October 15, 2023

Thoughts on Design in 2023: infighting, dilution, disregard, and disrespect within the community, and beyond

From my perspective having been a designer for almost 30 years (both as a graphic and a UX designer) – design, in any of its flavours, has never truly been appreciated — not by the vast majority outside those that are dyed-in-the-wool designers.

article originally posted:

This originally began as a response to a post on LinkedIn that a designer on my team tagged me and asked me to provide my thoughts on… I had thoughts, a lot of thoughts. By the time I had collected my rage and ranting in a somewhat coherent manner, the post had been deleted. Probably best, as the following likely contains some concepts people don’t want to hear, regardless of how true they may be.

That being said, I believe there’s value in what I have composed here; the ideas and illustrations of the key challenges to design as a profession as I see it, and how if we don’t course correct soon… we’ll tank all the progress and goodwill we’ve earned through the tireless efforts of those designers who are passionate, love their craft, and evolve to meet the ever changing demands of our changing digital landscape.

Here we go, someone hold my beer:

From my perspective having been a designer for almost 30 years (both as a graphic and a UX designer) – design, in any of its flavours, has never truly been appreciated — not by the vast majority outside those that are dyed-in-the-wool designers. There are exceptions of course, from clients to organisations to allies within the business community, some do get it. But this is rare, and most definitely not the rule. This is unfortunately also becoming true within the design community itself, as a confluence of factors have diluted, divided, and diminished the profession over the last 2 decades.

There are so many aspects that contribute to this, however the largest and most powerful of which I believe are as follows:

  1. The general mass-misunderstanding of what design is, the value it brings, and the crazy amount of thinking that goes into every element, word, colour, shape and their relation to each other as a whole.
  2. The belief that anyone can be a designer. Besides being insanely insulting, I can honestly say that having been in the industry for almost 3 decades, that a significant number of employed, promoted and established “designers” don’t even qualify for the title. Most designers that I know and respect put in their 10,000 hours of creative expression well before they even thought of applying to design school. THEN and only then did they learn the elements and principals of design. This isn’t an off the cuff career change, and it’s certainly not a career you should be able to be successful in should you choose it because of salary or available roles to fill.
  3. Many design leaders are not infected with the love and passion for design itself. Far too many times in my career I’ve been led by or worked for “leaders” that didn’t care about the craft they were supposed to be championing — they only cared about deadlines and deliverables exclusively (not always, and you know who you are). That’s not to say the latter don’t matter, of course they're critical, but if the craft, and the value, and the quality of output isn’t placed on an equal pedestal, then we’re just pushing pixels to a schedule.
  4. The proliferation of sub-disciplines, titles and specialisations within “design-proper” that creates false overlaps and boundaries, forcing designers of different titles to fight over who owns what, who should and should not have a stake in which decisions. Ultimately this allows, if not creates, the need to pass blame and point fingers to justify their own existence and maintain their position in the court of business, at the cost of those from their own community.
  5. The volume of external voices enforcing the compartmentalization of an individual designers’ focus area — whether it be graphic, or UI or product or UX. “You have to choose”, “you can’t be both”, “you have to specialise”. Why? Because it makes some uncomfortable because they themselves are only capable of doing one? If you’re willing to put in the 10,000 hours… into each area -- you do you. Many designers are threatened by the great designers around them, regardless of their specialisation, and resist working with or learning from them. Unicorns can happen, just know that they're the exception -- and they probably put in a shit-ton more work than most.
  6. Allowing our discipline to be put under the thumb of others, whether it be tech, marketing, strategy, or product — design’s true value cannot be materialised when it is forced to limit itself to the conflicting and self-serving priorities of a single business vertical whose priorities often do not align.
  7. Too many designers don’t understand (or choose to ignore) the business strategy side of what they do, don’t consider the implications of their designs, nor the impact on the bottom line — design is nothing if it isn’t business.
  8. The idea that designers are exclusively the champion of the “user”. This myopic, bullshit perception held by far too many professional designers today is a virus that only helps to keep our profession from having a seat at the table. While it sounds honourable, it only shoots you, and our profession, in the foot by implicitly positioning yourself in opposition of the best interests of the organisation you are designing for and creates an “us vs. them” narrative that makes whatever great ideas you may have feel like they will hurt the profitability of the company, even if they won’t.
  9. The traditional business world’s journey from disregard, to awareness, to ignorant upselling, to capitalisation on buzzwords they themselves don’t fully understand, to the overselling of the value without appreciating the craft that goes into it - and the time that requires.
  10. The explosion of digital products and services over the last 20 years creating a design-resource-demand that the design education system was simply unable to satisfy with sufficiently skilled and properly trained designers.
  11. The creation of low-value, high-throughput design bootcamps churning out wireframe and pixel jockeys, with little to no understanding of what design really means, nor what they were walking into as a profession.
  12. Design “education” spreading the misconception that design is merely a set of processes, or steps, or tools or software to master — simply so they can capitalise on a supply-strained design community to fill their programs every year, and fatten their bank accounts.
  13. Newly graduated “designers” not knowing how to think for themselves, to think about design in one context vs. another, to create bespoke solutions for each ultimately unique situation — having absolutely no choice but to steal, borrow and duplicate from others — others who also have not learned true design — causing the blind to lead the blind. And then there's ChatGPT that only makes this more accessible.
  14. Designers having no choice but to hire under-qualified or unqualified “designers” to put “asses in seats” to protect their existing teams’ sanity (which usually has the opposite effect btw) and show growth and demand for their team — if for nothing more than to secure their team budget for the following fiscal.
  15. An across-the-board move to design reviews that are more concerned with appearing kind and gentle, and not hurting people’s feelings, than with creating meaningful, purposeful and valuable work. Work born from the unique needs, challenges, target customer archetypes and business personalities of every single project.
  16. A general ignorance, lack of respect, and at worst, a disregard, for the brilliant trail blazing designers that built up the design profession to what it is today often through trial and error, LOTS of error, to build out a basis on which we all design from, and often take for granted
  17. Not all designers are built equally. There are grades — tiers if you will. Some are god-like, some are exceptional, some are good, some are meant for little more than production work, and some don’t deserve the title at all. This is true regardless of the number of hours you’ve worked or the volume of education you’ve received. And this is generally not a scalable ladder. It’s usually determined before you even consider yourself a designer — it’s something inherent, something that sparked inside you when you were a child, whether you recognized it as design or not, or art, or illustration, or copywriting — or any creative pursuit. Some are cut out for this and some just aren’t. And of those that are, you will find yourself naturally fitting into one of the tiers above.

We grew Design of all flavours unsustainably fast to meet the demand of the acceleration of digital, and allowed others to determine our progression, what should matter to us, where we fit, who we report to and who we partner with.

This is no one’s fault but our own. We cannot blame others for not understanding what we do, and what we bring to the table. As designers, we should know that it is our responsibility to tell our story in compelling ways, to create our own demand, and to differentiate ourselves — it’s supposedly what we do for our clients and employers everyday.

We should not be arguing amongst ourselves, we should be fighting, together as one, for a seat at the table. Not under tech, definitely not under product, and preferably not under marketing. Design is design, as engineering is engineering — it’s just the medium and focus that differs. If you don’t agree, that’s cool — you’re not a designer.

I could go on for literally ever on this…

Who held my beer?

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