In May 2003, President George W Bush stood under a garish banner on the deck of an aircraft carrier and boldly proclaimed “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” in the Iraq War. A decade later, the U.S. military would still be fighting a war that was increasingly unwinnable. The infamous image of President Bush standing at the lectern on an aircraft carrier is seared into the U.S. consciousness, not as a moment of victory but as a warning on hubris.
I think of this image every time I hear a designer say “we finally have a seat at the table!” or “everyone understands the value of design!”. We designers think we have accomplished something meaningful – when all of the serious work is ahead of us. Buckle up, there’s work to be done.
The comfort zone
Designers love to be loved. Who doesn’t like coming into an office where your work is understood, valued, and rewarded? At most famous design-focused companies, the designers have enormous monitors, rooms full of whiteboards, and supportive teams that never ask: “Oh neat, you’re the person who picks the colors?” At design-friendly companies (like Airbnb, Adobe, and Ueno) design has lots of space to think and plenty of freedom to act.
Most design-centric companies are based in Silicon Valley. Most are for-profit companies working on consumer products. Even in the rest of the world, design is most valued in similar enclaves in a handful of places like Bangalore, Tel Aviv, Singapore, Tokyo, and Cape Town.
There is a huge world out there where design isn’t embraced, where designers are clawing for resources, and where design isn’t prioritized. Most of the organizations that are changing your world don’t know much about design, aren’t looking for designers, and won’t even understand what designers are talking about when they show up at the front door.
When designers say they have “a seat at the table,” it’s not always clear what they mean. Does it mean that designers get paid lots of money? Does it mean that design gets VP and C-level titles? Does it mean that design gets invited to big, important meetings? Or, does it mean that design is prioritized and that user-friendly decisions are made in their organizations?
Let’s be honest. At some companies in 2020, designers make a lot of money, have important-sounding titles, and get invited to the leadership table. But even at huge companies with famous design teams, design loses many key battles when it comes to creating good user experiences. We have achieved $300,000 salaries but we have little of the power. What’s the point in driving a BMW if we can’t make good products for our users?
Many of us got into design because we thought we could make beneficial user experiences for real people. If we declare “Mission Accomplished” now, we will never have the influence to really fight for the user.
Even if you’re the most junior designer in the building, you have a voice. Your role as a designer is to always speak for the users. In your own way, bring the user’s voice to your team and into every decision your organization makes. Will this be easy? Often, no. In many organizations, you’ll be ignored and told to stay in your Post-it Note-covered cubicle.
Increasingly, designers are also losing sight that their primary role is to advocate for human beings. Design has become more and more corporatized over the last decade. We think so much about business metrics and technical solutions that we’ve forgotten our main role is to fight for the humans and to improve people’s lives. Accomplishing this mission is the long hard road. Too often, when design loses key battles for the user, we lament that “No one listens to me” or “It wasn’t my decision.”
Step outside of your comfort zone
If you’re a design leader, this is a call to action. It’s not enough to make a lot of money and just retire. It’s time to step out of your comfort zone and pay it back. The work is not complete. Advocate for design and designers within your own organization. Help set the right priorities and measure what matters. Rally to apply your design work on the hardest problems in the world.
The easy work is preaching to the choir of your likeminded cohorts. The hard work is venturing into the wilderness and showing people who don’t already value design that it matters. The world is full of opportunities for design, but most of the paths have not been paved yet for design to be successful.
As a designer, the interesting companies you can work for are those who aren’t known for good design. High potential to leave your mark. High risk, high reward. And you’ll have less competition.
Most designers want to work for companies who are already good at design.— Tobias Van Schneider, February 2020
Just a few weeks ago, designer Tobias Van Schneider called on his Twitter followers to take the road less traveled and apply design where it’s not already well-established. I couldn’t agree more. You (yes you!) can be the person who ventures out and establishes these new, important paths for design.
In my role as director of product and design at the not-for-profit Resolve to Save Lives (check out our open-source project Simple, which is used by hundreds of hospitals to manage over 200,000 patients with hypertension), I spend much of my time in public hospitals in India and Bangladesh. No skilled designer has even scratched the surface of opportunity in healthcare systems around the world that are treating hundreds of millions of patients.
The best way to show that design matters is to show results. For example, a few doctors that I work with in India made a poster to help clinicians to treat patients with high blood pressure more consistently. As is common in healthcare, the poster was designed by a busy doctor in a word processor and made the simple treatment protocol appear complex and difficult to follow. So I spent a few hours redesigning the poster in Adobe Illustrator. It wasn’t the most beautiful poster ever designed but it was really effective. That poster is now on the wall of hundreds of hospitals in four countries, affecting patient care.
There is a lot of low-hanging fruit where we can show the value of design. A poster is just a poster, but if you can wedge your toe in the door with high-impact, low-effort work, you can create opportunities to wedge the door further open. Eventually you can bring in more designers and apply design at deeper levels.
Real change = Real work
It won’t be easy to accomplish great things with design. Anyone who has successfully established a design practice in healthcare, education, the environment, or government knows that it’s hard. You’ll be ignored and even resisted. But, with perseverance and a lot of hard work, change is possible.
Flowers are already blooming in some surprising places.
If you had told me a decade ago that great designers would be going into government jobs, I wouldn’t have believed you. Today progress is being made thanks to the hard work of designers at places like the UK Government Digital Service, the US Digital Service, and 18F. And, designers like Dana Chisnell have been putting in the effort for many years to make our democracy more accessible to more people.
Likewise, in healthcare, some tough designers have been establishing a beachhead over many years. Nonprofits like Tidepool (dedicated to making diabetes data more accessible, actionable, and meaningful) and Medic Mobile (on a mission to improve health in the hardest-to-reach communities) are setting new standards in delivering well-designed user-friendly services. At the healthcare group Kaiser Permanente, its internal KP design consultancy is applying design principles at a large scale. And startups like Pillpack, OneMedical, and Flatiron Health have shown that design can help startups succeed at the highest level. But healthcare is a very wide field of opportunity, and the impact of design is only scratching the surface.
Education is another field where design has potential for massive impact. Designers like May-Li Khoe, who ran design at Khan Academy, have been putting in the effort to bring quality education to millions. Organizations like Laboratoria in Peru have been using design methods to create excellent new learning experiences for students who need it most. And, design leaders at Center Centre are redesigning design education itself.
Design in news media has been a bright spot for decades, and there is still huge potential to make quality news and information understandable and accessible to more people. Now more than ever, designers are needed to help people understand their world. Just in the last few weeks, as we suffer a once-in-a-century pandemic, designers at the Washington Post created incredible animated charts that convinced many people to take social distancing seriously. It’s one excellent and timely example of storytelling as a way to improve people’s lives.
You won’t get featured on many design blogs when you work outside the mainstream of design. You have likely never heard of designers like JT White, Stacy La, or Coulton Bunney. They, and thousands of designers like them, have been applying design to hard problems without the accolades that ‘famous’ designers and #thoughtleaders receive. Many of these designers never get the praise they deserve, because they have their heads down doing the hard work, not writing thought pieces (yeah, like this one) and winning awards.
Buckle up for the long haul
Hard problems tend to be long-term problems. Can you think of any truly hard problem in the world that you could fix in six months or in a few weekend hack-a-thons? In government, healthcare, the environment, education, financial accessibility, or other hard problems, any truly hard problem is pretty much by definition a long-term challenge.
In my work, we help clinicians manage almost 250,000 patients but to be really successful, we need to help tens of millions of patients. Hypertension kills more people than all infectious diseases combined — it’s a hard problem that could save millions of lives. Good design applied over a long time will be a key to success. If we can combine strong public health and great teamwork with good design we might succeed.
It’s good to celebrate our successes. Yes, design is appreciated more than ever. But we’ve barely scratched the surface. Before we say “Mission Accomplished,” let’s dig deep, find allies, and take design out of the comfortable places to realize the true impact of design that we promised the world.