Why can’t designers solve more meaningful problems? | July 17, 2016

Every few months, somebody in our industry will question why designers don’t use their talents to solve more meaningful problems; like alleviating the world from illness, hunger or debt. This statement will often be illustrated with a story of how a team from IDEO or Frog spent 3 months in a sub-saharan village creating a new kind of water pump, a micro-payment app, or a revolutionary healthcare delivery service. The implication being that if these people can do it, why can’t you?

As somebody who believes in the power of design, I understand where this sentiment comes from. I also understand the frustration that comes from seeing smart and talented people seemingly wasting their skills on another image sharing platform or social network for cats. However this simple belief that designers should do more with their talent comes loaded with assumptions that make me feel very uncomfortable.

Firstly let me state that I think designers are a genuinely caring group of people who got into this industry to have some visible impact on the world. They may not be saving lives on a daily basis, but they are making our collective experiences slightly more pleasant and less sucky. They do this by observing the world around them, being attuned to the needs of individuals, spotting hidden annoyances and frustrations, and then using their visual problem solving skills to address them. As a result, designers are often in a permanent state dissatisfaction with the world.

Designers also regularly find themselves overwhelmed by the volume of problems they are exposed to and expected to solve. This is partly down to the fact that companies still don’t understand the full value design, and fail to resource accordingly. However it’s also down to the designers natural urge to please, often causing them to take on too much work and spread themselves far too thin.

The message that designers aren’t trying hard enough to solve the really big, meaningful problems taps into this deep insecurity; making them feel even worse about the lack of impact they are having than they already do. As somebody who cares about the industry I feel we should be trying to help lighten the load, rather than adding increasingly difficult to achieve expectations onto an already stressed out workforce.

I also worry about who get’s to define what counts as “meaningful” work. For some people, meaningful may mean taking 6-months off to help solve the refugee crisis—an amazing thing to do I’m sure you agree. For others it may mean impacting hundreds of millions of people by working at Facebook or Twitter. That may seem facile to some, but both these platforms have been used to connect isolated communities, empower individuals, and in some cases, topple regimes. So who are we to judge what “meaningful” means to other people?

Many designers I speak to do actually want to have a bigger impact on the world, but don’t know where to start. It’s not quite as easy as giving up your day job, traveling to a crisis zone, and offering your services as a UX designer. It turns out that a lot of the world favours doctors, nurses and engineers over interaction designers and app developers. I sometimes feel there’s a whiff of Silicon Valley libertarianism tied up in the idea that designers should be solving the really big problems; the kind of things that Universities, Governments and NGOs have been struggling with for decades.

There is also a sense of privilege that comes with this notion. While some designers may be in the position to take a pay cut to join an NGO, or invest their savings into starting a community interest company, that’s not true of everybody. Designers may be better paid than many in society, but they still have mortgages to cover, families to look after, and personal lives to lead.

By comparison, many of the people I see extolling these notions have been very fortunate in their careers, and have the time and resources to tackle problems they find meaningful. Some have run successful companies for many years, while others are living on the proceeds of their stock options. Most are tackling these problems for the right reasons, but I can’t help think that some are doing so out of guilt. Doing so to make amends for all the cigarette and alcohol adverts they worked on as a young designer, or to justify the payout they got for being at the right company at the right time.

There is definitely an element of “mid-arrear crisis” in the sense that we should all be doing more with our lives than we actually are; making a bigger impact before our time is up. However it’s much easier to have these thoughts, and see these opportunities towards the end of one’s career, and then judge younger designers for what they themselves didn’t see at that stage in their lives.

Ironically I believe there are a large number of designers choosing to work for the greater good. Organisations like GDS in the UK, and Code for America in the US, have done a fantastic job of recruiting some of the best and the brightest from the tech world to help improve government and foster civic engagement. Other well known designers have given up their time to work on political campaigns, or donated their skills to charity. This is nothing new. Many famous graphic designers, type designers and advertising executives donate part of their time to good causes, be it fundraising drives, charity campaigns, or education.

Less well known, but no less important, are the tens of thousands of designers who work for organisations like Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the WWF. People who actively choose to work for companies they feel are making a positive impact in thew world. Then we have the individual designers, working under the radar for lesser known charities. Much of their work goes unreported. You’ll never see them on stage at a typical web design conference, or writing an article for your favourite digital magazine for instance. But don’t let this lack of visibility fool you into thinking great work isn’t going on; projects like falling whistles and the lucky iron fish are just the tip of the iceberg.

So why aren’t more designers choosing to solve large, difficult, and meaningful problems? I think a big part of the reason is sociological. We look to our peers and our industry leaders to understand the career options available to us, and see what success looks like. If all the evidence says that being a successful designer means working for a well funded start-up, gaining a large Twitter following, and waiting till they IPO, that’s what people will do.

If we really want designers to be solving bigger problems, two things need to happen. First off, the people who currently own those problems need to recognise the value of design, and make it easier for designers to get involved. I think conferences like TED and publications like HBR have helped with his endeavour, but it’s still not obvious how designers can get involved and move the needle in a meaningful way.

Secondly, we need to create an alternative success narrative that shows it’s possible to be an amazing designer by doing meaningful work, without having done the rounds at a well known design consultancy or large tech company. We need to break the idea that solving big, important and meaningful problems is the preserve of the design-elite, and instead create alternate role models for budding new designers to follow.

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Universal wage | July 2, 2016

Stories of mass underemployment due to the rise of Artificial Intelligence have been popping up all over the place the past 18 months. It would be easy to dismiss them as crack-pot theories, were it not for the credibility of their authors; from scientists like Stephen Hawkins to industrialists like Elon Musk.

Self driving cars seem to have gone from science-fiction fantasy to real world fact, in a matter of months, and the worlds transport workers are right to be concerned. Uber are already talking about making their drivers redundant with fleets of self driving taxies, while various local governments are experimenting with autonomous bus services. However the real employment risk comes from the huge swathes of haulage vehicles which could be made redundant. This won’t happen soon, but I suspect our roads will be 30% autonomous vehicles by 2030.

While it’s easy to assume that AI will only affect blue collar jobs, as we saw with the automation of manufacturing, I’m not so sure. I’m currently using an Artificially Intelligent PA to book my meetings and manage my calendar. It’s fairly crude at the moment, but it won’t be long before internet agents will be booking my travel, arranging my accommodation, and informing the person I’m meeting that I’m stuck in traffic. All things that are possible today.

Jump forward 20 years and I can see a lot of professional classes affected by digital disruption and the move to AI. In this brave new future, how will governments cope with rising unemployment?

One idea that’s been raised by both right and left is that of a Universal Wage. Put simply, every citizen would automatically receive a small, subsistence payment at the start each month. This would be enough to cover basic expenses like food and accommodation, but it wouldn’t guarantee a high quality of life, so most people would still choose to top up their incomes through work.

Unlike unemployment benefits, people don’t lose their universal wage if when they do work, removing a huge disincentive for many people. Instead this provides greater flexibility in the type of work people are able to do. For instance carers could fit work around their caring duties or students around college. As such, the Universal Wage supports the current trend we’re seeing towards the gig economy.

This may seem like an impossibly expensive solution, but various economic studies have shown it to be just about feasible today with only a marginal rise in tax. The reason it’s not more comes in part from the savings it would provide to the state. No more judging benefits on means, or policing infractions. Just a simple monthly payment for all.

The left love this policy for the social equality it brings. People can now spend their time in education and training, raising families and caring for loved ones, or exploring the arts. The right like it for similar reasons; empowering individual entrepreneurship while simultaneously reducing the size of government.

Several Universal Wage experiments are taking place around the world at the moment, so it will be interesting to see what the findings bring.

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