The Problem With Design is Designers

Psychology and process can get in our way just as often as they can help us get things done.

     This painting by Rene Magritte is ironically titled Not To Be Reproduced.

No procedural change to design will ever outperform the personal changes a designer is willing to make. When it comes to both results and the experience of achieving them, good design is so much more about what gets done and who does it than how.

This is also why writing about design is almost always more compelling when it is about problems, context, and adjacent conditions than the procedures we follow to grapple with them.

And yet, few things are as sacred to designers as process. To which I say, a process is only as good as its fit to the user. Designers continually evangelize procedures with the belief that they will and should work for everyone, when what they actually know is that they work for them. That knowledge is good. But it is self-knowledge masquerading as procedural expertise.

Self-knowledge needs no costume. A designer with insight is more equipped to solve any problem than ten with instructions. (It is that designer, by the way, the one with self-awareness, who will recognize when they are not the right person for the job.)

People who practice design have many common traits. Among them…

  • We are hypervigilant; we see flaws quickly and everywhere.
  • We are hypercritical; we see opportunity for improvement in everything we experience.
  • We are, simultaneously, optimistic and ambitious; we want to fix everything that is broken and we believe that we can.
  • We find beauty in order; we want the world to be a more beautiful, and thus more orderly, place.
  • We are restless and not easily satisfied.

These are traits that make designers good at what they do. Notice that they comprise a single thing: worldview. None specify a particular skill or method. They are about how we see and experience the world around us.

Other traits common to people who practice design are internal. They are reactions to the outside world based upon how we see ourselves.

  • We are overly sensitive. We see our work as an extension of who we are, making it impossible to disentangle ideas of self-worth from the reception of what we do.
  • We are hypocritical. We are as resistant to critique as we are prone to deliver it.
  • We are stubborn and inflexible, too easily frustrated when reality resists our first solution.
  • We are dogmatic about matters to which we should be agnostic. We push processes forward, even when they do not make sense.
  • We are too quick to judge situations and act on too little knowledge about what is really going on.

These are the traits that get in our way. When we are successful, it is in spite of these traits, not because of them.

This is why there can be no procedural dogma in design. There will, of course, always be an umbilical connection between process and craft; there are ways of doing things which are connected to incontrovertible truths about nature, materials, time, and other aspects of the universe. But design is about bringing into being a desired future state, not just making a desirable object. And it turns out that the best way to get from Point (A) to Point (B) has everything to do with who is getting there. A good designer goes there. We don’t just provide directions. We must know our constituents, yes, but we must also know ourselves.

Consistency is still valuable to design. We may have consistent procedures for gaining understanding — for investigating and exposing the true nature of a problem — and consensus — for communicating our intent to others and building support. But the subjects and objects of design will never be the same twice. So when we feel resistance, that is reminding us what design actually is. It is our cue to look inward for change, not outward. And we should desire that moment.

“I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing” is a quote attributed to John Cage, a composer known for a such an ardent commitment to questioning the nature of music that his most famous work, 4’33“, is one that is entirely silent. Plenty of people rejected Cage’s work. How can it be music, they argued, if it lacks the very thing of which music is made — sound? Yet, in questioning the nature of music, 4’33” also questions the nature of silence. Is there really such a thing? In pursuing this question, Cage discovered that the best answer was one in which he had no part. Imagine that: such a radical commitment to the truth of his practice that he was willing to remove himself from it entirely.

For designers, rare will be the case that doing nothing would be better than doing something. But to accept the possibility of that will draw us closer to the truth of every problem we seek to solve, and to a contentment with the constant change of the world that invites our intent as quickly as it invalidates it.

Written by Christopher Butler on May 7, 2021,   In Essays

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