Rising above the Shark-Infested Waters of Design

Dear Designer,

It has come to my attention that on the eve of last Wednesday, the 4th of September, something terrible happened that has upset you greatly.

I am sure you know what I am referring to. Such traumatic events are not easily forgotten. The Twitterverse was ablaze with the news. Our friends and fellow designers were struck completely unprepared.

Yes. That’s right. Yahoo unveiled a new corporate logo and you thought it was god-awful.

I understand that it pained you so to look at it. Your sensitive eyes, they were not made for such atrocities. That skinny purple type did not lift your spirits and invoke an attitude of whimsy. The concentric circles in that video bewildered you. Furthermore, you whole-heartedly disapprove of spending weekends with your boss designing logos—such is not the rigorous process that good design demands.

(And the bevels? My god, what era are we in, 1998? Bevel and emboss is so middle school. Might as well turn on the TV to watch N’Sync and start wearing plaid shirts again… Oh wait…)

So of course you took to the Internetz. You felt you had no choice but to defend the sanctity of the design profession (and perhaps also the sanctity of your own personal taste) by crafting a series of deadly-sharp, 140-character barbs against the offense that is the new Yahoo logo. Physical threats were levied against the faceless designers that brought this logo into being. Insinuations were made that perhaps it was a cruel joke or a bad dream. Comparisons to Papyrus were invoked.

All in all, it made for some very negative, very toxic, very—well, plain mean—Wednesday night reading.

I have only a few questions for you. Is this necessary?

Is all the hate-spouting, design-bashing, let’s-try-to-one-up-each-other-in-how-awful-we-think-this-thing-is necessary? Is that the best use of our wit and our critical eye?

Does being part of the design community mean we have to keep throwing vitriol into the public? Does talking smack in a snide “I’m better than that” manner make us seem more authentic? More passionate about good design? More discerning? More like Steve Jobs?

Is bashing the work of other designers (who we may not know in person but who we’d probably enjoy a good beer with) part of the gig?

I’d like to hope the answer is a big, resounding, f-ing NO.

Lest you misunderstand, I’m not trying to paint some rose-tinted fantasyland where all work is A for effort. Not all work is good work. There will always be designs that meet a bar and designs that don’t. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Critique is vital to design culture and education. Pointing out which elements of a design work or don’t work (and why) is how designers learn from each other and grow.

But there is a difference between critique for the sake of learning/helping/making something better and critique that isn’t. Sometimes there is a fine line, but most of the time it’s obvious which is which. A good deal of the negative chatter on the Internetz and in casual conversation comes from a place of ego, a desire to join the club of people who have enlightened taste, a desire to feel better about oneself and one’s own work by putting down the work of others.

I know this because I’ve been there. It can feel fun. It can make you laugh. It can feel good and therapeutic, like you’re righteous, like you’re among a select few who care—genuinely care—about what’s the truest, purest form of good. It can feel like you’re straight and honest, above the bullshit of dealing with people politics and whether or not you’ve hurt anyone’s feelings because c’mon, why does any of that matter when the work isn’t good enough? Or it can feel inevitable, like this is how it should be, because some designer once said something shitty about your own work, and you got over it and you got better, so it’s all part of the circle of life.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The negativity hurts us. It hurts the entire design community. It makes people associate designer with immature. It deters some folks who value empathy and collaboration from even considering the design profession because they don’t want to be steeped in all that toxicity. It’s a barrier to designers scooping up top leadership positions. It sends the wrong message to young designers who are looking for role models.

Can you think something is bad without revealing your pointy teeth? Can you hold a high bar without putting others off? Can you talk about why you don’t like a particular design without being mean-spirited about it?

Of course you can.

Dear designer, if there’s one thing to take away from the Yahoogate, or iOS7gate before that, or the many other gates that have been and will be: critique with class. Hold others accountable for critiquing with class.

Plenty of talented designers do. And those are the ones I want to see inherit the future of our industry.