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Design Discourse Is In A State Of Arrested Development

A dearth of thoughtful design criticism has dire consequences for the profession–and society at large, writes Adobe’s Khoi Vinh.

Design Discourse Is In A State Of Arrested Development
[Soruce Image: eestingnef/iStock]

Here is an incomplete list of places where designers can find new writing about our craft to begin each workday: Designer News, Medium, A List Apart, Sidebar, r/Design, Brand New, Design Observer. Many of these sites function as aggregators, linking to the latest news and thinking in the industry, whether it comes from publications like this one you’re reading now or from one of the innumerable blogs written by individual designers and design-centric companies around the globe.

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It’s not unreasonable then to look at Designer News, r/Design, and similar sources as leaderboards tracking what we as a profession are clicking on every day. Viewed through this lens, one thing becomes clear: Most of what gets written for designers is written by other designers.

[Soruce Image: eestingnef/iStock]
On the one hand, that’s something to take pride in. It shows that design is a thriving community full of passionate practitioners eager to share our knowledge with one another. We’re collectively pushing each other forward, elevating the craft together.

However, taking a closer look at this discourse can offer a new perspective. As I write this, I’m scanning the front page of Designer News, a terrific resource that I read and enjoy all the time. Today’s slate is a good representation of what bubbles up on this site: new product and feature announcements, a Medium article about how a design team at a young company built a useful dashboard, some lessons on how to focus on the right kind of users when building kiosks, news about one design-friendly company acquiring another, how-to advice for designing effective emails, and links to some impressive portfolios for two up-and-coming designers.

This is good, useful content, but most of it is written by designers themselves. Taken as a whole, it’s also a useful illustration of something vital that our industry lacks: balanced, insightful, independent writing that critically evaluates the profession. There’s very little in the way of thoughtful analysis here, scarcely any consideration of the larger stakes of what design means in the world and how it infiltrates every aspect of our lives, virtually zero debate about whether this work is actually contributing to the greater good in society.

What’s clear from reading these sites is that, left to our own devices as the chroniclers of our own profession, designers tend not to examine their own work with particularly rigorous scrutiny.

[Source Image: eestingnef/iStock]
The designers creating this content shouldn’t be blamed. To write about the same profession that you practice is inherently a conflict of interest. Over the past decade, thanks to the reach of the internet, our industry has become smaller and more intimate even as its numbers have grown. It’s difficult to write honestly about a product, team, design solution, or philosophical approach to our work because the community is so tightly interconnected. You might run into those involved in the comments thread, on Twitter, at a conference or even in person on the street in San Francisco, New York, London, Amsterdam, Prague, etc. You might even find yourself interviewing for a job with that very same team or designer who remembers every disparaging remark you published online. Or you could easily find yourself vying to win business from a company you’ve openly criticized in the past. Our profession is a very small industry, and in many ways it values decorum more than it does honesty.

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That’s not a good situation. This lack of independence doesn’t just mean that what gets written is conspicuously polite. It means that we’re missing out on thoughtful criticism. I don’t mean just the ability to openly criticize one another’s work, but rather the active, constructive examination and consideration of the work that we do. For a variety of reasons, design as an industry has never been able to support a truly robust class of professional journalists and critics, folks whose job it is to write about design, and who derive no income from its practice. Even the idea of someone spending their days writing reviews of brand identities, design systems, app experiences, and the design of new products seems far-fetched.

But this is hardly a novel idea in other art forms. Architecture has a long tradition of dialogue between practitioners and critics. Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times’s current architecture critic, for instance, has done spectacular work examining what gets built today, holding architects accountable for the larger impact of their work, and helping to frame a narrative for where this profession goes next.

Imagine for a moment if Kimmelman–or any architecture critic–was also a practicing architect, building enormous commissions for corporations at the same time he writes his columns. If this were the case, you’d probably come to one of two conclusions: either the writer in question was not a serious critic, or that the art form itself is not very serious. You might also stop to think how much poorer we would be without the contributions of his independent voice to the discussion of the craft.

That is exactly the situation that the design profession finds itself in today. We are lucky to have designers actively sharing knowledge, but we’re starved for good journalism and criticism. In some ways, we’re even averse to it. Our tendency is to focus on techniques and tools, and to ignore the deeper questions. And it’s not just that we’re unwilling to examine our failures; we’re just as likely to focus only on the superficial aspects of our successes, too.

This is largely a function of what has become design’s overriding imperative, the one qualification that defers all others: conversion. Did the design turn a visitor into a subscriber, a reader into a prospect, a casual user into a registered member, a shopper into a customer? Did the design induce the user to click again? And, ideally, again and again? If the answer is yes, then nearly everything else is shunted to the side.

And it’s here that those questions about design’s larger meaning in our society and culture go unasked. Amid all the focus on clicks, no one bothers to wonder: Is what was designed actually in the long-term interests of its users? Does it model healthy or unhealthy interactions and behaviors? Does it strengthen the long-term relationship between the brand and its customers? How does it contribute to the way people relate to technology, media, and to one another? Is the design aesthetically good or bad? And why?

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Combine that reticence with the lack of independent voices looking thoughtfully at the work we do and the result is not just an industry that avoids tough questions, but also one that effectively limits its own potential.

Design has waged a multi-decade campaign for credibility, arguing early and often that “design deserves a seat at the table” alongside our colleagues in technology, sales, and strategy. And our efforts have not been in vain: more than ever, businesses today appreciate the value of design, grasp its pivotal role in creating products and companies, and understand how it can provide a competitive edge. If we compare our current circumstances with those from even just a decade ago, it’s easy to argue that awareness and respect for design has improved dramatically. Nowadays, design is a pivotal part of the equation for businesses new and old, and there are more designer cofounders at startups than ever before.

And yet the battle isn’t quite yet won. There are huge challenges that exist today and tomorrow in this new digital world that we’re all building, and yet design is not a fully fledged part of the conversation.

Social media, for instance, is reframing the way our very democracy works, and yet most of the headlines on this subject make no mention of design. Facebook for instance continues to struggle with the unintended consequences of its network’s overwhelming reach, problems that are routinely referred to as “bugs” or algorithmic kinks. Even the company’s recently announced changes to its newsfeed, which are clear evidence that the challenge is as much one of user experience as anything, has been discussed more as a matter of policy than of design.

Similarly, the seemingly unending parade of bad news around security breaches, whether it’s Yahoo, Equifax, Uber, or others who have put consumer data at risk, almost never discusses how incredibly poor design impacts these matters of data security and privacy.

Here’s another painful example: You can debate the how and why of 2016’s presidential election, but it’s hard to dispute that both the Clinton and Trump campaigns took drastically different approaches to using design as a tool for building support among voters. It’s perhaps unrealistic to attribute any of Trump’s success to the journeyman-like design that defined his campaign or to assign any blame to the highly refined design strategy that defined Clinton’s campaign.

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One heretical view, especially for designers, would be to say that Trump’s journeyman-like design approach succeeded and Clinton’s highly refined branding strategy failed. Whether either assertion can be demonstrably proven, it’s worth pointing out that when Obama won in 2008, there were countless media stories about the effectiveness of his memorable “O” logo and the campaign’s savvy use of design in general.

These lapses in our ability to assess our work go largely unnoticed, but they have an unmistakable effect: They reinforce the mischaracterization that design is largely a superficial exercise. Even though we’ve made substantial progress defusing the myth that designers are only concerned with how a solution looks or “making it pretty,” we’ve only really replaced that notion with the idea that designers are only interested in optimizing for clicks. That’s scant progress, and continues to position designers narrowly in our enterprises.

[Soruce Image: eestingnef/iStock]
Unfortunately the likelihood of amending this situation on a structural level is slim, at least in the near term. Journalism and thoughtful critique, as we all know, are already under assault even in the aspects of our society that have long supported them, both culturally and economically. And it’s the economic aspect that likely poses the biggest challenge; to enable a class of independent critical voices in design would take a major reinvention of the way design is understood and valued.

Until we can afford such circumstances, we can only, each of us, be more discerning consumers of design–and particularly of what gets written about design. In an age when we all must work harder to understand the provenance of the written word, it behooves us to be skeptical about everything we read about design, too.

It’s worth asking ourselves: Who is the author, and what is his or her agenda? What credentials do they claim, and is there a relationship to be wary of here, something that could be motivating the argument being made?

And what about that argument? Is its central message the one that the article’s headline might have teased? And does the author cite independent, verifiable sources in making his or her case? Is the language reasonable and thoughtful, or emotional and hyperbolic? Is there excessive technical jargon or exclusive terminology used, perhaps as a shortcut to bolstering the author’s credibility? Are there diverse points of view represented, and if so, are they represented fairly?

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Maybe most importantly, we should all be evaluating for ourselves how truly effective a given article is in the arguments it makes. Did it challenge your assumptions, or open you to new ideas? Did you learn something new? And did you find it valuable, even if you might not have agreed with it?

If more of us, as designers, approach what we encounter on design aggregators every day in this way, perhaps we can begin to effect some structural change. By and large these sites are just as susceptible to the allure of clicks as the craft of design. But if we are more selective about what we consume, we may be able to encourage design publications to follow that lead by applying editorial judgment to what gets shared every day.

Have a comment about this essay? Talk to us: CoDTips@fastcompany.com.

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About the author

Khoi Vinh is Principal Designer at Adobe, where he is charged with aligning Adobe’s design initiatives more closely with its customers, its partners and the community. Previously, he was design director for The New York Times

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