The hype of design

A critique of “Designer Duds” but also a dialogue for design as a profession


[Originally published on Pangaea]

This will be a quick one. A lot of you have read Mills Baker’s Designer Duds: Losing Our Seat at the Table. It is an interesting piece, and if you have not read it, you totally should. I do not however, agree with a lot of the points or inferences. Calling some of these companies or apps as failure seems shortsighted. There are also some parts of the article that did not resonate so well with me. Here are some points, I wish the article had touched on or approached in a better way. There are lot of subtleties in issues like this, that are often glossed over, when discussed in public forum.

NAMING NAMES

First things first. It is never ok to point fingers, especially in a public forum to make your point, especially if the work is still ongoing. The examples he claims as failure are a result of hard work of teams and people on those teams. To simply declare it as a failure and call it a day, seems not only premature and shortsighted but also amateur and unprofessional. To prove the point, Mokriya, the company where the author works also worked on Hipster, an app that solved none of the problems the article seems to champion for. See how easy it is to point flaws?

“By the way, what have you done that’s so great? Do you create anything, or just criticize others work and belittle their motivations?” — Steve Jobs

ON ITERATION

Talking of naming names. There is something to be said of design as an iterative process. To choose a random time as a finish line and judge a design in the binary states of success or failure is not fair to anyone. Square, by any means is not a failure of design. It is a failure of a business model whose sole validity lies in being able to scale. Who knows they might as well be on their way to find the right partnership that will enable them to scale. Regarding Paper and Carousel, being on that list was honestly disappointing. Not to say that the apps are perfect and everything mentioned in the article is wrong. But they have also been barely out there. With minimal iteration and tweaks done since the initial launch. Sure there might be problems, but they are also fixable. This is why most of digital design is more an iteration than a milestone.

Foursquare is a great example of what iteration can get you. From a mere game, it has become a standard way for millions to find cool things to do in any city. Does it not have user growth or revenue issues? I am pretty sure they have their own share of issues too. But are they a failure — Hell No!

DESIGN IS NOT A CURE FOR CANCER.

Or not at least in how we think of it today.

This is not simply a problem with the article but a much larger phenomenon, especially true amongst designers. Design is not a cure for cancer. It is not going to solve all your problems in one swipe of the wand. It is one of the many tools that a team has at their disposal to solve meaningful problems. Sometimes the primary motivation is to solve a business problem and to think that is somehow morally flawed is ridiculous. Design as a profession exists for this very purpose. The way design differentiates, is by finding the overlap of user needs with where there is a potential for business goals to be achieved simultaneously.

Design does not exist in isolation to just solve social problems. It is very much tied with the realities of business. See Everpix of how a well designed and thought product solving a real problem, can fail for the lack of no business opportunity existing. To say this is a failure of design, is thinking of design as a Holy Grail of all solutions. I would also urge you to read Johnnie Manzari’s “When good design is not enough”.

Some may argue, that design, when holistically thought through could have foreseen those problems mentioned in above articles. And yes. They are right. But then why are the examples of good looking but not thoroughly thought out apps so common? Maybe the answer lies in that coveted “Seat” that design is assumed to have.

THE GOLDEN SEAT

A lot of the article is based on the assumption that design has a central seat at every organization. How many companies have a design equivalent for CEO, CTOs or CFOs? For design to truly have a seat at the table one should not have to think so hard for an answer to that question. How many companies have a partnership as healthy as one between Jobs and Jonny? How many even have someone with the same power and authority to command and steer a company, as Ive?

In most early stage startups I consult for, there is no “executive” team member responsible for design.

David Kaneda wrote a great article on this fallacy. Instead of trying to quote everything he said, you should simply read his version.

QUESTIONING WHAT A DESIGNER TRULY MEANS?

What makes a person a designer? If you were to look at the majority of job descriptions, ability to use Photoshop would be pretty high on that list. Once a profession starts identifying itself with knowledge of a tool than the understanding of a process, there is serious introspection to be done.

This is where Mills’ article is spot on and worth the discussion it has caused. Why are we so territorial having a Product Manager or an engineer who is great with holistic understanding of products, discuss ideas with us? Or even the assumption that it is only a designer’s decision to make? Why do we think the title “designer” makes us any better to understand products whereas everyone else is too stupid to be heard. As long as we keep debating about titles instead of the roles or the product itself, it’s a lost cause.

This is where we as an industry need to button up. How about we stop portraying Dribbble as “the place to find designers” but more the place to find visual designers. We have become too comfortable in the buckets of skills we have created. To the extent that we are having debates whether designers should learn to code. Has it ever hurt anyone to learn a new thing, if they are interested in it? Frank Chimero, wrote a long but beautiful post about these artificial divides we have created as an industry.

TO CONCLUDE

As an industry we need to be less territorial and more worried about the products we are building. There is also something to be said about this being primarily an organizational discussion whose value is inherently lost on public forums because of multiple agendas that people have when reading an article like this. For some it becomes an opportunity to throw dirt at the work of others, while for others it becomes a way to show the moral high-ground that they presumably hold over others. All this ends up leaving the genuine reaction and discussion too maligned.

In closing I think there are a lot of great points raised in the original article, but also a lot of subtleties missed in the discussion. Hopefully this provides enough perspective from both sides.

Let’s get back to building useful & delightful things.