Designers like to think design is an amazing, transformative force for the betterment of the human condition. But the rest of the world doesn’t see it this way. Not that there’s vehement opposition to that idea; rather, much of the population is oblivious to design’s relevance altogether. Why is that?
This question is a pivotal one for the profession. Understanding the gap between how designers see our work and how society values it will determine how we practice our craft for the next several decades—at least. It’s the difference between accepting design as a small, insular culture and it living up to its promise as something that can change the human experience.
The engineering parallel
To that end, it’s useful to examine how the practice of design—specifically, of creating interfaces to technology—compares with the practice of engineering—of constructing the technology. The two are inextricably linked, but the nature of their divergence is striking.
Those who aspire to write code know that there’s a virtually limitless number of ways to study engineering. Even outside of the halls of “’traditional’” computer science programs, there are countless books and online resources that teach any flavor of coding. Even Apple, perhaps the world’s most successful purveyor of design, actively encourages people to learn how to code using its Swift programming language. On the company’s website, they promote resources for learning Swift with the headline “Everyone Can Code”—a beautifully democratic declaration that belies the company’s desire to engage developers on its proprietary platforms. But that headline is also telling about the way engineering is valued.
If everyone can code, and if Apple, one of the world’s largest companies, is endeavoring to teach us all to do just that, the implications are potentially immense: There are many, many more new engineers on the horizon. Lots of them will likely be hobbyists, but inevitably, lots of them will be entering the field as professionals, too.
The quality of these new engineers will be highly variable. Some of them might become world-class programmers, but many of them will not. Plenty of these new entrants will, as a matter of course, write lots of ‘“bad code.’” Yet, as a trade and a profession, the world of engineering hardly seems troubled by this at all. There’s no sense of alarm that this potential influx of new practitioners will somehow disenfranchise the incumbent professionals. And no outrage at the likelihood of lots more bad code being written.
In fact, the sentiment among both professional engineers and Western society is that we’re not producing enough engineers. Among employers, the competition to hire engineers is consistently high, and working engineers are among the most well-positioned to explore new opportunities or be selective in choosing their own career paths.
All of this is a reflection not just of how the world values engineering but also of how comfortable the world has become with it. We’re all steeped in engineering in some form or another: Not only do we use the products and services that result from it, we also “’speak’” technology, routinely using words like “reboot,” “bandwidth,” “offline,” and “beta,” in all kinds of contexts, technology-related and not. The fact that engineering has become heavily democratized has only made it more integral to our existence and a more powerful force for change.
But designers don’t think this way about design
For us, the prospect of more people everywhere doing design is not something to embrace, but to forestall.
Take, for example, platforms such as 99designs or Fiverr, marketplaces where design is inexpensive and highly variable in quality. Most professional designers regard these with extreme disdain, as embodiments of a systemic undervaluing of design. But looked at another way, these sites represent opportunities for those without formal Western design training to log valuable experience. They’re on-ramps, effectively, for a wider population to take part in the design process.
Or consider the continually simmering debate over certification, the argument that our profession’s “’all comers’” policy actually tilts the playing field against the most capable. In an emphatically argued article called “Design’s Lost Generation,” Mike Monteiro, cofounder of Mule Design, contends that modern design problems have become so complex that “we ought to need a license to solve them.” This assessment correctly appreciates design’s potential to impact the world, but it fails to address the notion that certification is sure to make design even less diverse and inclusive. If you think the profession is white and male now, imagine if we instituted the equivalent of a bar exam.
The list of these misguided objections goes on. But the theme that runs through all of them is a kind of territorialism, a feeling that only “’real’” designers should be allowed to practice design. All others should stay in their lane.
If we follow the example of engineering, what’s clear is that design’s protectionist attitude is shortsighted and self-defeating. Where engineering has gone wide, has let the world in, has proliferated its ideas and culture to people from all walks of life, design has done the opposite. It has focused on limiting participation, on preserving its perception as a highly specialized craft, and has even exaggerated the mystical nature of the creative process. Out of the belief that we were making design better for ourselves, we’ve held it down so tightly that it makes little sense to everyone else.
Where engineering has gone wide, has let the world in, has proliferated its ideas and culture to people from all walks of life, design has done the opposite.
Case in point: If you google the term “tech backlash,” you’ll get no shortage of links about how society is reevaluating its relationship with technology. There are widespread concerns about the access to our personal data, how our devices are impacting our mental health, and the way that our own social activity is essentially being weaponized against us. But if you google the words “design backlash,” the results are like a ghost town, with tumbleweeds of irrelevance blowing through. There’s nothing about design’s role in these challenges, nothing even about design’s culpability in creating these problems. To the world at large, these are classified as technology problems, but the answers to these problems are at least as much about design, about putting humane interfaces on powerful technology.
That, as much as anything, reflects how little the world understands design. The question before us now is: Will designers be satisfied with continued marginalization as the world grapples with problems that we helped create—and that we know we can help to resolve?
Or are we ready to embrace a radical new view of who can practice design, who can take part in it—and what our own responsibility is to help the world at large understand what design actually is? Only if we do can design fulfill its potential to be the difference-making, transformative force for change that every designer believes it can be.
This article was produced in partnership with AIGA Eye on Design.