Designing Beyond 2020
This is that time of year where the ritualistic end-of-year articles begin popping up — Looking Back at 2020 or 2020 in Retrospect. There always seem to be scores of articles predicting future design trends and the future of the user experience. That’s not what this is.
While I do harbor a certain fascination with our species’ ability to establish temporal landmarks and treat December 31st as distinct and different from January 1st, I don’t entertain any fantasies around the clean slate idea of closing out one year and beginning another. History seems to bear a continuity that bleeds beyond the margins of a well-structured calendar.
We’ll still have the same lives and the same problems tomorrow as we have today. 2021 will probably be a lot like 2020.
Sorry if that last line was the equivalent of pissing in your Cheerios but don’t stop reading yet. There’s an optimistic element to what I’m getting at here.
So while 2021 may not be much different than 2020, there are certain defining events in any year. They aren’t always easy to identify — especially where change is concerned. It’s sort of like gaining or losing weight. You don’t even notice it’s happening despite looking at yourself in the mirror every day. It’s a subtle change that is easier to identify well after the fact. That’s what I think might be happening in 2020 to the design community.
I’ve recently noticed a parallel between the design profession and current events of the world. I am mostly referring to UX design here while also recognizing this encompasses all types of designers. There is a burgeoning interest in events that are larger than us, larger than our community.
Over the holidays, I spent some time catching up on podcasts I had let build up, largely due to my lack of a commute this year. It was interesting to look at the variety of topics and how they mirrored current events of the world. There were episodes covering design’s role in inequality, eco-friendly digital design, addressing misinformation and all sorts of topics around ethics.
It wasn’t always like this. Ten years ago we were mostly talking about design methods and how to increase our footprints in organizations. It is as though our profession has become mature enough to begin recognizing our place in the world and using the tools we have at our disposal to make a difference. Or, at least we’re having conversations about those things.
It’s kind of like UX is growing up — no longer a tween or a teen but rather a young adult. We’re reaching that point of maturity where we are more self-aware. We’re considering our place in the world, our impact and our ability to change the world for the better (or sometimes for the worse). We’re considering our work in the context of current events tackling topics like the environment, social inequalities, political misinformation — issues that affect our lives deeply.
Of course, there are those who would make the point that we were talking about these deeper issues many years ago, that this isn’t a 2020 thing. Maybe that’s true. But we weren’t talking about these issues at this level in 2010 or even in 2015. We didn’t seem to have that self-awareness we’ve begun to develop over the past few years — that sense of place, belonging and purpose.
I don’t know that 2020 represents the boiling point around social inequalities or misinformation or any other ethical issue. I don’t think there is a clear line of demarcation on these sorts of things. But 2020 has had more events packed into it than many of the years preceding it. It is a year that will likely spawn changes beyond its existence — maybe for the good, maybe for the worse. It’s also a year where our roles as designers in a greater society have never been more clear.
And we’ve been talking about it.
That’s good. Dialogs allow us to work through issues as a profession. It’s where awareness is cultivated and the seeds of change can be planted.
People often say, design can’t change the world — that we shouldn’t, as designers, expect to make the largest splash. I have often said this as well. But when we look at the world around us, it is almost completely by design. You can choose almost any topic in current events or at a global scale and find that it is by design.
Environmental issues, for example. We designed the machines that burn fossil fuels and the systems they operate in — everything from assembly lines to our network of connected roads. We design the devices and machines that use electricity. We are a very large part of what exists on the internet. While it is clear we have played a very large role in the contributing factors to environmental harm, some of the solutions will likely fall at our feet.
National and local elections in America (and across the globe) are by design. The voting process, establishing constituent boundaries (to include the manipulation of those boundaries) and the campaigns themselves all have rather large design components to them.
Social inequality is largely by design. We have gerrymandered, put certain laws in place to keep castes in power and designed systems to exclude those who are not. Urban design often results in the displacement of residents, unaffordable housing and diminished access to key resources such as transportation, education and healthcare. Designers are sprinkled throughout this entire process. Decisions are by design. We even design the tools that support the existing castes.
We may not be the sole voice in the room. We are often not the decision-makers around some of these issues. But I think we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t recognize the large part we play and the influence we have in shaping decisions around these issues.
If you work hard enough to pick something apart, just to see how it works, you’ll often find design as a primary culprit to either a good or bad outcome. That soap dispenser that doesn’t recognize your skin because it is too dark to reflect enough light? I can hazard a guess as to how that happened.
The product was either not tested at all or it was tested but not with a representative sample (i.e. there were no darker-skinned humans used in the study). Perhaps it was built from a set of existing specifications, a set of standards, that determine how much light the sensor needs to engage. Maybe budget money was slim and testing was pushed off to the end when it was too late to implement any research discoveries. Regardless, you can see how this outcome could have been significantly influenced by a pesky designer pushing for earlier testing or a representative sample.
I am not laying blame for the woes of the world on designers here. Nor am I suggesting we have any sort of absolute power over our ideas. I’m merely underscoring our importance. I’m underscoring our ability to influence small parts of the world and that those small parts eventually bubble up into a larger whole.
Given all that has happened, I’m not discouraged by 2020 or the state of affairs in the world. I’m excited about the possibilities that exist. When I hear other designers talking about the importance and ethical implications of the decisions we make, when I hear designers discuss the environmental impacts of design or how we can design for a more equitable world, I understand that I am not alone in recognizing the potential for change and our potential to initiate that change.
Change often emerges from chaotic events. But it is preceded by the recognition of an attainable goal or milestone, the idea that change is possible. Once we recognize that a goal is attainable or a problem is solvable (or must be addressed), that’s when we begin to take action. But the true change begins within us, as a belief.
An open dialog within our profession opens our minds to the possibilities that may exist around a topic. It generates energy for a topic. It is where our dreams and ideas are realized. And ultimately, it fuels our desire for change when an attainable goal has been realized.
The conversations we are having as designers are an indication that we recognize the problems, the potential for change and how our roles can have an impact. UX is growing up as a profession. We are looking beyond 2020.
We are already designing well beyond 2020. The future of design is here. It’s us. It’s our wild ideas, our crazy dreams. It’s our conversations and interactions as a professional community.
The issues of the world today are massive — the environment, inequality, healthcare, misinformation. And we’re talking about it. We are becoming part of the conversation. That is, I think, a milestone. It’s the first step in understanding the scope of the problems and ideating solutions.
We’re designers. We’re dreamers. I can think of no group better fit for the task. And that is worth getting excited about.
2020 will likely not be a year we look back on with warm feelings. But it is a year we may look back on and identify as the place where the seeds of change were sewn.