Design is evolving—and designers need to evolve with it.

Below is a guest post from Nathan Shedroff

Nathan Shedroff

‘While designers have evolved over the last 25 years to be advocates for the audience/customer, we now need to be advocates for the rest of everyone else, democracy, society, and the planet, itself.

I was taught design in a world and a time where the word primarily referred to things you could see, touch, and maybe hear. Design craft is often focused singularly on pleasing our senses. Fair enough, but design has changed a lot since my undergrad days. It wasn’t OK to ignore the impacts and outcomes of our work then, and it’s much, much less now.

It’s Not About You

The kind of design I was taught essentially told us designers to “go out into the world and redesign it in your vision!” If we did that, we were told, we would be rewarded—with money, with recognition, with awards, etc. Mostly, that isn’t what happens. It’s been very recently that popular appreciation for the kind of design that wins awards has emerged. For most of the past, the “design aesthetic” of the moment did not align with what most people appreciated or wanted. One of the biggest achievements of companies like Appen and Nike has been the promotion of design qualities that design industries mostly emphasize. Never before have non-designers cared about, let alone sought-out, design that the “experts” agree are well-designed. This is particularly true in UX/UI design though there are disagreements, often.

Happily, the majority of how design is taught today has changed drastically, partly because many more people have entered the field but, mostly, because the design industry has steadily leveled-up its process, aims, cares, and context. Sure, there’s a few programs and faculty who only care about appearance and the plastic parts of “craft.” But, most reputable programs teach the process of design research, which extols the virtues of understanding our audiences/customers/etc. before we begin making things for them. This is a huge advancement! While some industries still reward and recognize only the starchitects of their worlds, most design organizations have started to refocus themselves around impact.

The famous Frog Design, under its original founders, thought their incredible innovation was to put the client CEO at the center of the design process. Today, even Frog Design puts the customer at the center now. Progress.

UX/UI/interaction/interface/etc. design has led much of this progress. It’s now no longer acceptable to jump straight into screen design without first investigating customers—well, unless it’s an agile project. It’s still the case that much of that customer research is really, really, poorly done, but at least the step is there in the process chart and, sometimes, there’s someone designated as the researcher.

It’s Not About Us, Either

But, designing for others isn’t enough. Therefore, design research isn’t enough, either. There are still too many steps in the process and people in the system who don’t understand, care about, or want to create designs that work for others, instead of merely for themselves. Even when designers know and do better, everyone else in an organization, from CEO or client to layers of managers, to peers in other divisions, can foul this process and prevent better design responses. This is simply the reality of systems made from real people, instead of idealized ones. It’s not a reason not to design, but it complicates our efforts and stifles progress. It requires us to not only better understand the context of our own work but levels of context above, below, and to the side that impact our work and, more importantly, are impacted by it.

This is why designers need to be taught so much more than traditional design. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t understand the basics of form, shape, color, light, seeing, composition, etc. By all means, these are probably more important than ever. But, we need to find ways to add in much more about the impacts of our work, which I’ll admit, isn’t easy.

It’s About Everything, Now

I know this sounds daunting, and we’re definitely adding levels of complexity and context, but these levels are necessary, not only for ethical and just work but also for financially successful work, too. Today, in order to be a successful designer (or, rather a designer creating work successfully), we also need to understand (in no particular order):

• The social contexts of our work (including impact, issues, and meaning)

• The ecological impacts and consequences of our work (and ALL of it has some impact)

• How value is created and flows between people, organizations, and stakeholders

• How to better communicate with all of these people

• How to lead and manage people (I, know, ugh, right?)

• How to respect (and transcend) the quantitative data available to us (and sometimes foisted upon us)

All of the above helps us be more ic in our work (which is another, critical issue, entirely)

That’s a tall order, I know, but necessary if you want to practice design successfully now and in the future. For sure, you’ll be able to inquire with and be joined by others. You won’t be alone (though it may often feel that way).

I’ll try to make it simple. I’ve been working on these issues for quite a while now. You don’t even need to go get another degree to know the above. There are even tools in existence for these (and several more on the way). There aren’t a lot of books that describe the list above, but there are many videos.

The first context for design is the environment around us. Nature supports everything else on this planet. If it falters, changes, or ceases to support us as we’ve become accustomed, everything else changes—sometimes radically. You don’t have to spend the rest of your life, or even the rest of the year, reading about this. I wrote the book, Design is the Solution, to cover it all, in fact (though others have, too). But, you need to know the basics because nothing else works otherwise. It’s your duty as a designer to know these things. No, scratch that. It’s your duty as a human on this planet to know these things. Period.

The second realization is that while society is supported by Nature, society supports (or suppresses) everything else. You can’t have an economic system without a social system. The main context you will design around will be the social ones (there are many). You don’t get to skirt this one either. It permeates everything. It governs what is considered good or bad, successful, or frivolous, important or not. And, there are more social impacts and issues than I can list. But the most important are going to be: equity, justice, respect, desire, need, privacy, and safety. If all you do is investigate how your audience understands and relates to these, you’re doing better than 90% of the rest of people you work with.

The only thing I’ll say about the economic context is this: markets are incredible optimizers. They really are. However, they only optimize what you put into the equation and the things we care about most have been left out of the economic equation by economists and “businesspeople” for far too long. And, optimization may not be called for at all. Just know that that uneasy feeling you have that business is missing some important things is absolutely true. I won’t get into the entire argument (you can read an intro here) but know that:

  1. People are NOT rational actors
  2. People don’t only optimize for money (they absolutely WILL pay more for some things)
  3. Rich people do NOT create jobs

That will keep you busy for a while.

Next, the same way we can measure the ecological impacts of a product, service, or other experience, we can also measure social impacts of what we create. We probably can’t measure everything (there are so many) but we can measure enough—if we care to. Someday, we may even be able to put these into business terms.

This isn’t a case of garbage-in/garbage-out. Instead, it’s about what we don’t put into the process—we can still get garbage out. Remember those Segways? They aren’t even mostly Segways anymore. But, a LOT of money was wasted to get there. That’s what you’re trying to prevent for your companies and clients.

We should have to perform all of these roles. It should be standard operating procedure for all of this to be covered in the process—even for start-ups. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. While designers have evolved over the last 25 years to be advocates for the audience/customer, we now need to be advocates for the rest of everyone else, democracy, society, and the planet, itself. That’s the design job ahead of us. Sorry, but it is—because few others in organizations will rise to the challenge (and the challenge doesn’t go away).

Or, you know, we can evangelize and recruit others, too. There’s plenty of work to go around and we don’t have to go it alone. But, we’ll have to leave the safety of our design ghetto studios to do it.

Check out the conversation we had with Nathan at our Human Tech podcast.

You can reach Nathan at www.nathan.com

What Research Tells Us About the Power of the Tribe
On the Human Tech podcast: A conversation with Nathan Shedroff

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