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.

Posted at July 17, 2016 8:24 AM


Chris Shiflett said on July 19, 2016 7:14 PM

This was a balance we really struggled with when creating the Brooklyn Beta narrative. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the insinuation that if we’re not saving the world, we’re failing.

That said, I do think we can have a greater impact. It seems like the Internet is mostly solving the problems of the people who make the Internet. It’s easier for us to understand the problems that we face ourselves.

Our hope with BB was to take a soft approach and simply expose creative people (mostly designers, but a pretty mixed crowd) to problems outside our industry (not necessarily world-saving) where they might be able to have an impact. I don’t know if it was a very successful approach, but it did allow us to have some meaningful conversations without it feeling like a ploy to make people feel guilty.

Also, I miss blogs. Your opinion is really well articulated here, but I genuinely misinterpreted it when I saw it expressed on Twitter.

Scott Berkun said on July 19, 2016 10:02 PM

As one of the people who complains about this often on Twitter I’m glad you wrote this. It’s thoughtful, balanced and I agree with much of it.

Part of what draws me to be a critic is the ego and presumption among many (but certainly not all) designers about the significance of the work they do. It’s common for designers to claim the high moral turf of empathy for people, and for being the profession that fights for people (aka users) - it’s the hubris and ignorance of the wider world that draws my criticisms.

Perhaps put another way, I see the profession of design as largely coopted by capitalistic ideals - which is fine (and it’s an old argument: Papanek made it in the 1970s). I like to get paid too and believe competition is good. But once the claims become “making the world better” or “solving important problems”, which is the basis for how most new technologies designers work on are marketed, moral criticisms seem important. Or more specifically, I’m obligated to make those criticisms because I fear if I don’t, the promise of what designers can do for the world has a higher chance of being squandered.