Your Designs Matter.
There is a right and a wrong way to design.
Not in terms of style or anything like that. I’m talking about at the heart level. Morally speaking even.
We have to ask ourselves — whether we’re the designer, CEO, developer, investor — “What are my designs?” (read: purpose, planning, or intention) What are my designs for this product, app, marketing, advertising?
And the what is inevitably rooted in the why.
Why are you doing this?
One of my mentors said something to me over 15 years ago and it’s stuck with me ever since. I was interested in becoming a graphic designer and he was nice enough to let me come over and use his Mac Pro and cinema screen to mess around in Photoshop and Illustrator.
One time when we were talking about design and how he did things, he said something to the effect that “there’s a way to design and advertise that doesn’t take advantage of people or cause them to lust after something they don’t need.”
He kind of said it just in passing, but that comment has stuck with me. And the bigger idea always sits in the back of my mind, whether I’m actually designing an interface, leading a product team, or writing copy or whatever.
The concept is, we’re never just pushing pixels. We’re dealing with people.
And when we’re creating for people, we have a moral obligation to them in our designs (again, read purpose, planning, or intention).
So we’ve gotta ask ourselves: What do we, (or the person / company we work for) really want? Who we accountable to? Who’s calling the shots? What happens when you have to make a tough call? What’s motivating me?
For example, if getting money or pleasing the ones holding the purse strings is constantly driving decisions, it’s going to be really hard to do what’s best for people.
“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.” -George Washington
But everyone has options.
Three in fact.
There are a few paths we can walk as designers.
- We can design for the good of people to make them fulfilled, cared for, empowered, etc. BY… meeting a critical need, providing a solution, and giving them a voice.
- Or, we design to make people feel good SO THAT THEY…spend more $$, share more, or increase the time they spend in our apps.
- Or worse, we design around negative emotions (FOMO, anxiety, patterns of addiction, etc.) to keep people engaged and doing what we want them to do.
Now, there are definitely companies whose designs follow the third path. It’s such a terrible, dark way to control people. But I honestly don’t think that’s the most common one.
No, sneaky path number 2 is where a lot of startups and other companies walk. And it’s perhaps even more darkly manipulative than the third one.
Selfish designs manipulate, to get what I want.
Let’s say I was dealing with someone personally — a family member, friend, or heck, even a stranger — one on one. And even before I met them, I started thinking of ways I was going to control them. Control every aspect of the relationship, every interaction to serve me best.
Maybe it starts out nice enough. Or seems that way to the other person. They don’t know any better. I give them free things. Make them feel cared for. Important. But all the while, I employ more and more psychological tricks on them. Because what I really want is to get them to spend more time with me. Give me money. Tell others how great I am.
I monopolize their time so they feel more and more connected to me, so they give me more and more of what I’m really after. One or both of the only things they really have to give: time and money.
Now imagine someone found out I was doing this to that person. They would be shocked. Disgusted. Outraged maybe. They would cringe at the crazy creepy, controlling monster of a person I had become.
What’s weird though is that this same exact thing happens all the time. Especially with startups. Though somehow, in literally just scaling up that same scenario above, and doing it as a group to another group, it’s okay. Accepted. Expected even. Because it’s business now. Or it’s done as “optimization” which makes it seem more legit. By changing the words of what’s actually happening, we normalize this behavior.
Because this is the kind of optimization where people are dehumanized. They become simply numbers and data points — dismembered eyeballs and minds and emotions to be manipulated, hacked and segmented, to get the results we (or maybe our investors) want.
It’s sickening really.
Selfish manipulation of people on a grand scale.
It happens all the time and designers then especially get pulled onto this path of using people and exploiting emotions in what we create.
When this happens, serving people well with a quality product or to meet an actual need is abandoned or it simply becomes a means to an end to serve our own interests.
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way!
Selfless designs serve, to GIVE what people need.
We can purpose, create, plan for, and intend to do things differently. This is where I hope to land as I work and create and design. Because I believe if you serve people well first and foremost, you will be successful.
Maybe not unicorn startup successful. But I’d argue again that in a lot of ways that’s not the most healthy kind of success anyways. That kind of success is often rooted in this dude’s approach to “success” 👇🏼
And yes, I know. Your app has to make money. Our products need to be engaging people and actually have an audience for us to keep working on them. Businesses have to stay in business to be able to keep building, improving, growing, helping. I get all that. I’m living it!
Which is why it all boils down to a question of intent and focus. Our motivations and decisions behind everything. It’s about our designs. They matter!
It’s a choice between the first path, or the other two. I don’t think anyone is pure all the time in their intentions, but I do think the choice and the best path is clear. And I know people would be surprised how serving people well can result in an incredible amount of stability, opportunity — and yes — money and all the other things you need.
But that’s not the rocket path. It’s the mountain climb.
What we all really need to do, is to keep asking ourselves every step of the way: do we want to serve people well? Do we really believe it’s the best way? Valuing others more than ourselves?
Or are we (as individuals or teams or companies) more like self-serving Lex Luthor / Loki / Gollum-like characters who use people — scheming relentlessly — to get what we want or need even if it’s not what’s truly best for them?
Each of us has a choice. An opportunity to choose the better path.
Let’s make 2017 the year of selfless designs. 🙌🏼
Thanks so much for reading! If you made it here, might as well click or tap that little heart 🙇🏻
Happy 2017 everybody from me and Foyyay!