Design isn’t about design.
or, “Design” is garbage.*
Too often, “design” is this thing that’s elusive and exclusive. “Designers” see themselves as a special type of person. A clever and perceptive, rare breed. Maybe my experience is totally different, but I can’t imagine I’m the only one who gets the feeling and general vibe that either you’re a “designer” or you’re other.
It’s seen as something you are, rather than something you practice or learn or God forbid, simply pursue and grow in as a career because you enjoy it. And that’s odd to me. It’s become more of a way you look and are perceived. An identity in crisis that reveals itself in how you talk, how you view others, and even how you see your own ability.
We need good design.
Now look. I get it. In the classic sense, most designers have an artistic temperament. In very real ways they do see the world differently. And we need people like that. This isn’t some anti-designer post. We need good people that can slice through the fog and see into the unknown to things that don’t yet exist and plan for them to be better. But don’t call it design. Or do call it design but don’t be so weird about it.
Here’s what I mean.
We don’t need more designers who are simply designers by replication and association. Wacom weilding, Apple-juice-bleeding pixel pushers. Too many of those have caved to the pressure and sub-cultural expectation to be something else first.
To be a “designer”, not simply one who designs.
Many (and not just designers) can fall into this trap where they equate status with success.
Too often, this “designer” persona is rapidly appropriated, midly repackaged, and then remarketed by the designer to other designers. Designers fawn over each others’ designs and desk setups, looking for recognition and exposure to other designers who can introduce or name drop them to other even more successful designers who can get them on par with the famous ones. You know, the ones people don’t question and who work with all the good brands and can do whatever the hell they want. Those ones.
This is where designers equate status with success. Likes with respect, and subscribers, accolades, and “friends” with validation. And once you’re on that carousel, it’s incredibly hard to get off and almost impossible to see what’s really going on outside your cyclical world as you dizzyingly buzzword around the same piles of pixel poo.
Here’s what’s at the center of that circle, which I think is where the problem begins:
Many designers are more focused on their personal brand, following, and attracting attention than they are on sacrificially serving the people they work for.
Projects are a means to an end. Not something to pour your heart into or dig deep with or sweat over. Companies and brands are just a resource to be used to reach the next rung of your perfectly procured, midcentury modern ladder to the stars. People are a stepping stone to other people. Customers are eyeballs to be acquired. Your designer belt always needs a couple more notches.
It’s a sneakily subversive slope, and I don’t think most designers even realize they’re falling into these patterns and habits. Especially those who are just getting started and trying to figure things out and find their niche.
Because so much of the typical “designer” persona can be borrowed and mimicked, it’s super hard to even recognize that it has happened or is currently happening to them. Partially because if it’s happening or has happened it feels like success! Like they’ve made it. And if they’re doing what everyone else is doing and people are encouraging them in it, why would they change?
Every designer wants to “Think Different” but not many end up being truly different. Rejecting or re-shaping the “design” culture to focus on people and creating real value and sacrificing for the sake of their future, their clients, their products, and beliefs.
Instead, designers make design about design. Because it’s easier. It’s about creating designs. A slick, lickable, clickable subculture with soggy flat buttons where the only real “problem” being solved is how to growth-hack your network to get access to the brands and kind of recognition and fame you think you want. An endless circle of everyone copying everyone else and celebrating personal brand-building, sly self-serving, or shameless self-promotion only thinly veiled as real contributions or commuity-building.
Now I have a confession. I design for a living.
But I don’t think most people see me as a “designer”. I’ve never crafted or pushed that persona in any area of my life.
In fact, I think if you asked most people who know me well, they wouldn’t even call me a designer. Even good friends I’ve had for years who know what I do and have worked with me. They’d say I’m good at computers or, be like, oh yeah — he’s the tech guy! Maybe if I’m lucky they’d say I’m a good manager. Or that I make websites. He helped make that product, or he used to work at fill-in-the-blank. Or something else like that.
I’m positive most wouldn’t say designer. And that’s okay with me.
People don’t really know what design is. Most designers don’t even know.
We need to regularly expand and demystify what it means to design. Get it out of myth and just recognize that the requirements to be a good designer are exactly like being good at any other job in the world. You must be willing to regularly practice a set of skills, have a desire to learn, and solid work ethic. All paired with a decent level of emotional intelligence. The more EQ you have, the better.
At the very, very least we need to immediately kill the concept that design is this completely separate thing from real life and normal people.
It’s not it’s own category.
So can we agree to just stop pretending it is and propping it up as a Thing To Be Admired?
I’ve been designing for almost 15 years — pretty much my entire career.
It’s always mildly amusing to me when a designer talks to me about how being a designer is such a unique thing. How it’s so much more involved than anyone realizes and they have to protect their creativity and time because people don’t understand what they do, and if they don’t watch out, they’ll be taken advantage of. Typical designer stuff. Polarization between one world and “the other”.
And it’s funny to me because I’ve been designing for almost 15 years — pretty much my entire career one way or another. And not once has my title said “designer”.
I secretly kind of love that.
It’s not something I promote, and I don’t really care if I’m known that way. People can think whatever they want about me based on their experience with me. I’ve done everything from digital design, to event and environmental design. And yes, web and product and print design.
During all of that time I’ve come to realize that design isn’t pixels or materials or philosophy or aesthetic (though it can be expressed sometimes in those ways).
It’s not an identity. It’s also not your accessories, and it’s sure as hell not your follower count or the brands you’ve worked for.
Seriously who cares.
Design is simply seeing and solving problems for people. That’s it.
Which is why it’s so silly that we have so many “designers” and articles in our feeds everywhere talking about “design thinking” and applying “design thinking” to industries and markets outside of “design”. Like what in the world… Is “Design” its own industry now? LinkedIn seems to think so. And yes, my industry selection on my profile now says “Design”. A note on that in a minute.
But that’s so ridiculous…right? Am I crazy? Why does Medium have over 5,400 articles under the topic “Design Thinking”? 🙄
Design isn’t some magical place that designers descend from to help fix all our problems with “design thinking”. That idea is unbelievably pretentious if you think about it for just a second.
It’s total 🐄💩. You know it, and I know it.
Since we started Foyyay, I’ve noticed something. When you say you’re a designer, people rarely question it or ask a follow up question. I think that largely has to do with the fact that it immediately lets them categorize you. For better or worse, people like that. They like boxes and things they can quickly understand and mesh within their unique context.
So I’ve found myself telling more and more people that I’m a designer, as an easier way to quickly describe and communicate what it is I do at Foyyay.
But it’s not for the sake of design. And it’s certainly not for the status. I’m literally only using that title (somewhat begrudgingly) for the sake of people and what they need to be able to understand what it is I do, and the creative space Foyyay provides. It’s not my identity. It’s not something I’m fighting to protect. It’s just a way to build understanding and connect better with people. In my opinion, that is real design.
And sure, I‘m a huge hypocrite in probably every way imaginable. I’m sure I’m inconsistent with myself 100 times a day. And maybe I’ll be the one doing all the stereotypical “designer” things at some point. And maybe someone will comment with something that changes my mind. Totally possible.
I really hope not.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel the pull of it like a siren song. It is alluring. It is super attractive to be a “designer”. Like VC funding, it can be a drug if you’re not careful. Personally, I kind of enjoy flying under the radar. I’d rather focus on designing solutions to problems and working with people I actually enjoy. Letting them tell and speak my story, so I don’t have to.
Because in a very real way, I don’t even like that I’m writing this.
If it was all about me, I wouldn’t write any blog or tweet or post anything online. I feel like there’s enough words in the world without me adding mine.
As soon as you write something, it’s memorialized. And you start to confine and define the person you are now in the minds of people who read what you write. I’m doing it right now and I cringe. Sooo meta, I know. And when you write, you do this, knowing full well that the whole time you as a person are constantly in flux and learning and growing and changing all the time and what you write might not be what you think or feel later on. It’s terrible and makes me super uncomfortable.
But again, I’m not doing this for me.
I’m doing it because I know people like to know what other people think. Especially people they work with and are going to trust with their company. Trust with helping to shape their products, their people — both team members and customers. Trusting them with their passion and livelihood.
I’m doing this because I’m trying to build something that can outlast me. And I do have strong feelings about design and a lot of other things.
So I write. Against my better judgement.
But not for the attention. I’m sure I’ll be flattered if my phone buzzes a few times after I post this. So okay, thrill me for a moment if you want. But that’s not what I need.
I need problems to solve. People to create for. Teams to talk to and work with on things that actually matter.
That’s how I’ll help make a dent and be remembered. Because for me, and for us at Foyyay, that’s what it means to be a designer.
Design isn’t about design.
It’s about perception. Intuition. Care, and anticipation. Simply seeing clearly and working hard to prepare something that will make a difference in people’s lives.
And I like all of that.
So if that’s design, let’s all be designers together. Okay?
*Design is about people. And people aren’t garbage. So we never treat them that way. Hopefully even if you disagree with stuff I wrote, we can all agree on this big idea, and work together to build understanding, and design things.