Reflections on being a designer

Over the years I have tried to create more than I consume. Practicing product design was one way to address the imbalance in my head. And I’ve found that within this field there’s no right way, but that there are many paths to take amongst a constantly shifting landscape.

Everyday brings an onslaught of new information about what design is and how it should be done. In constantly soaking up the shiny and new, I fear that I’m accepting most of this information unexamined. In other words, I feel like I’m allowing myself to be “crammed with ready-made facts”. This passivity siphons energy from the greater power of examining what’s new in the form of self-inquiry. Am I processing new information critically through my own viewpoints and experiences? Or am I just cobbling together knowledge in a loose encyclopedia? After 6 years doing various forms of design work, I feel like I’m getting a bit sloppy on this front.

I want to hit pause on consuming. I want to spend more time on what I believe to be true — the important things I think about. I want to consider again the question of what really matters? And this essay is my way of opening up some space for those thoughts to flow.

Confidence

At the end of whatever journey we take as designers, I believe in caring about two main outcomes: who we become and what we leave behind. My hope is that I understand how I’ve changed, and that I am satisfied with the things I have made.

And what success looks like for me on this path is progression in my abilities, and in self-discovery, so that I can attain greater creative confidence and be more useful to others. And also progression in developing and releasing products with high utility, impact, and desirability.

I want to be a great practitioner of design, instead of a “great” designer. Good designer, bad designer, senior designer, junior designer — what effects do the labels we identify with, and pursue for ourselves, have on our mindsets? In the design industry, these labels lock us into fixed mindsets much too often. How many times do we shy away from showing work or effort because we’re afraid it would jeopardize our label? And more importantly, do these labels give us true creative confidence? They more often lead to imposter syndrome and self doubt. I want designers to re-invest in their creative confidence.

Confidence comes from the deep practice and deliberate expression of our core abilities. Practice with an intensity of focus — a rapt attention that overcomes the world of distraction. Expression with empathy — that how we demonstrate abilities to others determines how others value these abilities. Are we brave in the face of disorder and complexity? Are we holistic and people-centered in our approach to defining problems? I’m interested in seeing how designers evolve and grow through the lens of creative confidence.

This is a world where the constant influx of new information leads to constant feelings of deficiency. We need to re-focus on being, instead of having. Being on the path to mastery, instead of having it. The deeper our practice, and the more intense our focus, the more progress and confidence we’ll ultimately find.

Reliance

Are we making society itself more resourceful?

We’ve progressed so far and so fast with technology — especially in the social space. But the most popular software products today are still formed from simplified views of human behavior. We can see this in the blind adoption of Net Promoter Scores. We can see this in the predictive matching algorithms that power our Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, and Amazon feeds. We can see this in the way dating & social apps constrain our behavior into basic patterns of low level communication.

We can see this even in the way our teams choose to focus on what to build. I remember reading an essay by Dustin Curtis where he quotes a Facebook employee saying, “Whatever goes up, that’s what we do. We are slaves to the numbers. We don’t operate around innovation. We only optimize. We do what goes up.” It’s an unflattering portrait, but one that’s authentic to the nature of our companies. We build products based heavily on numbers — numbers that can’t accurately reflect human behavior.

Reliance on overly simplistic views of human behavior leads to products that dehumanize us. We know that human action comes from a deep wellspring of causes and behaviors. Just because we get water in the bucket, doesn’t mean that we can predict how deep the well is.

As designers, what do we rely on to make decisions, or to achieve outcomes? In our journey to balance user needs, technology capabilities, and business objectives, we rely heavily on hard, objective quantities like: time on task, difficulty ratings, common action paths, activation/retention rates, usability test scores, and personas. We try really hard to quantify UX, so that we can then rely on those quantities to make decisions.

In The Moment of Clarity, Christian Madsbjerg writes, “The hard sciences are focused on data with properties (hard, objective facts like weight and distance), while the human sciences collect data that allows us to see aspects, or the way people experience such properties.” We need to rely more on data that allows us to see aspects — data that is rich, textured, thick with meaning. The tools of the human sciences, especially open ended inquiry and ethnography, can help us collect this data and uncover new insights. We’ve just underinvested in them for a while.

This is where I find the Jobs To Be Done framework so interesting, because it shifts our reliance to include more of the human sciences. It can help us collect richer, textured data. It can help us attain a higher level of understanding where “everything subjective and inside the self [is] being projected out into the world, objects and events forming intricate chains of meaning” (Publication — Psyche). When I think about what designers rely on, I want to them to include more of the human sciences, so that I can be confident in our abilities when the business world delivers a challenge we don’t understand.

So…are we making society itself more resourceful?

The behavioral sink, a term to illustrate a collapse in behavior resulting from overcrowding and hyper-socializing, is a growing undercurrent in our world. And with creators of social technology continually relying on simplistic views of human action, it looks like approaching the brink. Maybe a turnaround lies in shifting our reliance a bit, in making tools for society to shift its reliance here and there. And if we’re already in the sink, then we have left our humanity to whither, the recuperation of which is to be our next greatest design challenge.

Possibility

If we mean nothing, we can do anything. We’re already dust in the grand scheme of things, so pursue what you love. Discard all opinion that doesn’t resonate. What if everything that we’re experiencing now and in our whole lives is already a memory? So treat our moments and people like cherished memories — love those memories. From now onwards we are living in bonus time — extended play. So love what you want to love. And how do you decide what? Simple. Just choose the story you want to see! We’re already dust!

We can’t progress as designers if we trap ourselves into thinking that we must always generate new meaning. This leads design work to be distracting, and less satisfying. We need to free ourselves from that mentality. We can always focus efforts on discerning the meaning that is already here.

It’s not about competition. It’s not about always having to do things better or newer, but always exploring doing things differently. Design has no set rules. It’s endless.