Design Problem

As in the problem with the design (and marketing) industry itself. I exist at constant low-key odds with myself each day I consider myself a designer. Some days are harder and more confusing than others, but the consistent theme is that I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. It’s a seemingly impossible situation to be in since more insight fuels both a stronger sense of intolerance and also the desire to fight to stay.

I work with great clients, I enjoy solving problems with them, I love making things easy to use and understand. I get so much fulfillment from getting to know people on all sides of a project and then making things that audiences are excited to be a part of. I am genuinely energized to contribute to a version of design and marketing work that is respectful, fun, and engaging without using dark patterns or manipulation.

This all sounds great, but the problems surface when I contemplate and interact with the design industry itself. This is a space that seems unregulated in a way. For example, while it has become increasingly unacceptable for a developer to publish any sort of list that is comprised of 90% men, this goes unchecked in design and happens daily.

There’s an image that people get in their heads when they think of designers in tech: I don’t look like that. I never went to design or art school, yet this is celebrated without question and acts as a gatekeeper to many jobs. Design school and celebrity status isn’t necessary for great design. In fact, it seems easy to see the value diversity in backgrounds could bring to problem-solving. Unfortunately, it is not rare to ironically experience a lack of inclusion and understanding around this from people who undoubtedly have the ability to be inclusive and forward-thinking in their resumes.

Tools as a lifestyle is another weird thing rampant in design. There are cult-like followings around tools, tools that charge way too much and could be gone tomorrow after selling out to the evil mega-corp they built a following on being exactly different from. It puts these tools on a pedestal so everyone is less likely to question them when they do questionable things. It then takes on this godly form that dictates how we work instead of just being one of many things that we use to do our jobs. There’s a complacency that takes hold.

I’ve also worked in nonprofits and in more development-focused roles. Design can be uniquely secretive. This lack of transparency causes many internal and external issues. Other designers cannot fully understand how a solution was formulated and, therefore, are less likely to be able to contribute or critique. Potential designers will not be able to learn from things that were produced as if by magic. There’s a lot of talk in design around fighting for a place at the table. Lack of transparency is a great way to ensure people don’t understand the extent of the work being done and its true value.

In having a foot in marketing as well, the contradictions are likely more obvious. Dark patterns, greed, manipulation, exploitation of things founded in goodness, like communities, to get eyeballs and sell. It’s too often about numbers and lead generation and not people. Figuring out how to exist without subscribing to these morally bankrupt practices isn’t straightforward and takes strategy, and I’m not always certain of my place in it all.

By many measures, design has become a caricature of itself. Being gatekeepers while preaching inclusion, equality, and empathy. Making fun of Comic Sans because it is perceived as ugly but can actually possibly be helpful for people with dyslexia is anti-design. Being snobby about visual design so that other people feel it’s not their place to have an opinion because they don’t know all the terminology is anti-design. Telling people they must use Figma to be taken seriously is anti-design.

In the spirit of full transparency, I struggled with this blog post and tried to move on from it many times. I get nervous about saying these criticisms out loud and want to avoid ranting for the sake of ranting–though this can be totally valid as well. I understand there are special groups within design that are the exceptions to all of this. There are designers who do incredible work and make beloved products and experiences. But I also think it’s OK to expect even more of this until it doesn’t feel like the exception.

So, while I was initially worried this was all overly saturated with despair, where I’ve ended up is a place of hope, positivity, and energy to make this work. I don’t want to leave; I belong here just as much as anyone else. Instead of giving up and retreating to a weird dark corner, I think there’s an opportunity to push back. To expect more and be more, and to make sure future designers have a better experience and that people’s lives are made better and easier through interacting with design and designers.

It’s OK to actively not support design communities, thought leaders,” and tools that continue to perpetuate this non-inclusive, overly elite, close-minded version of design. No one will be less of a designer for not following along. And it creates an exciting opportunity to seek other options or create new, better ones.

See you tomorrow over breakfast.

February 6, 2024

A tiny project byJoni Trythall inspired by friends at Wiggle Work.