When Design Feels Like an Uphill battle

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Photo by Ed Dunens

Have you ever struggled in an environment that didn’t really appreciate design as a profession? How did you handle it?

This has probably been *the* most common discussion topic among designers over the past decade. Pretty much every designer I know (myself included) has, at one point or another, felt they were working with people who didn’t fully appreciate design.

I chalk this up to a simple reason: not understanding the value of design. It’s a rapidly growing field, after all — a decade ago, very few tech or consulting companies had in-house design teams. It was very common, even five years ago for me, to meet an engineer who had never worked with a designer before. And even among the design community itself, the question of “what is the role of design?” has different answers.

So what can you do?

Communicate very explicitly what you think success in your role looks like: don’t assume people know, and don’t assume ill intent. If an engineer you work with thinks your job is to make things look pretty because she hasn’t ever worked with a designer before, it’s not her fault. She’s not against you. She doesn’t devalue you. She simply doesn’t have another mental model of what designers do. So explain it to her. Help her understand what design is all about. My goal is to make this feel like an easy-to-use experience that our customers love, not just to make each screen look nice. Or My goal is to help us arrive at the product idea will work the best for people. Or My goal is to help us get to a shared vision of what problems our product could solve a year out. Say this over and over again with any new person you work with. Yes, it might seem tiring — why doesn’t everyone know already? In time, they will. But someone has to explain it to them first. Why not you?

Demonstrate your value: I’ve heard a lot of talk about whether or not design deserves a seat at the table. This sometimes manifests as: Why wasn’t I invited to that strategic meeting? Why wasn’t I consulted on that decision? Why wasn’t that important piece of context shared with me? Those are the wrong questions to ask. Instead, ask: How has my work directly impacted the business? How can I help solve the biggest problems my team is facing? What can I do to help the organization work better together? Then, go out and do those things. Yes, there may be a bit of a chicken-and-egg challenge — it’s harder to get started at first because your environment doesn’t expect it from you and doesn’t make it easy for you. Don’t let that stop you though.

I knew a designer who started working with a team that didn’t really understand design. They were struggling with three possible product initiatives at the time. My friend wasn’t initially invited to the discussions. He decided, however, that this was precisely the kind of problem where design could be valuable. He first started by asking questions to understand the full extent of the problem. And once he understood it, he proposed a plan for figuring out which of the three strategies to pursue that included an offsite to align on the goals, a design sprint to explore the product direction for each strategy, and a plan for conducting user research on each strategy. It was a great plan that helped the team move forward. After that, the team never debated product strategy without him in the room.

Find another environment: teams are like significant others. If you don’t feel like there’s a great fit, you can certainly take steps to improve your situation. In a relationship, you can do things like have more honest conversations or change some of your behavior. With teams, you can take those steps as well (as described in the two points above). But it’s also possible, in relationships as well as in companies, that the effort doesn’t feel worth it to you. There may be other people or teams or companies where the battle won’t be uphill because you share more of the same values. Without knowing you or your specific situation, I can’t say whether this is a good or bad idea. But it’s worth remembering that we always have the option to change our environment.

Best of luck with that hill, and have a wonderful week.


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