The Lost Designer

Designers are hired to change things, as no one one hires a designer to keep everything the same. The challenge is that often we want those changes to happen on our terms, using our ideas, methods and beliefs. This creates a natural conflict. The way we understand design is different from how ordinary people like clients, coworkers and executives do. It makes sense that designers often feel ignored, misunderstood or even lost. Yet somehow we’re surprised by these feelings. And over a career, they can grow into disappointment and resentment because we expect things to be different from how they are.

Design culture makes us prone to cognitive dissonance, where two competing ideas exist in the same mind. For example, many designers want to feel special, because in some ways we are, but yet we’re surprised when other people do not understand us or find us pretentious. We want other people to use our ideas, but don’t feel we should have to explain or persuade. We want privileges like power and control, but don’t want the politics or relationships required to earn and wield them. Logically we can’t have it both ways, but often we behave as if we should. It’s true that all people are prone to cognitive dissonance but as an uncommon profession it hurts us more than most.

The problem is not so much that we’re lost in these competing expectations, but that we’ve been encouraged to expect someone to find us. Design education and design culture set many of us up to expect a different world than the real one. We often complain “I shouldn’t have to”, “why don’t they” or “they just don’t get it” which can be healthy venting. But we forget that the word should is an appeal to an authority, like a parent or boss. It presumes they have the wisdom to know better than their current behavior. This is our mistake. Who exactly is the authority we are asking to do the right thing and why do we expect them to know what is right? Or even if they know, to have the right incentives to want to do it?

We forget that our knowledge isn’t common since we are experts in a specialized field. If we can’t convincingly explain the basics of our profession, why should we expect anyone in power to already grasp them? Where would they possibly learn them if not from one of us? Our job is literally to make things simple, effective and beautiful – if we can’t do that in explaining design itself, whose fault is it? It’s like we’re linguists landing on an alien planet and are angry that they don’t speak our language. We can decide it’s a stupid planet, which might be true, and leave, but if we choose to stay? What if we think all the planets are dumb? Whose problem is it then?

This realization isn’t fun, the big ones rarely are, but it’s a better explanation for why situations we experience as “designer hostile” are likely just design ignorant. They really just have no idea and don’t know what they don’t know. Or the organization has major dysfunctions that prevent everyone from doing good work, not just designers (which means we may have more allies for change than we think). It’s helpful to take design out of the equation when trying to understand what’s really going on in most organizations. Instead, ask who makes the decisions I should be making? What assumptions led to this? How can that change? Whose help do I need and how can I earn it? The power designers want has to come from somewhere, but we should realize most people who have power have little motivation on their own to give it away.

Somewhere in our education was the silent assumption design appreciation is everywhere. That we can just show up to a new job, sprinkle ideas around and watch them grow. Design schools are centered on design. So are design books, design conferences and design friends. But this is a subculture. The vast majority of important design work is not done in subcultures or in design magazines. Instead, it happens in the thousands of businesses and organizations in the world whose goals and values aren’t centered on design. This becomes obvious if you look at who starts organizations and why they start them or the design quality of things made by many successful companies.

Yet somehow we’re surprised, or even offended, when we face design ignorance. The truth is the more important the work you are doing, the more ignorance of design you will face. We should see it as an opportunity for progress, rather than an annoyance to avoid. All designers should be good at explaining the basics, but we’re not.

To stop feeling lost we have to first be honest about where we are. Few organizations are going to shift to our language, unless we learn theirs first. We have to stop waiting for someone to “save design” in our organizations. We have to open our eyes to human nature and how organizations work (or don’t work). We may have to admit it’s influence that limits us, and that it’s probably not that our design talents aren’t good enough. What good is more design skill if it’s ignored? Maybe there are other skills we need to improve first? Ones that chip away at the real roadblocks we face? Accepting all this isn’t easy, but it’s healthier than choosing to stay lost, and bitter, waiting for the fantasy of a design-centric company or a design-literate world to magically appear in front of us.

We forget that every place we read about where designers have the level of respect we desire was shaped by a design pioneer who led the way. Who are the real design heroes? It’s probably not keynote speakers or design luminaries who make us feel good and preach to the choir. Instead it’s leaders who get less public attention who persuade, teach and gain the influence required to set up their design teams to succeed. If the workplaces we find ourselves in leave much to be desired, it simply means there is more pioneering to be done. Who is going to do it?

I’m doing all I can to help designers find their way. I believe you should have great faith in design. I wrote a book that teaches everyone how to appreciate the important work designers do, which does much of the work of explaining good design to your coworkers for you. If you feel lost or want to help with this mission, get in touch.

5 Responses to “The Lost Designer”

  1. Gary

    “Somehow in our education was the silent assumption design appreciation is everywhere.” Not sure about that kind of education because not only was the assumption silent, it was also blind. I see appreciation for good design everywhere from buildings, to organizations, to people, as well as in art and music. Maybe it’s not only a failure in the design, or a flaw in the designer but merely the lack of appreciation in the observer? Design appreciation may not ever be “everywhere” but it is present in many, many places and people.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Hi Gary. I agree there are many people who appreciate good design and they should be applauded. Primarily I’m writing here for designers who work in organizations where they feel design is underappreciated or that it’s not well understood how good design happens. And my experience is there are many designers who feel this way.

      Reply
    2. Vinish Garg

      Design appreciation is two-fold – those who see it and those who experience it. Talk about buildings, I might admire so many buildings in the world but once I visit there for any purpose, my opinion may change. Likewise, for electronic products, or even taps in hotel restrooms. Fancy does not *always* mean usable.

      Likewise for digital products. A lot of design appreciation is misplaced.

      Reply
  2. River Brandon

    To me, design appreciation is not simply, “that’s a nice building”, or “my Oxo utensil feels nice”, or “Porsches are gorgeous cars”. That’s aesthetic appreciation, largely. Design appreciation requires a grasp of *why* Oxo makes such comfortable and attractive utensils, or *how* Porsche has managed to maintain an identifiable, attractive, and premium design for decades. What kind of thinking is behind these things? What is the work? That’s design appreciation.

    Reply
  3. Welcome Radebe

    I located myself in the journey to myself before further veering like a lost designer.
    This is a ”Letter to the Ignoromous Me !”
    Thanks….

    Reply

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