“self-limiting – an organism or person that limits its own growth by its actions.”
Do you want to make plans or decisions? There is no wrong answer, and perhaps you want both, but the question is rarely asked. The profession of design is rooted in craft, with one person working with their hands and ideas to make something. This is the way most design schools teach designers: that you will be in control of your projects. However in the working world to be a designer is often to be a plan maker, or plan proposer, where someone else decides the goals, and how the plan will change when it’s executed. This might be a project manager, an engineer, a VP or a client, but they have the power to change the plans and decide the fate of the real design that will go out into the world.
For many designers there is a a bright yellow line between work they think counts as design and work that doesn’t. The kinds that count often involve visual creativity, exploring ideas, using maker’s tools and refining work until it’s high quality. The kinds that don’t are often just about anything else. Since general decision making roles, like project leaders, aren’t seen as creative, many designers avoid them. And learning how to be persuasive is seen as equally uninteresting. The trap is that this guarantees the decision makers will primarily be people who know little about good design or its value. And it’s those decision makers who decide when designers get involved and when they don’t. This self-limiting situation gets set all on its own.
I’m not here to tell you to change your job or your preferences for what kinds of work to do. Perhaps you organization is fundamentally dysfunctional and you have every reason to just throw plans over walls and call it a day. Or you don’t mind following people’s foolish whims if they pay you well enough. However, I am challenging you to ask who set the boundaries for you for what counts as design work? What made you want to be a designer in the first place? Did you dream of making plans that are mostly ignored or was it to make decisions that define what goes out into the world?
If you are passionate about the outcomes then you owe it to yourself to reevaluate what design talent means. Many designers feel disappointment at the mediocre work that their organizations produce. They feel their talent is wasted. And yet when it comes time to develop their career what do they do? They invest in improving the same kinds of skills that are already being ignored. It’s another self-limiting trap. This one is failing to see that what holds them back are other skills, ones they don’t have, or don’t like, or don’t consider as part of design, that they need to grow to achieve what they want. Leadership and influence are skills anyone can get better at, including designers.
The only way organizations that produce mediocre work improve is when someone with design knowledge either becomes a decision maker, or improves their skill at influencing decisions. This means facilitation, persuasion and relationship building can be just as essential to good design as design plans themselves. But when these skills are frowned upon or stigmatized, the self-limiting idea of a designer holds back entire teams. Perhaps even more challenging is when the director of the design department is neither good at these skills (so can not set the example), nor chooses to make it a strategy for the future of design in their organization. Design managers can be a self-limiting force too.
In the end this means there may be clear reasons why you feel limited or that your organization limits you. The tough news is that it may only be you who sees the problem for what it is and can do something about it. And to get others to see the problem requires the ability to influence them.
If we want a better designed world, there are only two paths:
- Widen what it means to be a designer to include the ability to influence
- Encourage more designers to move into decision making roles
Is there another way? If so, help me see it. If not, help me spread the word. If you want to learn how to be more influential, get in touch.