Leading Design Festival 2021 – Live Notes

Here are my notes from Leading Design Festival 2021, liveblogged (recorded in real time and updated as I go). My notes from the 2016 LD event can be found here.

1. Julie Zhou – The Many Facets of Design Leadership.

[Note: I was disappointed design ethics did not come up at all, given her history at Facebook. It’s the toughest design leadership issue we have and her insight would be valuable]

What she thought would make her a great design leader was just being a great designer. If you don’t know what good design looks like, how can you know who to hire? While it’s great to keep your skills sharp. the flavor of what it means to be great at design changes. it’s not your execution skills, but how good your eye is. It’s the difference between being a creator and an editor.

She referred to the book No Hard Feelings, and this diagram.

What I thought would make me productive - what actually does. | Do  exercise, How to run longer, Motivation

Which she redesigned to be about design.

She offered that design is still a growing profession. It’s at a place where the industry knows they need more designers, but they may not understand design or how to empower it in their organization.

Designers aren’t helping in our jargon world. We discuss abstract topics, but our peers, engineers and others, often don’t understand us. Great design leaders need to translate their concepts into words others understand. She’d get huffy about it and get frustrated. And they’d stare at her blankly. She’d point fingers at the environment and say “is this place hostile to design?” She didn’t have control over the environment, but she could learn to talk in analogies. “stop talking about clutter and space, and talk about the impact on other people”.

Too much clutter = lets reduce choices people have to make.

Catch yourself with jargon and remember to translate. Translation is different from good communication skills. It’s more targeted and specialized.

Excuses stop mattering. She referred to a story about Steve Jobs: Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO reasons stop mattering (why is this a mess? Is not something you can blame on others). And that’s where you are as a design leader. As you become more senior this expectation rises. The heart of it is the business: how will this organization be viable in the long run? What keeps the CEO up at night? The business is the context. Designers get a seat at the table because they understand the wider context of the company and how design can solve those problems.

Diagnose with data. Treat with design. It’s great that we have more information about what people actually do with our products. It’s also a way to keep us honest that our intuitions have the results we expect them to. If I showed you data that said 20% growth year over year, is it a great product? Great is subjective. Great compared to what? To last year? To our competitors?

Team process is design. How do you consistently get great design outcomes? It’s a kind of design problem. There is no formula. But look at poker. There are patterns and habits you can learn. You can’t just wait for a great hand. Move from design, to creating environments so others can design well. What is the meeting cadence? What is the psychological feeling the team has? It’s up to design leaders to decide and to help their teams win more hands.

Andy Budd asked “How to balance a company’s desire to a/b test everything?” Zhou replied that instincts are good for finding gaps with particular designs and good for novel ideas. In the v0 to v1 phase you have to start from first principles. But in second phase, after product market fit, it’s about optimizing. And that’s where instincts start to fail and a/b tests surprise designers (micro-levels). But always trust your instincts even when some data shows improvement, but you suspect it may create other problems. It’s a sign you’re past the point of low hanging fruit and should move on to bigger objectives. [Andy pointed out that a designer’s intuition improves by comparing it regularly against the data, insead of being afraid of it].

How to bond teams while remote? Have 5/10 minutes time at start of meetings where people play simple games (someone suggested https://skribbl.io/). We’ve lost the natural fun that happens between things and need to put it back in.

Question on personal growth. Start by asking how individual want to grow? Build out from that conversation to discover what kind of help they need and what can be discussed in one on ones.

Don’t forget about yourself. It’s easy to get lost in exclusively serving others. The role is about helping others, but still make investments in yourself, in mentors and network, and time to reflect for yourself.

2. Up next. Aaron Irizarry Leading Successfully Through Ourselves.

In order to help our teams, he suggests sometimes we have to learn first ourselves.

Leadership is not about being in charge, but taking care of those in your charge.” Simon Sinek

We need to get better about EQ.

  1. Self-Awareness. How do I show up? How do I recognize and manage my moods? What is my ritual for getting into a mental space where I can manage and lead?
  2. Self-Regulation. How do I control or redirect disruptive impulses or moods. He has used note taking as a way to keep in control of his thoughts before he acts on them.
  3. Intent. A passion for work that goes beyond money or status.
  4. Empathy. It’s a buzzword, but the ability to understand the emotional makeup of a person or situation makes us observant and more productive. If we don’t have empathy for our teammates and partners first, we’re kidding ourselves.
  5. Social Skills. Introverts sometimes have better social skills as they’re more measured. It’s not about extrovert/introvert, but more about how to read the room and find ways to connect. This should be modeleld behavior.
  6. Lead with vulnerability and transparency. Not assumption driven thinking, but with clarity and candor. So people feel like they know where we are going. Show your team you trust them enough to share their concerns. It’s a balance to not overwhelm people with being too transparent, but not being too closed that they’re not connected.
  7. Communicating Openly. Collaboration is rooted in trust.
  8. Adapt our communication styles and leadership approaches. Everyone is different with different needs. There are foundational things, like meeting cadence, but as he engages he tries to be contextual.
  9. Make an effort to recognize how communication style impacts other people. I’m a high strunk guy. I always engaged and I talk too much. I work with others who may not work that way and want me to slow down.
  10. Take the time to consider how different perspectives affect perception. I’m in so many meetings and the vibe at the end of one meeting carries over into the next. It impacts everyone especially when they are back to back.
  11. Be intentional in planning for ambiguity or confusion. When he is in partner meetings with his reports, it can be confusing about how things are messages or what is nailed down or still up in the air. Be an agent for clarity.
  12. Take note of team members and partner communication styles. Help people feel like they have been seen and heard.
  13. Lead through autonomy and enablement. He tends to be a hands-off leader until he isn’t. He has set up guidelines for free space and put your imprint on it. Other times he’s more open about assignments. It’s a balancing act and sometimes he gets it wrong. And he wants to get better at it.
  14. Model an autonomous working style. How much does he need from his boss? When does he ask for clarification and when does he pave the way?
  15. Get out of the fucking way. This is still a problem. How to balance facilitating without slowing things down.
  16. Create a vision statement that is a north star. This helps people be autonomous and keeps the manager out of the way.
  17. Check in on a regular basis. What is working? What isn’t? And where they need you to show up.
  18. Establish personal norms. Our vibe sets the tone. Imagine how not sleeping, being too tired, spread too thin, so the vibe is off. How he shows up sets a tone for their day and their ability to show up. Sometimes it’s just how it is, but he wants to be mindful of it.
  19. Manage our time well. If I’m in 15 meetings a day how can I possibly be there for my team?
  20. Invest in our own personal development. He’s planning on watching all the other talks.
  21. Establish healthy routines. He realized his choices at events like this weren’t always great. But that the he needed to make adjustments so he’s refreshed and recharged when he needs to be.
  22. Get a therapist. If he has someone he can talk to on a regular basis about whatever is going on he does much better. Get a personal board of directors (but that’s more business focused).

“I’m a leader struggling to lead my people. This is a good community. Reach out”

3. Kristin Skinner — Co-author, Org Design for Design Orgs, Founder & GSD

[Kristin went fast with dense slides. There were are few references that went by too fast to catch.]

How teams work is as important as what they make. She told the story about how the Golden State Warriors basketball team transformed over years to be a balance of talent and good management.

Three key areas define effective teams:

  • Foundation
  • Output
  • Management

She identified a list of common problems.

This means we need continually redesign our organization. And you can use these lists to help score and rank the issues that people experience. Which helps everyone feel responsible for identifying and dealing with change.

Common goals to strive for:

  • realize investment in design
  • attract talent
  • plan for growth
  • and find roadmap detectives

“People spend 60% of their time on what they call the work about the work – trying to figure out who’s doing what, when and why” – Chris Fainacci, COO Asana

Common issues design teams face (from survey she did?):

  • Limited time or resources
  • Involving the right people or teams
  • Lack of proven value

She referred to a Harvard Business article about the value of metrics and measuring outcomes. Then she explain how this translates into what designers can do.

The Design Management Framework: People, Practice and Platforms. A framework like this helps make sure you have happier designers, better designers and more effective teams.

Organizations change every 30 days. It’s always shifting in different ways. And many efforts to do deliberate change (she offered three models of change but too quickly for me to catch).

She offered a stat about how 90% of organizations (from the McKinley survey?) about design leadership expressed that it had little impact on design maturity growth in those organizations.

What can leaders do?

  1. Know your maturity. How is your team partnering with the rest of the organization?
  2. Design your Design org at all levels. Org health and team health are not the same. Org health is the environment and conditions.
  3. Approach designing your org as you would any other initiative.
  4. There is no “end state” to org design. it will always be evolving.
  5. How will you know you if you’re successful? You need some measurements to track and compare over time.

Talks continue tomorrow.

4. Doug Powell: Sketchbooks over Spreadsheets: Designers as Leaders In A Complex World

He opens with a story about how Randy Hunt wrote a simple diagram during a meeting explaining, in a passed sketch to the CEO, how the organization currently worked. It helped the CEO to understand how things were working and suggested how things could change. Powell considers this an act of clarity, alignment and velocity.

He then referred to a talk Kate Aronowitz gave where she reported that there were 66,000 open executive design jobs [I think he misspoke and its design leadership, not strictly executive roles, as she explained in this article – he didn’t provide a link so this is the best I could find. Also without comparison to how many engineering, marketing or other unfilled leadership roles there are it’s hard to frame if this is unique to design or not.]

Who are the people who are going to fill these roles? What skills do they gave? Will they be ready? The demand for people to fill these roles has exploded. What are the missing skills required to effectively play senior business leadership roles in complex organizations, and how to designers acquire them in the middle of our careers?

From a summary paper from MIT Sloan management school (which I had to dig up since he didn’t have a reference. He had other unreferenced quotes From Harvard Business and Forbes). Only 12% strongly agree that their leaders have the right mindsets to lead them forward. [Note: w/o context of how many moderately agreed it’s not really clear how big a problem this is. And the summary paper does not share the complete survey results, I looked, which is always concerning.]

He suggests chasing after the established methods of current business school methods, which he believes are behind the times, is not what we should be doing. But instead think about what we need for the present and the future.

He refers back to the summary of the MIT Sloan study, which says:

“we identified a number of leadership teams that are embracing new ways of working and leading. For example, many of them are increasing transparency, demonstrating authenticity, and emphasizing collaboration and empathy.” 

He argues that most designers actually possess the skills to effectively lead in this transformative era. Leading to a reframing of his core question: How do we retain, enhance, and maximize unique differentiating skills as designers?

He returns to the opening story. Randy knew his CEO responded to simple and direct messages. He quickly made a prototype and delivered it in a way Anthony could consume. He considers this a design act.

He shared a story from Raquel Bretenitz, head of Aperture Health, who noticed “We were sitting in the same office, but the design, data, tech, and social media teams were completely siloed.” And she led her team to pick up their stuff and moved to the dev team’s workspace. It was cramped but it made a huge difference. He sees this as a a use of her design skills.

He sees that there are surprisingly simple skills designers have that have greater value than we think. We can turn business challenges into design problems.

In his role he facilitates meetings between design leaders and the senior business leaders, or GMs. They’re called design program reviews and they happen annually. He’s found it’s good to approach these meetings as a UX design problem with the GM as the primary user. They know GMs are: busy, data-driven, opinionated, competitive and no BS

This informs a 6 slide review deck template used in these program reviews. He believes it works, and quoted an anonymous GM – “This review has helped me understand the need for design resources… We can double this design team with no problem.”

What we can learn from vaccine website failures (Fast Company)

There’s been plenty of news about Americans struggling to register to get vaccinated for COVID. I noticed a story missing from the news: no one was asking about the problem from a design perspective. So I wrote this piece for Fast Company that explains what we all can learn.

It’s easy to dismiss news like this and shake our heads. But it turns out the mistakes made here weren’t just about web design, but about management, planning and lip service policies, issues many organizations in the public and private sector struggle with too. Few organizations ever do usability studies and, like the vaccine websites, they have the results to prove it.

How Design Makes The World: Typos and corrections?

Did you read How Design Makes the World? Thanks. I’m glad you did.

If you found any any typos or mistakes along the way, I apologize. But I’m asking you to report them here so they can be corrected in a future edition.

The first edition of the book has 130+ footnotes, 60+ recommendations and dozens of properly attributed photo and media credits. I work hard to get it right, but alas mistakes do happen.

Please leave a comment, and a page # if possible. Much appreciated.

Here are the known issues:

Print edition

  • pg 41, Hundertwasser was Austrian, not German
  • pg. 80 –  had a great a great
  •  154 – 5th line from the bottom, “People hate traffic when that are in it…” – should be they
  • pg. 180 – all questions should appear on own line
  • Pg. 188, Maurice Sy -> Marice Sy

Kindle / Digital

  • pg. 50 / Chapter 7 – fonts missing (Kindle only)

UX Design: The most difficult concepts to explain (list)

Last week I asked on twitter which concepts were hardest for UX designers to explain to their teams. As promised here are the responses with some commentary.

The risk in looking at lists like this is it’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming others for what are our limitations. This violates our own advice:

Designer hypocrisy: to preach "don't blame the user" but then blame coworkers for not understanding design principles and process that designers expect them to use.

It’s true that some people we work with should have learned these by now, but it’s wise to err on the side of improving how we teach rather than blaming the students. All experts forget that what is basic to us isn’t basic to everyone else.

Which makes Christian Crumlish’s comment perhaps the most valuable:

I prefer learning and understanding my coworkers’ and bosses’ concepts over explaining mine. 

My concepts are working materials that will show up in my framing and discussion and ideally speak for themselves. 

They don’t need to learn my jargon unless they ask to.

The list of difficult concepts

These were the three most common responses:

  • You are not the user (#).
  • The difference between UI & UX.
  • It’s not just what it looks like… it’s how it works too. Perception is often that UX is just a lick of paint (#).

Here is the rest of the list (I trimmed duplicates):

  • Some of the most important UX research that’s conducted has nothing to do with deciding where to put a button (#).
  • Designers learn through the act of making (#).
  • Doing research up front will not slow you down, but will save you time (#).
  • That vision work and deep thinking through longer term complexity takes time and that time trades off against filling the timeline with reactive/nearterm work (#).
  • For me, it’s that there’s a difference between knowing the space and knowing how users experience the space(#).
  • That we can’t make the currently being worked on feature the most discoverable. No matter what you’re currently working on, it has to be in the context of the overall journey(#).
  • Not everything is a visual deliverable(#).
  • Looks good ≠ is good (#)
  • That I am not the source of ideas. That I can’t work in a vacuum and produce user experiences. That UX is not a single input at the start of a pipeline of work, or a checkbox on a project list (UX is a process, not a deliverable)(#).
  • That we dont have all the answers. Our job is to help uncover the answers (#).
  • Design coherence. A solution is not simply a collection of features or functions, it is the way they fit together in a sensible, useful way. Adding or removing an element may be easy to do gracefully, or very hard, depending on the overall design (#).
  • That a single change often has cascading consequences — that parts are (or should be) always related to the whole (#).
  • UX vs. UX Theater (#).
  • If you aren’t designing the right thing, you can’t design the thing right (#).
  • You must define functionality before implementation. And probably draw a map in between (#).
  • Pretty and efficient aren’t mutually exclusive, but pretty ≠ efficient (#).
  • In the case of software especially, we have to consider not only how it feels to do a task once, but how it feels to do that same task ten times a day, every day (#).
  • The “user experience” is not owned by a company, but by people. It’s actually people trying to live, tackling their problems or striving for their aspirations. Their experience is bigger than any single touchpoint or brand (#).
  • The complexity has to live somewhere. You can’t make something powerful and infinitely flexible for power users ALSO be intuitive and simple for beginners (#).
  • That a feature is not a user goal (#).
  • That I usually should not (and often can not) provide off-the-cuff design advice without understanding the context of a product/feature/service (#).
  • Reminding people that we have to avoid shipping the org chart (#).
  • The user experience doesn’t start and end at the confines of a screen (#).
  • Defining the problem and the outcomes is key – the same design can be done 10 different ways but each of those 10 options are solving for different problems and lead to different outcomes (#).
  • Reframing. The thing they think they want turns-out not to be the best opportunity, but once they have that thing in their mind, it’s impossible to convince them it won’t work (even if something else will work better) (#)
  • That UX is not just doing what customers want but that it is the process of understanding what customers need and combining with the business goals to deliver best experience (#).
  • Research is (MUCH) more than usability testing (#).
  • The easier it looks, the more work it took to get there (#).
  • Metric tradeoffs: why sometimes it’s worth it to take a short term hit in a key metric in exchange for an overall experience improvement that harder to quantify (#).
  • The fact that designers and everyone who intervenes in perception have an ethic responsibility to those humans first, not to the business. As designers we have a responsibility to be congruent & empathic and to hold the people we design for in unconditional, positive regard.(#).
  • Even the best UX design can’t fix messed up organizational structure or people problems (#).
  • The difference between strategic work (decision-making) and tactical work (hands-on crafting), and how designers must be good at both (#).
  • That UX debt (the many small decisions that lead to inconsistencies and bad behaviors) will cause major negative consequences both for internal teams and customers down the road. It’s worth it to put in more effort to avoid it even if it takes more time (#).
  • The fact that ‘It depends’. Context has a huge influence on what could be the best solution to a problem, but my experience has been that often people expect the UX designer to have answers based on abstract rules instead. Yes: there are best practices, but still … it depends (#).
  • Progressive Disclosure – a design should only be as complex as they are ready for at the time (#)

Have one that isn’t listed? Or a great way to explain one of these? Leave a comment.

How To Put Faith in Design

Anglerfish are famous for the glowing lure they dangle from their heads that they use to catch small fish. But this is not the most interesting thing about them. Their most fascinating trait is how they mate. Males of the species, who are much smaller, lack a functioning digestive system. To survive they must combine, or fuse-mate, with the females. This means they bite into the female’s skin, releasing an enzyme that bonds them together for life. In exchange for the nutrients they need to live, they provide her with sperm. If this sounds desperate that’s because it is: only 1% of males live long enough to find a mate.

If the equivalent of the shiny lure atop the anglerfish were part of a tech product, deceiving people into making bad choices, we’d call it a dark pattern: a deliberate deception that causes harm to one party but benefits the other. But we don’t use this label to apply to nature because… well I’m not sure why. Evolution is about good design for survival and we can learn from its history, even if we don’t agree with its morality. But the history of design most UX designers know starts with the Macintosh. We have a narrow view of how design fits into the world, even into the world of business, and that works against us.

Corporations, like anglerfish and other living things, are designed to survive. They evolve and use tactics that manipulate perception. Consider how the tail of a male peacock is a kind of advertising. Or how that ultraviolet light in orchid petals, crafted to attract insects for fertilization, is part of its “plant marketing strategy.” There’s perhaps nothing wrong with trying to get others interested in what you have to offer. It seems fair and natural, doesn’t it?

Yet there is also the Cuckoo bird. It lays an egg in other bird species’ nests without the mother knowing. When the young cuckoo hatches, it pushes its unhatched step-siblings out of the nest to fall to their death. It’s a killer baby bird! We’d call this immoral, or homicidal, if humans did it, but we struggle to rationalize our morality with the natural world we’ve evolved from and are still a part of.

Founders, as a kind of creature to stay with the metaphor, don’t start companies to “make great user experiences.” Instead their goals, as explained to investors, are to generate profits, growth and value for shareholders. How society, the environment, customers and employees fare is often secondary. They may make things that improve our quality of life, but they are not generally altruistic. They hire people to help with their stated goals, and not for any other reason.

Remember that we had to shame automobile companies for years to put in seat belts. We had to fight for decades to get the makers of cigarettes to admit they were unhealthy. These were among the most profitable industries of their eras, and Big Tech has parallels to Big Auto and Big Tobacco. We might want a better designed world for everyone, but the literal design of corporations, the nature of their species so to speak, makes them creatures with more selfish ambitions.

In Mark Hurst’s recent essay, Why I’m losing faith In UX, he explains how he sees a decline in the last 30 years of User Experience design. He calls out how Amazon Prime’s cancellation process is now 6 pages long. And how leaders of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple have lied under oath about the harm of their products. He calls out how ” design thinking” as popularized by Stanford’s d.school has empowered Silicon Valley to exploit people. He offers that in Big Tech the meaning of UX has changed from user experience to user exploitation. There’s merit to what Hurst is saying, but he’s missing the larger picture of the animal he is grappling with.

Hurst references Erika Hall’s popular tweet that offers a diagram (shown below) about the relationship: “This is all too often how UX design is considered and practiced.” I think she’s saying that while some designers do good work on the (small) things they control, they contribute to a negative net impact on the people they are designing for, given the dubious ethics of the underlying business that pays them (actually the meme implies customers will be eaten alive! But smarter predatory businesses want you to be a zombie, who buys things in ads and has good cash flow).

Angler fish labeled "business model". Lure labeled "UX".

This should not be a surprise. We know that often the user is the product, but many of us have absorbed that cynically into the equation of UX work. Sometimes it’s confusing though. Hurst doesn’t mention that you can have a great user experience in one sense and be exploited, or exploit others, at the same time (e.g. Uber, Facebook or even heroin). Maybe we shrug now and then, saying “I’m just the designer” and it’s not our jobs to define the business or defend its ethics. Or that working for a questionable company, given our personal situation, is the only option that we have (like the lonely male anglerfish). For many reasons it’s easy to feel like we’re attached to a larger creature, hanging on, along for the ride.

One mistake we make is thinking this is specifically about UX. It’s not. Advertising, marketing, branding and even engineering are more likely to be the lure, as entire apps and services can be the free temptation hovering above a darker business model. It’s far more a diagram about predatory businesses than anything else.

Somewhere in Hurst’s story, and in the design community, was the latent hope that UX was going to reform capitalism. Or be immune from it. That sounds ridiculous, but there is no other explanation for our surprised outrage that these businesses do what they have always done, but now use UX as part of their tactics. As if we are so special and our knowledge beyond appropriation.

I don’t think Hurst’s lost faith is actually in UX. User Experience design is primarily a set of skills. You can’t lose faith in UX any more than you can lose faith in carpentry. Instead he has lost his faith in the willingness of predatory (big tech) corporations to do the right thing. Placing faith there was the mistake, given what we know of the species. To believe most corporations, given their history, would, without regulations and against the wishes of their stockholders, invest in good design and ethical practices above other considerations is about as foolish as hoping anglerfish will go vegetarian. Even the billionaires who choose to do good do their philanthropy through foundations, not corporations.

This is depressing and I’m sorry. It’s not entirely your fault that we’re in this situation. Design culture has always been self-aggrandizing. Something rarely mentioned in design schools or books is the possibility that good design may have little impact on why some businesses succeed or not. There is a reason why Norman doors, for all of their usability flaws, are still popular in the world. We laugh at them, and countless other obvious “unusable” designs of confusing microwave ovens, tech gadgets or the latest trending social media app, but the joke is on us. We think we are seeing incompetence, but instead it’s evidence there are successful businesses where our services aren’t important and we’d prefer to stay in denial.

Hurst overlooks that Amazon customers are happy even with bad UX. It is one of the top five most loved and respected brands in the United States, despite the design and ethical issues he rallies against. Google, a common target of distain from UX experts, is among them too. The truth about Amazon customers is they care more about cheap prices, two-day delivery and a great return policy than anything UX designers are likely to improve. In the places where this isn’t true, perhaps Alexa or Kindle or their next new service, they likely will invest more in design. Currently Amazon’s strongest revenue growth is in AWS and it’s possible their consumer businesses won’t be as important in the future. There’s a logic here, we just don’t like it.

Should customers have different priorities? Including concerns about how poorly Amazon employees, and suppliers, are treated to achieve those low prices? Should citizens demand corporations do less damage to society? I say yes, but my opinion is irrelevant to Amazon. And Walmart. And the stock market. And it’s irrelevant in a way to all of us who want the growth stocks in our mutual funds and 401ks to rise, while we rarely ask what the real cost of that growth might be.

Returning to the anglerfish, for no particular reason at all, certainly not for any metaphoric relevance to where I’m headed, there’s another fascinating fact about its biology. Females accept multiple male sexual partners. And when each male latches on, it slowly loses organs it no longer needs. It loses its eyes and its fins, its kidneys, even its precious heart gets reabsorbed into its new host. It is no longer a creature itself. It is just a sexual appendage. It hangs on, sensing its fellow men but unable to see them, surviving day after day with no purpose and no function, except to provide parasitic underwater sex on demand.

For a typical business, UX design is seen as a specialization. Businesses have many specialized roles they hire for. They fit into a larger strategy for profit and growth decided by people who are in generalized roles. Even if you work on a large team, under a Director of UX, many of the important design decisions you have to work with are likely not made by designers. The budgets, schedules, and requirements come from people who know far less about making great/ethical products than you or your team does, in part because making great products isn’t their goal. Unless someone influences their thinking, that is the way it will stay.

Your faith in UX, as promised in the title of this essay, comes in an unexpected form and it starts here. You must trust that you are good at UX design and that your focus, for a time, must go elsewhere. If most of the big design decisions are made by people who you think are bad at design, or are unethical, you need to broaden what you think design is. The VP, the PM, the engineer, if they’re making decisions that “should be yours” or are “terrible”, then they’re designers too and powerful ones. This means there are only three reasonable choices:

  1. Move into a role where you make the important decisions.
  2. Become better at influencing decision makers.
  3. Find a place to work that has higher standards (or start your own).

Unfortunately the most common choice might be #4: complain and/or do nothing. It’s human nature to prefer the familiar, even if disappointing, to the unknown. It’s a safe choice because many make it. It’s less scary than the alternatives and it’s often immediately rewarded as others will complain with you. They may also tell you #1 is a betrayal. That you won’t be a “designer” anymore, despite how if you do it you’ll be making the decisions you felt you should have been yours all along (as well as paving the way for the next “designer” to have more power). For #2, some will say “Why should I have to?” and the answer is you don’t. You don’t have to do anything. However if you want something to change, participation is required.

The day you were hired you likely knew more about good design than most of your organization, including the executives. Put your faith in your UX knowledge and use it as a foundation to stand on, instead of a weight holding you down. Ignore the standard design books, design conferences and design media for a time. Don’t keep sharpening the sharpest tool you have if it’s clearly not the one you need.

Instead learn about how consultants persuade. Studying business for designers is good, but even better is to immerse yourself in a founder or product management community. Study their arguments and their theories on their turf. Ask questions. Learn to speak their language, so you can be a better translator. Maybe you can do it locally, if there’s someone on “the other side” in your org you get along with well. Ask them to mentor you. Make them an ally. Treat the powerful people you want to influence as if they were your users: you want to study them, charm them, so they can be users of your ideas.

It can seem insurmountable that one individual could ever gain much influence. If the host creature, or organization, is large and powerful, what hope could there ever be to redesign how things work? This is how we must imagine the sad male anglerfish feels as he rides along, playing the same small role for all time. But what he can’t know, that you can, are other stories. What he can’t do, that you can, is make new choices. You are free to change your relationship to your organization, to your work and to yourself.

Consider, for example, the abilities of the emerald wasp. It’s a fraction of the size of the creature it needs to influence (a roach). It’s so small it’s not seen as a threat. It’s underestimated, but it has studied well and perfected its skills. Once it finds the right place and time, in an instant it strikes and lets the design of its persuasive chemistry do the work. Soon it has control of the mind of what once was its superior, pulling it gently along, without even a struggle, to do its bidding. Now imagine if our emerald coated friend wasn’t working alone, but had allies with a shared mission? What might be achievable then? In nature, and design, anything is possible.

(Note: American corporations should be better regulated to act more as members of society, and penalized for profiting from behavior that damages the greater good, but this is a systemic issue beyond the scope of design which is why I didn’t address it directly in this essay. I’ve received constructive feedback on this omission and wanted to address it in some fashion. Added 2-6-2021).

Scott Berkun is the author of How Design Makes The World. You can read a related thread on #designethics on twitter.

Thanks to Bryan Zug and Phillip Hunter for draft feedback.

Do you teach with my book? Get in touch for a custom video

Over the years it’s been rewarding to see how many courses use one of my books. I write to teach and it’s great to know I can help teachers do what they do.

If you’re someone who uses one of my books in a class, you should get in touch.

Three reasons:

  1. Now and then there are bonus materials I produce for my books (like this Speaking Checklist for Confessions of a Public Speaker). If I know you use my book, I can notify you when this happens.
  2. I can make a short video for your class or appear remotely to answer questions. It’s fun, it helps me learn and often gives me ideas for new things to write about.
  3. I’d like to thank you! I appreciate what you do and honored you’re using something I made.

For example: here’s a recent video I made for Dr. Lisa Gundry at DePaul University for her course on Innovation. A quick lesson on how design and innovation go together, but it’s trickier than it seems.

My answers to the Proust Questionnaire: What Are Yours?

They say the web is decaying all the time and it’s true. When sites redesign they break hundreds or thousands of previously working links. I discovered this fun interview from 2008 by Sara Peyton at O’Reilly Media had disappeared.

I recovered it thanks to the Web archive and reposted it here. It’s based on the Proust questionnaire, a parlor game by the eponymous author. You should give it a try.

12 years is a long time and I need to reconsider my answers to some of these questions, but for now I’ll stand with them as they are.

Scott Berkun Answers Proust’s Questions
By Sara Peyton, June 2008

Having proven his range as a writer, speaker, and now on CNBC’s The Business of Innovation TV show, O’Reilly’s bestselling author Scott Berkun ponders happiness, friends, and other concerns in the O’Reilly Proust Questionnaire.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

An evening spent drunk as a loon, looking up at stars, sitting by a bonfire, laughing with friends.

What is your greatest fear?

Waiting to die with a mind full of regrets.

On what occasion do you lie?

This is the first lie I’ve ever told.

What is your favorite journey?

Wherever I’m going next that I haven’t been to before.

Which living person do you most despise?

It’s a tie between Bill O’Reilly and Dick Cheney.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

My friends would say its mother*****r. But I don’t think this word can be overused.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Mind-reading is hard to beat, but I’d settle for time-travel.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

The willingness to let myself make more mistakes.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

Open their eyes.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?

If a thing, the most perfect object in NYC: The Chrysler Building. Or maybe Central Park (is it cheating to call that one thing? I like to cheat). If a person, I’d like to be me again.

What do your consider your greatest achievement?

Writing every day. Ok, that’s a lie. I don’t write every day. But just trying to write every day is hard enough.

What is your most treasured possession?

My mind. I dont care much for material things. Besides, you never have to worry about someone breaking into your mansion and stealing your mind, you know? It’s the only thing than will always be only yours.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Watching someone innocent suffer for your own carelessness.

What is the quality you most like in a man?


What is the quality you most admire in a woman?

What do you most value in your friends?

Brutal honesty, dark comedy, and trust under fire.

Who are your favorite writers?

George Orwell, Henry Miller, George Saunders, Raymond Carver, Bertrand Russell, Peter Drucker, Loren Eisley, John Gardner, Ray Bradbury, Hubert Selby Jr.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

How can you top Don Quixote? There’s no way.

Who are your heroes in real life?

Don Quixote isn’t real? Are you sure?

How would you like to die?

Drunk as a loon, looking up at stars, sitting by a bonfire, laughing with friends.

What is your motto?

Be amazed by everything.

Sale Today: 50% off paperback edition of How Design Makes The World

You can now get my latest book, How Design Makes The World, for 50% of the paperback price here in the U.S. It’s just $9.99 on Amazon in the U.S.

This deal will last through Friday. The book makes a great gift for anyone curious about design, or who you wish understood how good design actually happens. It’s full of great stories and written for just about anyone.

You can learn more about the book, including reviews, sample chapters, the short film and fun social media images here.

Lessons from the Xerox-914: the first copy machine

A great innovation in business tech was announced on Sept. 16th in 1959 – The Xerox 914. It is one of the great breakthroughs in office technology and product design.

It was the first copy machine that resembles the ones we know and the inventions inside it led to the laser printers we use today. It’s hallmark was simplicity: unlike it’s complex competitors, you simply placed your paper on glass and pressed a button. How Chester Carlson invented it is a great story of risk and persistence and a better one to learn from than most.

Carlson worked at Bell Labs in the 1930s in the patent department. He had 100s of ideas for different inventions, but focused on copying because typing with carbon paper was messy and frustrating (You had to place a sheet of the carbon paper between two sheets of regular paper, and writing or typing would be copied to the second sheet). His patent department made hundreds of copies and he found the process frustrating. The “cc:” line in email applications today is a reference to the manual process of making a carbon copy,.

Carlson was fired in 1933 (Great Depression). By 1936 he had a new job and went to night school to study law. Too poor to buy books, he had to hand copy them from the library! Copying was his nemesis. To relax he read books on science, and there he learned about Pál Selényi’s work on electrostatic images and he saw a way for his idea to become real.

 He did chemical experiments in his own home, to the annoyance of his family and neighbors. He made unavoidably smelly compounds, melting sulfur (!) over zinc plates in the kitchen smelling like rotten eggs, once even starting a fire. By 1938 his wife told him he had to do his work elsewhere.. 

Using Selényi’s ideas (roughly: use light to remove static charge, not create it) and his own, after many experiments he had a ‘breakthrough’ in 1938. But unlike the myth of epiphany, he realized that moment depended on many others:

“Things don’t come to mind readily, all of a sudden, like pulling things out of the air”

This is the first xerox copy in history.

He soon had a patent but more rough times were ahead. Between 1939 and 1944 he was turned down by 20 companies, including IBM and the U.S. Navy.

He and his wife Elsa von Mallon soon divorced. He described the marriage as “an unhappy period interspersed with sporadic escapes.” Perhaps those kitchen fires and terrible smells made him a hard man to live with.

Carlson continued to work in patents at the P. R. Mallory Company. One day he was able to demo his work to an engineer from Battelle, who was only there his employer’s office to testify for a patent case. Battelle never took in outside ideas but were impressed and offered financial support. It only took 20 YEARS, but he finally had support for his idea.

In 1946 they signed a deal with Haloid (later to be renamed Xerox), a competitor to Kodak. In 1948 they released the Xerox Model A Copier. It took 39 steps to make a single copy.

Another decade of development led to the Xerox 914 – named because it could copy paper up to 9″ x 14″. This model become popular quickly because it:

  • was simple to use
  • didn’t damage originals
  • could be rented
  • used regular paper

It took almost 30 years but Carlson’s dream was finally real. At the push of a button you could make a perfect copy.

As innovative as it was, as with most new tech it had some problems.

It tended to overheat (one demo model caught on fire on launch day), often enough that it came with a “scorch eliminator” – a sales friendly term for fire extinguisher. Ralph Nader’s machine caught fire 3 times in 4 months and he complained to the press about it.

Even so, they had great sucecss marketing it on ease of use – including a TV ad where a young girl, Debbie, makes copies.

A follow up ad used a chimpanzee, but led to harassment for secretaries and was rarely used.

Compared to today it’s true these machines were:

  • large
  • hard to maintain
  • fragile
  • unreliable, as paper jams (‘mispuff’) happened often

The machines often required a small team of people who maintained them and managed taking in copy requests and delivering them (the copy room). But relative to competitors it was a breakthrough in many ways and these issues were improved over time.

The story of Xerox and Carlson is a great example to learn from – it doesn’t suffer from any of the Myths of Innovation. The time from having an idea to making it a real product in the marketplace took decades, which is more often the case than most people realize.

His patents made him wealthy enough to retire. He gave most of his fortune away, anonymously, including support for Buddhism, NYCLU and the NAACP. He died in 1968. 



Design hero: Chuck Harrison

[Originally this was a twitter thread – reposted here with various edits and link corrections]

A new hero for me is Chuck Harrison, one of the first black designers, and executives (1961), in American corporate history. He spent much of his career at Sears, and designed 100s of well known objects, some of which you probably know. He redesigned the View-master from a bland, clumsy device, to become something kids and adults loved to hold and use.

He developed the idea to make garbage cans out of plastic (much quieter than metal when the garbagemen emptied them at 5am), and make them stackable so they’re easy to ship and store.

To convince people his design was better, he devised a test. “we froze the can at -40 degrees for days, put a 50lb bag of sand in it, and threw it off a 5 story building.” It didn’t break – It bounced! Marketing replicated this in their advertising – but from a helicopter.

He thought carefully about user experience and affordances – “easy for the owner to remove [the lid] but hard for dogs or raccoons” – plus a sloped lid for rain runoff and hand grips at the bottom. Ideas used in Sears’ advertising.

He grew up in Arizona in the 1940s, which he says “may have been more racist Mississippi” – and poverty was an issue too – his high school basketball team was so poor they didn’t have uniforms – his coach wrote player numbers on t-shirts.

He struggled entering college because of dyslexia. He studied econ. until a councilor suggested art. His grades improved & he considered interior/industrial design. He was told “he’d be a good painter” but quipped “if I told my father that he’d make me paint the garage.”

He went to @SAIC_Design (Art Institute of Chicago) as the only black student. “…in the arts, racism seemed less intense… sharing information didn’t represent power so classmates were helpful” He learned from supportive professional designers too. Here are some sketches for one of his student projects, a design for a playground.

He served in the army, learning cartography/mapmaking and photography. After two years he reached out to his professors about graduate school, but they didn’t have a program – they created one for him.

Henry Glass (professor) helped him early in his career. “Henry was a godsend… someone looking over my shoulder… I learned it wasn’t only expressing a concept, but how to successfully get it to the marketplace” – This holistic design view would be a hallmark of his work. Much like Dieter Ram’s 10 principles, Harrison had a clear and honest philosophy about how things should be designed.

Many of these quotes and photos are from Harrison’s own memoir and portfolio – A Life’s Design (which I recommend – he writes well). There’s also a thoughtful obituary from the NYTimes about his life and work. #designmtw #design #inspiration

“If I were to share one thought with the #design community of today and tomorrow it would be to remember that your purpose — your gift to the world — is to provide straightforward solutions to real problems for living, breathing human beings.” – Charles Harrison

Police Reform and Systems Design in 5 Clear Points

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, has said that police culture has long been detached from the needs of the communities they are supposed to serve and that it needs to be transformed. Police racism and abuse of power are well documented, but why have so many attempts at reform failed? At one obvious level if the culture in an organization is still unchanged, what should we expect? But yet many of the tactics that have been tried address only symptoms and are often subverted as changing a policy does not change culture.

Charles P. Wilson, Chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, has even stated, “The [police] system was designed to keep poor people under control” reflecting how even today the disturbing roots of policing in America (slave patrols in the south, protecting the wealthy, warrior vs. guardian culture) retain their influence.

That word, system, is one that designers know well. It means rather than being able to address a problem as a singular thing, there are instead multiple forces that interact, often in ways that are more complex than they seem. Just because a problem is easy to spot, doesn’t mean it’s easy to fix. Systems theory is its own subject, as are police history and police reform, but I haven’t seen them brought together in a simple way that most people can grasp.

Shaila Dewan, who covers criminal justice for The NY Times, explored this in her rundown on The Daily podcast of 5 of the systemic reasons (there are more) for why the police stay protected even when they violate our trust. She explained:

“Our systems are set up to protect police officers from repercussions… its even been bitterly complained about by police chiefs coming in wanting to change their departments… Minneapolis had two police chiefs who were heralded as reformers. The current chief sued the department for racist hiring practices before he became chief… but he may be forced to rehire [the four officers involved in the George floyd killing] “

This view helps explain the Gordian Knot of how police, unions and other organizations, resist change and protect each other. It’s far from complete, but it offers an introduction into why this has been a hard problem to solve.

Dewan’s five systems are listed here – I’ve modified them slightly and added my own notes (you can hear her explain them on the podcast):

  1. The police police the police. It’s commonly known that most departments have Internal Affairs divisions that investigate police issues (often romanticized in movies), but we forget that they often report into the same larger organization that ultimately manages the people being investigated and who have incentive to bury or minimize bad news about their department. Internal affairs typically only investigates and makes recommendations, via methods that are often kept from the public. They are usually former police officers who are part of the same culture and community as those they are investigating. As citizens we call the police as a (hopefully) objective actor but the police are not policed in the same way. Police records about individual officers, complaints and discipline history, are often hard to obtain and provide limited information to the public.
  2. Courts and arbitration protect police officers. Public employees can appeal firings or suspensions to an independent group or mediator outside of the police department. Through these appeals police are often given lighter sentences or are reinstated, since they often base judgements on past precedent of leniency (which self-reinforces light penalties). The Twin Cities Pioneer Press analysis showed fired cops were reinstated 46% of the time.
  3. Civilian review boards rarely have power. Review boards are often created in response to police brutality, but they are often toothless, relying on journalists and the media to apply pressure. They are granted meetings with police leaders to discuss issues or review cases but not much more. Often few complaints brought to these boards result in any action.
  4. Police unions are very powerful. Unions represent the needs of officers, not the needs of the police department or society. They are well funded compared to other unions (given the political nature of policing) giving them significant negotiating power with city governments. A primary duty of unions is to protect police jobs. “They are often the biggest opponent of reform minded chiefs. Minneapolis is a textbook example of this.” Minneapolis Police Union President Bob Krul, whose own words on violence are disturbing, has 29 complaints against him as an officer. He has stated he will get the jobs back for the officers involved in the George Floyd killing.
  5. Reasonable Fear laws reduce sentences. Prosecutors and juries, who depending on their ethnicity and neighborhood have had far different experiences with the police, are often willing to give officers the benefit of the doubt in use of force since they are viewed as public servants, taking risks for the greater good. The concept of reasonable fear laws is that officers have dangerous jobs with split second decisions: If an officer can make the argument that a reasonable officer would have been afraid for their life in that situation, than a jury or prosecutor is not supposed to convict or judge harshly.

In systems theory stasis is the tendency for systems to be resilient to change. Each part of a functioning (in the sense it achieves outcomes the people in it desire) system will naturally adapt to keep the system stable and even compensate for changes, neutralizing them.

This helps explain the pattern of:

  1. Something terrible happens
  2. Society is outraged
  3. Change is demanded
  4. A new policy is created (or a police chief who believes in reform is hired)
  5. And… nothing changes

Dewan offers that “.. even an institution that wants to change itself can’t overcome it’s architecture.” There are often just too many powerful or slow moving forces that work against change happening. We don’t often talk about the value of institutions, but they are meant to provide value across generations. When designed and maintained well, the slow moving nature of an institution is an asset, not a liability. It’s a different scale of investment and return that many have forgotten.

Fixing a broken system usually requires:

  • Studying similar systems and why change failed or succeeded
  • Integrating different kinds of expertise
  • Considering both symptoms and causes
  • Attacking the problem from multiple directions
  • Growing and nurturing a new culture with it’s own stasis/resilience
  • Understanding feedback loops & how parts of the system influence each other often in complex ways
  • Committing to the long term, possibly over generations, as change may require more than a single term for mayors, politicians or anyone involved, just to even successfully manage out the defenders of the status quo.

References / Related:

Bring Berkun and How Design Makes The World to your team meeting

Does your creative team need a morale boost? Perhaps some inspiring new stories of how to design and engineer great things? An inspiring change of pace to help them recharge?

The stories and ideas from How Design Makes The World can inspire your staff, let them laugh and learn, all while discovering new ways to think about their work that they can bring into the rest of their day.

Here’s all you have to do:

  1. Purchase 30 or more copies of How Design Makes The World for your team and I’ll talk to up to 100 people. A huge discount from my typical event speaking fees.
  2. You can easily get them from Amazon, Bookshop or Porchlight (who can send print books direct to your employees). Kindle will also send books individually to your team.
  3. Contact me to schedule a day/time that works best.
  4. I’ll share key stories and lessons from the book, followed by an extended Q&A with you and your team.

Here’s a sample of what you’ll experience (from my talk at Google Talks):

Available now: How Design Makes The World (+trailer)

The day is here. You can now buy How Design Makes The World in various formats and from all the usual stores.

You can buy the book:

You can read sample chapters or hear my quick rundown on who the book is for and what it’s about.

We also made a short film about everyday bad designs, that also celebrates all the good designers who often don’t get the recognition they deserve.

Early reviews include:

“Nobody’s better at explaining how the world really works than Scott Berkun.”
Jeffrey Zeldman, web design legend and cofounder of A List Apart

“What makes a Jacuzzi better than a Segway? Why do street grids work in some cities, but maybe not in yours? What’s wrong with calling an interface ‘intuitive’? This fascinating book will help you see design everywhere and question why it works–or why it fails.”
Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

“An invaluable, essential resource that demystifies and democratizes design for everyone who lives with it–which is to say, all of us.”
Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe and former design director of the New York Times

“Scott Berkun captures the essence of what makes design so incredibly important in our lives. He frames how we should think about design in a fun and accessible way. How Design Makes the World explains why our world is the way it is, and lays out the questions we need to ask to make it better.”
Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering

“Everyone in the tech world knows that they need design, but few understand what it is and how it will help them succeed. Scott Berkun illuminates both the problem and the solution. A brilliant book.”
Alan Cooper, design pioneer and author of About Face

You can buy the book at:

(video) 5 minutes to explain How Design Makes the World

Yesterday I’d planned to do a livestream about ideas from the new book, but Twitter/Periscope refused to allow it (Vague “Initializing stream…” message never managed to finish it’s job).

Instead… I improvised this short explainer video. Which was surprisingly fun to do. Did you like this? Hit the like button or leave me a comment here and I’ll do more of these.

Who is the book for? Why did I write it? Why should you care? It’s all answered here.

LIST: 60+ well designed everyday things that go unnoticed

With the new book coming out, I’m running a little contest on Twitter. Best three answers get a signed copy of How Design Makes The World.

The question: what well designed common object goes unnoticed because it works so well?

The premise: We forget that what we do everyday depends on countless inventions, discoveries, designs and systems. Just to flick on a light switch requires centuries of work and effort on the part of people we never even think about. It’s powerful to take a moment to look thoughtfully at the designs around us. There are inspirations and stories waiting for rediscovery.

UPDATE: Winners have been chosen. I chose: the key, the alphabet and the mirror.

Even if you miss the deadline I’d still love to hear what comes to mind for you.

Here’s the list so far:

  1. The simple toaster oven
  2. Japanese nail clipper
  3. The pencil
  4. The clockface
  5. Yellow dotted line in middle of roads
  6. On road reflectors / Cat’s eye
  7. Bathroom entrances without doors
  8. Mythical bathroom where you don’t touch anything?
  9. Aglets (tips of shoelaces)
  10. Scotch Tape roll holder
  11. Paper Clip
  12. Phillips screw and screwdriver
  13. Cigarette Boxes
  14. Chapstick
  15. Running water
  16. Safety Pin
  17. Hinges
  18. Alphabet
  19. Light switches
  20. Corkscrew
  21. Book
  22. Peeler
  23. Concrete
  24. Toilet Paper
  25. Bidet
  26. Spoon
  27. Stairs
  28. The Metric system
  29. Glass
  30. Handicapped symbols
  31. Chopsticks
  32. Mirrors
  33. Keys / Lock & Key
  34. Hammer
  35. Clothes buttons
  36. Bicycle
  37. Tire pressure valves
  38. Toothpick
  39. Mattress
  40. Glasses
  41. Scarf
  42. Single level mixer (a faucet that controls both temp and water pressure)
  43. Escalator
  44. Waste disposal / recycling
  45. Elevators
  46. Safety Matches
  47. Dog door
  48. Differential gears
  49. Traffic signs
  50. Curb cuts
  51. The dial
  52. The smell added to natural gas
  53. Windshield wippers
  54. Soda can tabs
  55. A mug
  56. Ballpoint pen
  57. Light bulb
  58. Decimal number system
  59. Zipper
  60. Cardboard

Have an interesting one I should consider? Leave a comment.

It’s Time To Learn

Yesterday my feed had many references to a new Marc Andressen essay titled It’s Time to Build. I understand its popularity as it has an enthusiasm that’s in short supply in the tech world today.

But what he has to say floats about the fray in a disturbing way – thousands of people are dying from a problem we aren’t sure we know how to solve. Unemployment is rising towards 20%, which means basic needs for many is now a struggle. The government decisions happening now will determine how many more thousands of people die, especially front-line workers and the poor. And his essay doesn’t give consideration to them at all: having everyone build now will solve everything is his empty answer.

There’s much more. Let’s dig in:

Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

This sounds compelling at first as I hoped he’d explore what the rest of the world did right, so we can learn from them, but that is nowhere to be found in this essay, despite how well documented our lessons are. What did they do right? Is not a question he seems to have studied. A sign of things to come, or more precisely not to come.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared 

Here he has made pandemic response binary, either you pass or you fail, which is not how things happen in the world. There’s always a spectrum for how to evaluate outcomes. If he wanted to write about the future he could have, but he starts in the present and makes everyone equal as a way out, which dodges learning anything from what’s happened.

Some U.S. States and European nations responded much better than others, as evidenced by the countless charts we all study daily. But that spectrum isn’t convenient for what Andreessen really wants to say, so he frames the world as pass or fail so he can confidently say that everyone (except for all of Asia which he won’t talk about) has failed.

And pinning the blame means you blame someone who was not involved (which he calls here pinning the cause). You can’t say this about someone whose job is precisely to prevent a thing that ends up happening.

For example, if a CEO calls the threat of a competitor a hoax and tells his staff to ignore it, despite their knowledge and interest in doing something pre-emptive, and then that competitor devastates them a few weeks later, and the stock price tanks, and 20% of staff are fired, it wouldn’t be pinning the blame. Instead it’d be holding the people in power accountable for the consequences of their actions.

Andreessen is avoiding politics by not mentioning Trump, or his staff, or any government agency, all of whom are accountable in degrees for what has happened. Andreesen wants to avoid alienating anyone but he’s doing it at the expense of credibility. Later on he writes:

We need to demand more of our political leaders…”

But he does the opposite in this essay. We pay our leaders to plan for, respond to and be accountable for the outcomes of major events and he gives them a free pass, without even a mention of who has served their citizens well.

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds.

A cursory look at the successful pandemic responses showed that if you act early and shut social interaction down quickly, you never need vast quantities of ventilators or ICU beds. I’m not saying we should copy what they all did, as there were many tradeoffs, but we should start by learning from it, instead of leaving it out completely from essays on the subject.

Even if prevention wasn’t possible, we could have had the supplies we needed. They were for sale. But someone has to decide it is worth keeping massive expensive inventories that are rarely used. A hospital owned by a corporation that wants to stay lean to keep profits high, is unlikely to do this. What corporations call inefficiency, in the short term, is often very important in the long.

In the movie Catch-22 a corporation replaces parachutes of active WWII war planes with shares of stock, using the logic “when was the last time you actually used one? Wouldn’t you rather grow wealth instead?” Which works great until your plane is going down, which planes at war, and nations in pandemics, often do.

It’s governments that historically are well suited to insure societies against uncommon but devastating events, like wars, famines and natural disasters. Without shareholders and profit motive they can prioritize differently. America’s prized $748 billion military mostly stockpiles missiles, guns and aircraft that will never be used for their purpose, but we pay anyway. Why? In case we need it. That’s what a government can do. Why the same logic isn’t used when it’s about the health of citizens is a better line of inquiry than simply pointing out that we didn’t have enough of something. A small percent of that military budget might have been enough.

This was not a building problem. It was a priorities problem. A logistical problem. A leadership problem. You could call it many different kinds of problems but building isn’t high on the list.

Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to *build

Finally we really get to what he wanted to say all along: BUILD!

But he’s off the rails already. Sure, making masks that sit in a warehouse and transferring money to individual consumers are easy. But that was only part of the challenge. The other parts were:

  • How to pay for a stockpile of masks/resources that are unlikely to be used for decades
  • How to quickly distribute masks/resources across 50 states, or between dozens of counties within states, and through various agencies who may not have coordinated before (or pay for the training and exercises to make sure they are always ready)
  • How to build a public tech money transfer infrastructure within existing legacy (e.g. COBOL) systems that can service citizens during a national crisis

These are hard problems to solve, or in his language, hard solutions to build. He doesn’t frame the problem this way because… I don’t know why.

Maybe because it doesn’t support what he really wants to say? Or maybe he has little experience with massive government infrastructure problems with 30 year old COBOL codebases and didn’t talk to anyone who does, like the folks at 18F or USDS who are technologists who work in the U.S. government and can explain exactly why these challenges are far harder than they appear.

I agree with him that these should be solvable problems but part of the answer is having more of our best young technologists choose to work to help society in profoundly important ways instead of being recruited to join one of Andreessen’s startups that’s going to go try, but likely fail, to disrupt something or other that everyone involved admits isn’t really that important but happens to have a bigger “growth opportunity.”

You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally. You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.

Who has smug complacency? I do not know who he is talking about.

If anything, most of America is angry, scared, lost or grieving, and feels let down in one way or another, which is neither smug nor complacent.

Is he including the people who work at his startups, or use their products? Or the millions of people who use the products his startups are busy competing with to convert into their own customers? Who is he rallying against here? I don’t know and he doesn’t say.

We have top-end universities, yes, but with the capacity to teach only a microscopic percentage of the 4 million new 18 year old’s in the U.S. each year, or the 120 million new 18 year olds in the world each year. Why not educate every 18 year old? Isn’t that the most important thing we can possibly do? 

What year is he writing this in? Schools and universities are closed indefinitely right now and some are likely to go bankrupt.

I actually agree that education in America is in a bad place but we’re in a crisis. And even if we weren’t this isn’t a problem of building. It’s a problem of systems, of leadership, policy and bureaucracy. I don’t think Andreessen has watched season 4 of the Wire. If he had, he’d understand how school quality is inextricably linked to city and state politics. It’s a really hard and long term problem that is rarely solved by budgets and technology alone.

You see it in transportation. Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?

We are now fully in bad example territory.

  • Supersonic aircraft? The Concorde was expensive. And noisy. And is convenience of faster air travel really important for the foreseeable future?
  • High speed trains? Much of the world has them, but America has not invested much in infrastructure in 50 years. Our highways are bridges are literally falling apart. And our culture has a huge preference for cars over public transportation. In a democracy that makes it pretty hard. Like masks, high speed trains exist, but someone has to decide to pay for them and we haven’t.
  • Soaring Monorails? I live in Seattle. I know about monorails. They are inefficient and expensive (They also don’t soar – birds do. Maybe he meant speeding monorails? But they don’t get very fast either.) There isn’t one non-imaginary city that uses them effectively (and DisneyWorld doesn’t count).
  • Hyperloop? Is he only going to mention technological ideas that most experts think are ridiculous for very clear reasons but the uninitiated love to romanticize?
  • Flying cars? Yes! He did it! Had he mentioned jetpacks too he would have had the full set.

Had he simply listed important problems that he feels we have underinvested in (education, infrastructure, emergency response, climate change) I’d be fully behind him. But that’s not what this is. It’s an underthought list of tech-lust thinking. He was trying to be inspiring here but these are terrible examples.

How about free internet for all? (A timely problem since underprivileged kids can’t do schoolwork from home right now). How about ensuring basic health care for everyone or even that every family has enough food to eat for the next few months? Those are building problems too, but they don’t sound as cool to the tech-centric as his list does. Historically the truly important things technology can do for us in the long term don’t seem cool, but maybe a silver lining of the pandemic is that will change.

Building isn’t easy, or we’d already be doing all this. We need to demand more of our political leaders, of our CEOs, our entrepreneurs, our investors. We need to demand more of our culture, of our society. And we need to demand more from one another. We’re all necessary, and we can all contribute, to building.

I’m doing my part my demanding more from his essay. And you can do the same by demanding more of mine.

I’d prefer you also go into the part of your community that is struggling right now and help them get the basics they need. If you go to them (virtually of course) and listen, and pay attention, and learn, I bet you’ll find plenty of easy things to build that will help them right now.

Even better, find people already building solutions, and have been working on these problems for years, who need more money or other support. Builders are often bad at helping if it doesn’t involve them building something themselves (e.g. the mostly pointless pandemic hackathons), even if they’re not the best person to do it.

There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.

I can agree with this. Provided we’re talking about building societies, safety nets, higher quality of life for communities and the tools they actually need to make that future, I’m in. Or building better tools and telling better stories for reminding us how interconnected our fates are.

But first we have a crisis to solve. And unless you’ve lived through a pandemic before, it’s time to learn before we act. We have to look to our experts who know the options and the tradeoffs and how they played out in the past. And more than anything, resist the temptation to jump ahead and likely repeat the mistakes that have been made before.

Want a better world, by design? Join the street team

Want to read my upcoming book, How Design Makes The World, before everyone else?

And/or are you passionate about good design, of products, of cities, of societies, and want more people to understand it, care about it and fight for it? Especially with all that’s happening now?

Then I need you! You are a great candidate for this street team.

A street team is a small group of people passionate about a book, or a topic, who are willing to volunteer a little time in return for early access. 

You probably already talk to your coworkers and friends about why they should care more about good design or a well-designed world (or wish you were better at it). This book was designed to be a natural ally and asset for you.

What you get if you join:

  • a free pre-release copy of the book
  • images, quotes, excerpts and other easy to share material
  • weekly goals so we can work together as a team
  • a fun and good project to root for
  • Training on how to persuade people to care about design
  • rewards like signed book copies and free coaching sessions for most active folks 
  • Direct access to me as I’m on the team too! 

What you do:

  • Write a review on Amazon / GoodReads
  • Share images and quotes to your network, on Facebook, Twitter or other media 
  • Recommend the book to influential people you know
  • Teach people why good design is important (the book makes this easy) 

Interested? All you have to do is go here and answer a few questions. Thank you.

Design During Pandemic: a Visual History

Design, good and bad, is central to the human response to the COVID crisis. From the design of respirators, to supply chains to public policy in times of crisis. The number of services and systems that are being redesigned on the fly reinforces the notion that design matters more than ever.

From the beginning I’ve been updating this visual history to help capture what has happened. You may find what you see both depressing and inspiring.

Did I miss something you saw that should be in the history? Leave a comment or ping me on twitter. Also see this list from the UK of pandemic signage.

Click on the image to go to the source.


Did I miss a good one? Leave a comment with a link. Thx.