address. I’m confident we can all get a little better at it.

As people whose job is to architect systems, designers are well positioned to address systemic problems. This is a power we shouldn’t assume lightly — our actions can alleviate issues, but can also create and perpetuate them.

As designers, we are the arbiters of subjectivity — we guide the message, influence our users in ways both conscious and unconscious. As such, our work is particularly vulnerable to being influenced by our own assumptions and biases, and we need to take extra steps to guard against that.

In this sense, products are an extension of the people designing them. To design products which challenge traditional perspectives and embrace viewpoints others can’t, we need designers who can do the same.

That it’s news when designers included a non-white hand in a product launch — among many other examples — suggests we don’t have enough of these designers at the head of the table.

So how do we make design more inclusive? We can start by addressing some fundamental assumptions about the standards which govern our field and frame our processes — what constitutes good design, and a good designer.

I’d like to challenge and deconstruct a few specific myths that discouraged me, with the hope that others will follow:

  1. Good designers come from a single, predictable path
  2. Good designers always produce good designs
  3. Only good designers can produce good designs

These myths are unhealthy, because they create an misleading picture of what a designer is and can do. They can discourage beginners who don’t fit the mold, because it’s hard to be what you can’t see. They can keep designers who do fit this mold complacent by discouraging exploration of their abilities beyond a narrowly defined field.

None of this is good for designers, the industry, and those who have ever had an inkling of desire to participate in it. To make design a more inclusive field, we need to identify and deconstruct these myths.

1. Good designers come from a single, predictable path

Why is this a myth?

I am probably the champion broken record on this subject, but it bears constant reminding that people can become designers despite a lack of specific training or exposure. There are people for whom formal design education is not an option, or simply not their preference. These people can still be good designers; in fact, their plurality of thought and perspectives can actually improve design.

Where does this myth come from?

Frequent offenders of this myth are job listings for new-grad and intern designers. Virtually every position lists the characteristics below as requirements to apply:

  • 1–3 years of professional experience
  • Degree in Design, Human Computer Interaction, Computer Science, or other related field
  • Proficiency in xyz tools

These requirements discourage candidates from even attempting to apply to design positions, unless they fit a narrow and exacting set of characteristics, despite the fact that they are often only suggestions and guidelines. By targeting young people, these listings engrain the the myth of a singular path into generation after generation of potential future innovators and pathfinders. Had these characteristics been hard barriers, I wouldn’t have qualified for my position at Facebook, and some of the people I most respect as designers would never have entered the field.

Why is this myth a problem?

Perpetuating the idea that designers need a formal education deters people who didn’t follow the traditional design path, particularly those who are systematically discouraged away from it.

I understand why companies list these requirements and look for formal training — it’s to promote self-selection and weed out those who aren’t really interested. But I can tell you from firsthand experience: when you see these requirements and your background doesn’t match up, you don’t apply. You question your passion, doubt yourself, and doubt others like you.

If you don’t meet all of the paper qualifications, don’t let that stop you from trying.

Good companies prioritize diversity in experience and thought over an exacting checklist of skills. Companies looking only to pick candidates which fit a checklist miss out on designers that might add to their perspectives and products — the designers who are great but prone to disqualify themselves based on a job listing.

However earnest their attempts at producing higher quality candidates, these checklists also disproportionately exclude women, who are statistically more inclined to follow requirements than are men, and minorities, who are less likely to have the necessary education.

We should consider that small instances like these are homogenizing our field, which is counterproductive to advancing the industry and the diverse lives of people for whom we design.

2. Good designers always produce good designs

Why is this a myth?

Good designers are not immune to design mistakes, and the best designs always have room for improvement. Even cherished design guidelines by big industry players are subject to reasonable critique:

And the design symbols that govern our world are subject to revisitation:

“…is the briefcase the best symbol for ‘work’? Which population carried briefcases and in which era? What are other ways that ‘work’ could be symbolized and what would those icons evoke for the majority of people on Earth?” — Caitlin Winner, Facebook Designer

Where does this myth come from?

I love Dribbble for the inspiration it provides and think highly of the team. However, some of the behavior I’ve observed on the platform is emblematic this myth.

Having a stage for design that caters primarily to other designers can lead to people conflating a design’s popularity within the design community with good design. As a result, the community can sometimes reward and reinforce fashionable design over good user experiences. The deification of trendy design can give beginner designers — particularly those without a formal design education — the wrong priorities, teaching them to value fashion over substance, at the expense of their career, and future users.

This is not to say all popular Dribbble designs lack substance. But it does worry me that a large portion of the most popular designers on Dribbble are of a particular demographic, because it reflects the reality that much design inspiration comes from a narrow set of perspectives.

Why is this myth a problem?

While it can be substantative, the religious zeal over certain people and patterns becomes unhealthy when it perpetuates a singular view on what good design is. The design community’s fanaticism with certain brands, like Apple or Google, should be subject to critique like everyone else

When we believe certain designers and their perspectives are infallible, we permit them and ourselves to complacently accept their worldview.

Design relies heavily on two phases — exploration and refinement. People inherently dislike reevaluating their earlier decisions (exploring), and want to be making things. As a result, it’s naturally easy to get trapped in the production and refinement stage before appropriately exploring other solutions. The idea that “Specific designer’s decision = Universal rule” (e.g. “Profile icons should always be male”) further limits design exploration by allowing designers to chalk their refusal to explore to socially constructed rules.

In actuality, celebrated patterns come from small groups of fallible people. Because “good” designers tend to come from similar paths (first myth), unquestionably accepting their work as “good” reinforces both the strengths and the biases in their designs. When we stop challenging perspectives and broadening our own, we stop unearthing problems within existing patterns — advancing our discipline

3. Only good designers can produce good designs

Why is this a myth?

Just as even the best designers are fallible, good design can come from beginners or even non-designers. They may not think it, but with their lack of experience comes the invaluable gift of an open mind.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

Companies recognize the value of the beginner’s mind as well. It’s why companies invest in new grad hires, why senior designers leave top positions at big companies for startups that bring a new challenge, and why big companies invest in creative labs and garages over spending more on existing profitable divisions.

Where does this myth come from?

I believe this myth derives from our tendency to discount ourselves and others on the basis of ability rather than perspective and potential.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.” — Ira Glass

For companies, directing faith away from beginners is a matter of risk aversion. Giving the best projects to the best people gaurantees safety.

Why is this myth a problem?

Like the other myths, the idea that unproven people cannot contribute keeps them out of the profession, because it perpetuates false standards and sends a message that they shouldn’t try. Given the myth that proven designers come from particular paths, this myth tends to reinforce the exclusion of those who do not or cannot follow that path. Research by a Stanford professor shows females are less likely to overcome this mindset:

“People can adopt one of two mindsets about their abilities. Those with a “fixed mindset” believe their basic intelligence cannot be improved. They interpret a challenge — like, say, an introductory economics course — as a sign that they simply don’t have the ability. They may then opt for a safer path.

By contrast, people with a “growth mindset” think their abilities can be improved with effort, strategy and mentoring. Drawn to challenge, they persist despite setbacks — or even because of setbacks.

…Girls, perhaps seen as well-motivated already, are given fewer messages to try harder or again. They are left to wonder whether their challenges reflect something deeper about their ability.”

Among working designers, this thought can also be the reason why beginners get meaningless projects, why designers don’t collaborate with non-designers, and why we’re very quick to let early and crazier ideas die. Which is a mistake, because many of these people and ideas can end up delivering special and critical contributions because they are uninhibited and view the world differently.

This myth also breeds the assumption that once you’re a master designer, you’re never a beginner. In fact, the best thing a master can do is maintain pursuit of the beginner’s mind and constantly challenge their learning.

Closing thoughts

Designers have a certain power to shape the world around them in positive and negative ways. Even the most well-intentioned designers are prone to bias, which can echo loudly even through the smallest symbols. The best way to overcome these biases is to ensure we have the right minds on the problems we’re trying to solve.

Right now, our profession is not as welcoming as it could be to these perspectives. This article is not intended to charge any particular group or medium with this problem, just to remind us all that we can each be more thoughtful and inclusive in small ways — like in changing a job description, or an icon.

Actively searching for myths in our thoughts, language, and designs is one of many tactics we can use to deconstruct the artificial barriers in our field which promote complacency and exclusion. This is my small contribution.

Only when we disassemble these ideas can we make our profession more inclusive, hear the voices of people we’re trying to serve, and advance the impact of what we do.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to say hi or check out some of my old work.

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