5 Dangerous Ideas for Designers

I recently spoke at the Design Management Institute’s Make it Happen event. As an experiment, with the permission of the organizers, I wrote my talk at the event, inspired by things I heard other speakers and attendees say. Here’s a short essay on those ideas. The slides and video (from a reprise AEA event) at bottom.

1. Everyone is a Designer

“Everyone is an artist” is what Joseph Beuys famously said. He didn’t mean everyone’s work should be hung on the walls at the Louvre. Instead, he was calling attention to how creative acts, however small, are in everyone. Designers often hate the phrase “everyone is a designer” as they take it as a threat to their profession, but that’s not what I mean.

Consider that I make a living writing books. But I know many people in this world write more words in email than I’ll ever publish. Are they not writers? Of course they are. Most are not as good at the professionals, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t writing. Designers need to have the same attitude – all people design something, or at least believe they do – and we should be open to good ideas regardless of their source. If you see your coworkers as designers, just untrained ones, you’re far more likely to find ways to collaborate, teach and persuade them than if you see them as ignorant adversaries.

I quoted Victor Papanek, one of the great design leaders of the 20th century:

All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity…

Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the fact that design is the primary underlying matrix of life. Design is composing an epic poem, executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto.

But design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple pie, choosing sides for a backlot baseball game, and educating a child.

Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World

All designers should think of themselves as ambassadors of good ideas, recognizing that good ideas can come from anywhere, from people with and without design training, and we should be welcoming to them. If they are going to learn about design it’s only going to happen if we teach them. There is no one else. Think of the word ambassador: how often is this how people would describe you when you’re the only designer in the room?

2. You have no power

It’s OK not to have power, provided you don’t act like you have it. What decisions, as a designer, are truly yours? There is probably a small set of decisions you can make without implicit approval from someone else. And if you want more of your ideas to make it out the door, you either need more power, or to get better at borrowing the power of others to get things done.

One bad way to try and obtain power is jargon. It’s an attempt to change the playing field of language, which only people with less power tend to do. I’m convinced the people who use the most jargon have the least confidence in their ideas.

Designers and UX experts rely so heavily on methods, taxonomies, and words like affordances and personas. If this is effective for you, that’s great, but if you trying to convince someone who has more power than you, you are going to be more effective if you use their vocabulary, their methods and their goals to make your arguments.

At a minimum, if jargon is a necessary evil to survive at the companies we work for, can’t we speak plainly and directly when we’re talking to other designers?

3. The generalists are in charge

Whoever you report to has a more general role than yours. You work for a generalist. If you want more power, you need to either: a) take on a more general, or cross-discipline, role or b) get better at influencing people with more power than you.  Any designer can go get an MBA, or learn to take on general management tasks, if they are so inspired, as the skills aren’t that hard to acquire (And consider how many VPs there are who have none of those skills anyway).  But few designers do it, as they don’t want the annoyances, and the stress, that comes with power. Designers fear “not being a designer anymore”, but yet are constantly annoyed by how many important design decisions are made by “non-designers.” Forget the job title: whoever makes the decisions that define the design is a designer.

If we mostly just complain about those in power, who’s fault is it really that we’re unhappy? We have to either lead or follow. If we don’t want to lead, we get what we deserve.

We have to admit there is no alternative – if you want more power, and to be fully in charge of design, you will need to be in charge of other things too.

4. You are in Sales

Creative people look down on salespeople. We like to think what we do is more noble. But we forget we sell all the time. Every pitch and prototype is a kind of sales tool for your ideas. And sales is a failure prone activity. Talk to any screenwriter or actor about how many pitches and auditions they have to do to get a single gig. No one is immune. If you are a designer, you are a salesperson. You should aspire to be an ambassador of good ideas, which includes knowing how persuade others to see their value. To get more of your ideas out the door demands getting better at sales more than any other single skill. And building the thicker skin necessary to push your ideas through.

5. Creativity is Risk

The bigger and better the idea, the harder it will be for people to follow. If you are a creative, taking risks comes with the territory. But when something stupid is being proposed in a meeting, who raises their hand? Who has the courage to speak up? How often do you put your reputation behind an idea? Or are willing not to take credit for something, if it helps the idea survive? What big pitch have you made recently? If you’re not taking risks, and everything you do is reasonable and sensible, how creative do you really think you are? What dangerous idea should you get people in your world to not just discuss, but do something about?

Watch the talk

I presented a similar talk at An Event Apart, and they were kind enough to record it and publish it.

Or view the slides. Credit for DMI image here.

What are your dangerous ideas for designers? Leave me a comment.

15 Responses to “5 Dangerous Ideas for Designers”

  1. Jeff

    Scott, often I lament/am so happy I am a designer. Yes, I live a schizophrenic life. You have just described the reality I live in. And I appreciate the clarity you’ve put to my ruminations/excitement.

  2. Christi Zuber

    I am fortunate to have a team of 10 that includes business people, clinicians, and designers, we support an organization of 160,000. We all get along and we all teach each other, work together and produce tangible results. We conduct deep ethnography, ideate and prototype solutions and (get this) commit to sustainable solutions we demonstrate through sets of metrics we collect, graph and share. We can calculate an ROI and put together a P-Chart with the best of ’em. Its not impossible, it just a matter of learning, and taking a risk by putting yourself and your ideas out there in a real and tangible way. Its totally possible!

    And talk about schizophrenic (Jeff), I am a nurse with a business degree doing design work and leading a design team. :) I must be nuts.

  3. Jen

    I don’t agree with the implication of the phrase “If we don’t want to lead, we get what we deserve.” You make it sound like if you don’t want to lead that it’s a bad thing. Not everybody feels inspired by being a leader, and nobody should feel like you’re “getting what you deserve” by choosing to be a doer instead of a manager.

    1. Scott Berkun

      This was a summary of a talk, so it’s more blunt than the actual talk was.

      I do think if a person doesn’t like their leadership, they do have only pragmatic choices: a) become a leader themselves b) find another manager, or company, to work for. Or perhaps there’s c) learn how to influence their boss into becoming a better leader.

      I agree that not everyone should be a leader – who would do the work? :) But if you have complaints and take no action of any kind to remedy those complaints then you’ll always have something to complain about whether you “deserve it” or not.

  4. Michelangelo

    It’s Victor Papanek, not Papernak.

  5. Eric

    Your recap(?) was the highlight of the DMI event for me…sorry I didn’t get to buy you a free beer afterward. I can’t wait to drop some of these truth bombs (still holding on to the military metaphors – Thanks, Scott).

  6. Mike Nitabach

    Stunt talks are fun. One of the best talks I ever gave was completely impromptu when one of the speakers in a symposium I was moderating failed to show up. When I realized about ten minutes beforehand that I was going to have to fill the slot myself, I booted my laptop and looked for a slide or two of some hot-off-the-presses new data that I hadn’t even begun to wrap my mind around conceptually. I gave a few minutes background, and then put the slide up, decribed the data themselves, and then opened it up to the audience to chime in with ideas. It was awesome, and afterwards people said it was the most fun they had had at a symposium talk.

  7. Alvin

    I like the post, agree with the points, and have seen how they work in the practical world of design, development, and supposedly “non-creative” creative pursuits.

    I was confused by the title, though. I thought this was going to be about dangerous-in-a-bad way platitudes, assumptions, and misconceptions instead of the GOOD things to do (and then you’d debunk each point)! :-)

    This is kind of how I thought the subjects would run, with the same points, but focused on the “dangerous” (as-in-bad-not-good) assumptions.

    1. Designers Best Understand Design (no, Everyone is a Designer)
    2. Designers Have the Power to Design (no, You have no power)
    3. Convince Management (sorry, The generalists are in charge)
    4. Focus only on Design (You are also in Sales)
    5. You need to get Design Consensus (Creativity is Risk)

    Loved “Confessions” and am enjoying “Get Things Done”, btw!

  8. cecilia kugler

    thank you, great ideas .. i suspected but never heard articulated ! yes we sell the idea and get clients and their supperiors to trust us and bet on our ideas.But as you say they are a group concensus that gets the final product and the ownership it creates is worth (in most cases) any compromise along the way.



  1. […] It’s ok not to have power, provided you don’t act like you have it. What decisions, as a designer, are truly yours? There is probably a small set of decisions you can make without implicit approval of someone else. And if you want more of your ideas to make it out the door, you either need more power, or to get better at borrowing the power of others to get things done. – Scott Berkun […]

  2. […] Scott Berkun talked about designers needing to think like sales people and persuade others to see value in the work. He cautioned, however, that you should temper the cadence of work that the team can realistically handle. There will always be more demand than you can supply. Ensure you have evangelized the design process for the times you must say no – because the experience may get designed regardless of whether your team does it or not. […]

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