Frank Chimero

Brand & Product Designer
Brooklyn, New York
⚠️ This post is old and may no longer reflect my views.

Designer’s Poison

Earlier this week AIGA sponsored a round-table discussion with every designer on Twitter called One Day for Design. As expected, it was a cacophony of noise with the occasional delightful or insightful nugget. It was less discussion and more a match of wits battling in profundity (with a bit of jest directed at the whole thing too). The event wound up, to my eyes, not so much a dialogue, but more a sequence of soundbites trying to be strung together into a dialogue. I feel for the moderators who were given the impossible task of trying to make sense of the mess and herd cats. They are smart, capable people that were put in a weird spot with a tough job.

Part of this has to do with the format. It’s very difficult to have a “listening state” on Twitter, and great conversations seem to be built more on listening than speaking. On top of that, Twitter is a difficult mechanism to corral into a conversation because it doesn’t let you curate tweets into a linear sequence of events. Twitter handles back and forth between 2 and 3 people relatively well, but breaks once more people involved. Twitter seemed like the wrong place for the discussion, because it presented a conversation on design that required holistic thinking in a fragmented manner.

In spite of this, I perceive there still to be value to the event. Even though Twitter does not seem to be an ideal mechanism in the search for answers to complex questions, it can be an important tool for raising the appropriate questions on the minds of the masses. Encouraging designers to speak their thoughts on design is an excellent way to get the pulse of the industry. And, in response, I saw some questions and points that delighted me and others that fatigued or even saddened me.

I feel compelled to present a few designers’ poisons. In my opinion, these are the dispositions and mistakes of the field that I saw both addressed as problems and manifested in behavior in One Day for Design’s live stream. These are the things that hurt all of us. I am not above or excluded from any of these points. In fact, I’m more guilty than most in some of these.This list is an incomplete one, but I presume a partial list is better than not collecting them at all. I present these as my contribution to the discussion about creating a way forward for the profession. There are a few proposed answers in here, but they are given in the spirit of discussion rather than authority. We’re all part of the same profession, and the AIGA is correct in recognizing there are important issues that need to be addressed that have a great influence on the future of our profession.

A lack of definition for design.

Isn’t it a bit ironic that a group of communicators can’t summon a definition for their practice? I won’t pretend that finding this definition is easy. We’ll never achieve absolute clarity in a definition, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to define the practice. This lack of definition creates so many of the issues faced by designers both internally and externally. I’ve a hunch that it’s not as easy as “problem-solving,” because “problem” is as sticky of a word as “design.” Generally, we’ve done such wonderful work branding our clients, and such a poor job branding ourselves.

The public’s general understanding of design as a noun.

So much tension happens in client work because many clients believe the value of the designer is the things that they make, the noun. The designer, meanwhile, believes that the core of their value comes from the process, the strategy. The verb; hence the rise of “design thinking.” This fundamental disagreement of the placement of value of a designer’s services creates a lot of misunderstandings.

Not considering design a liberal art, and entrenching ourselves in the opinion that this is a craft for the few, rather than a skill for the many.

If we believe design is such a valuable lens to view the world through and a fantastic mental mode for problem solving, we should open it up to everyone. Not doing so is double-speak.

The miseducation of a designer.

If it’s wrong for a client to believe the value of design is in the nouns, it’s also incorrect to educate a designer around nouns. Curriculums shouldn’t be focused towards teaching software or creating specific artifacts. The education of a designer should not be focused towards working in specific mediums any longer, because those mediums change so frequently and often congeal into one another into new hybrids. Everything is a campaign now. Schools would be wise to focus activity around objectives rather than tasks, because so much of professional work is around objectives too: devising plans to fulfill those objectives, creating a symphony of efforts that work together towards that goal, and then executing those efforts in a way that adds value. By focusing on objectives, curriculum will age better because instructors can be agile about the tools that they teach as the world around the university changes.

Asking the wrong questions.

We shouldn’t be asking “Do I need to learn how to program?” We should be asking “Would making websites help achieve the goals of our clients?” More often than not, it will, so we should work towards making ourselves skillful in that enterprise or surrounding ourselves with those that are. The issue is that the question about programming is task based, and the other is objective based. One focused on How, the other on Why.

Designers wanting a seat at the table, but frequently not inviting clients to our own table.

To extend this point: How much more interesting would it have been if several people that frequently commission design were part of the One Day for Design conversation? I suppose there was nothing keeping them out of the conversation, but generally it seemed the event was painted as something for designers. What if AIGA’s salary survey was complementary to a client inquiry survey? By listening to our clients, we become better at servicing them. In addition to this, it becomes less easy to paint ourselves as victims, which is generally an unsavory disposition for a profession. As Jim Coudal says, if you’re making fun of your clients at the bar, something is wrong.

The self-serving nature of design.

So much work by designers for designers. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else (perhaps, even more guilty), but to achieve a resonance and understanding to the value of design, I suggest that we must look to audiences beyond ourselves and prove that value by improving their lives with our work.

Villainizing criticism.

The measure of a mature practice is reflection and analysis. Painting serious criticism of the field as unnecessary or labeling the critics as second-class because they don’t “make anything” cuts the development of field off at the knees. Criticism and creation have a symbiotic relationship. It is reflexive. Criticism provides a valuable rudder to the mode of making, and to eliminate it leaves us floating.

Undervaluing philosophy.

This one seems odd, but I suggest that there is an unexplored gravitas to the work that we do, not necessarily because there is a profound quality to design itself, but rather because of the promises the work makes. The core question of Aristotelian philosophy and ethics is “What is the good life?” How is such a desirous question not brought up more frequently in a field that works so much in human wants and desires, a field that so frequently promises happiness not only for its practitioners, but for its audience as well?

Our cognitive bias towards the uniqueness of our challenges.

It is tempting to think that the problems we face are the first time these problems have risen. Not necessarily so. As interaction designers explore the problem to document their work, are they not facing the same problem as an installation artist or a performance artist in their effort to document the work without turning an experience into an image? This challenge is not unique to design, though it feels profoundly stronger here than elsewhere (which is probably another cognitive bias of my own).