Design has sadly become just a function of the business. Or perhaps it was always the need for upselling unsold stock to customers that fueled creativity and invention. Due to weak design culture, we are sinking again in useless products and harmful experiences, risking to give up on our privacy, serendipity, and eventually our freedom to express ourselves. Here is why.
To design was always a pure, creative act.
Sorry, it was never. You may have been mistaking it with Art. But there’s an important distinction to be made for the glorious past of design — and in some cases that may save modern design from the bad judgment of history.
Before mass media and hyper consumeristic societies were established, early industrial designers were considered humanizers — interfaces with the zeitgeist, philosophers, and researchers. The corrective value of design often contributed to their products’ market fit.
After the consumeristic society was established, Design started to be used mostly for the sole objective of advertising a product or a service while changing the customer perception of their social status. Product Design in the post-industrial era swiftly became a mix of statistical and business practices. Designers started to produce a sort of marketing based design, very often sold as democratic design. Paternalistic “purchase advice” is treated as useful information. We’re still in the long tail of this phase.
In the internet era, corporate culture has extensively modified areas of our private and public life. Social media companies are strongly manipulated by financial interests, and yet is the only accessible “public” arena. Big tech and media companies can “easily” create artificial needs and desires.
By helping the system cannibalize itself designers started to move in the back seats while believing they were gaining more power.
Sure, we can cheer us up, pleased to see how far we went. And yes, there’s much more recognition of the role of the designer nowadays. Some designers can seat at the same table as CEOs and VPs. But at what cost?
Design is not a bullshit job.
But it can be. The one of the designer is a job that could span from extremely important and strategic to frivolous, and sometimes even superfluous. This versatility helped designers to be recognized in any industry as necessary parts of a team.
In recent years the D-word is everywhere. However, today more than ever, designers face a much more significant challenge that is both personal and political.
Just ask yourself a simple question: “How efficient am I at creating long-lasting value and emotions for my customers?”. If you work for a company that essentially prevents you from helping your customers (and not just selling them more) — well.. you know the answer. If you feel that duct taper, goon, or taskmaster are words can be applied to you, please don’t fall into despair, you’re not alone.
Designers will be designers.
Well, sure. But as much as many other folks in your company is now practiced by content strategists, product managers, developers, directors, marketing interns, you name it. Design action is everywhere — and therefore, somehow, nowhere.
Accountability and responsibility seem to be transferred very easily from designers to other figures within the company. Once the corporate structure is applied to design work and routine, product and business managers share rightfully a much bigger slice of the pie.
What once was mostly designers’ praise or blame pursuit of excellence and success, the effort of delivering a great product is now shared by so many people that recognizing an inspiring vision to act on shared beliefs is challenging, to use a euphemism. Fast acquired tribal knowledge may be attractive and give a sense of protection against chaos. Accountability dissolves, and designers might get accustomed to saying more yeses than noes. Innovation? Maybe later.
Designers aim high.
Not always. It really depends on where they fire their shots. Not a lot of designers I’ve met are aware of the power or they have, or the influence they can exert. Many of them simply get allured by a very rigid and performance-based routine which is really the opposite of what you want as a creative space to be able to really think out of the box. Get busy, and get the job done — a typical corporate mantra.
The creative process relies on connecting the dots, some of which don’t even exist yet. Stretching the imagination is like training a muscle for an athlete: the more you exercise the imagination the more value you can put out into your projects. Constants must be changed into variables, constraints and biases into laughable jokes. Real design is wrong and playful at first. Then “good” designers make it right.
As a designer, you have to weaponize yourself, made yourself the tool to move forward your own thinking in exploration mode. Being too polite, conforming to all the rules and habits is counter-productive. The right thing to do is to be wrong, weird, chase and lose, jump, and fall. Does it ring a bell when I say “fail fast”?
“[…] Designers can, and should engage in processes of destruction, rather than creation […]” — Maurizio Montalti, Officina Corpuscoli.
Design happens in a safe space that can impose some rules upon its players. These constraints are to be used to push forward an idea, stimulate new findings and solutions — and never justify the mediocrity of the results. The MVP culture thrives to an unimaginable extent rendering poor design results.
Moreover, because designers serve business religiously, their major dogma is acquired from the growth department. The resultant value is created for the business, not for the user. With these structures Design loses its creative energy for its technical value.
“It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” — Steve Jobs
A company that doesn’t allow for that cycle of destruction and creation to happen will prevent designers form-finding ways to innovate — to create new value. They’ll eventually exhaust their energy by conforming themselves to this-or-that new design method and being playful and “wrong” would be readily avoided.
Design has nothing to do with politics.
You probably forgot about this. Or perhaps you never knew it. But it has especially long term.
You easily became part of the big machine, serving the optimization of the processes, not the creation of a better product. You now follow the rules. You are solution makers to business problems. You measure your success based on your employer’s success. You’ve learned how to navigate complex corporate environments.
Being tangible, more measurable than ever, we can really see how Design was always a political act. By questioning not only the solution but also the rightness of the problem, you can sharply distinguish the you-designer from the you-engineer. With the words of a redeemed prophet Design should be practiced…
“…not just as an act of creation, but as an act of choosing what to create, and what not to create […] “ — Mike Monteiro
Real Design was also a revolutionary act. Designers were pushing the boundaries of what was possible, or imaginable — not just a weapon in the hands of IT companies and CEOs. While design for marketing is a-political by definition, Design for the people is, always was, and always will be, a strong political act. You just need to decide which side you’re going to take.
Uninspiring corporate strategies and an education system focused on employment severed the connection between design’s purpose and its impact on society so designers could contribute to an impoverished culture of materialism at all costs. We designed the world to become what it is right now and therefore it will be destroyed, most likely by Design, not by the lack of it.
At the end of the day, we design buttons. Right?
If you ever felt the need to jump over a couple of managers or VP to solve a problem; If you ever wanted to speak up about annoying political positions, or rigid decision-making processes; If you ever felt like promoting alternative ideas would be beneficial to the user but could hurt your career — then you may reconsider the value of your duties, take a chance, find a way out, or away against.
Don’t design just buttons. Design the right ones.
Nielsen-Norman’s 5 users rule: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-you-only-need-to-test-with-5-users/
Google guerrilla testins: https://youtu.be/0YL0xoSmyZI
Words can change the world: https://youtu.be/xegAFhfIbHU
Emotional courage: https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_david_the_gift_and_power_of_emotional_courage?
Silicon Valley Design Scene: https://youtu.be/F6Srzcm8EEg
The Office — Nonsense: https://youtu.be/_Lngf3J8vN4
Forrester report on XD 2020: https://reprints.forrester.com/#/assets/2/1877/RES152255/reports
How Designers Destroyed The World: https://youtu.be/qIcM21l61TE by Mike Monteiro
*Rob Harr Sparkbox