Friday, July 06, 2018

Designers are not heroes

In the midst of today's glorifying of design as an approach that can achieve anything, there is an unflattering stroke of hubris. Of course, I truly believe in design as a unique approach that can deliver outcomes that set designing apart from other approaches. But when designers start to see themselves as the 'one', as those who will solve the issues that no one else can solve, then I have some issues.

Designers commonly work in service of a client. They are paid to do work for a client. This is all good. When designers act on their own, without a client, they become activists (or in some cases artists). This is also fine. To be an activist means that you primarily take a personal and often political stance.  It means that you act on some deep beliefs, values, and/or ideology. In that case, you are not a designer, you are an activist that maybe uses some form of a designerly approach.

This is quite certainly a non-issue for most people and maybe to me too. But there is a serious aspect to this. When people start to act in the world and claim that they do it in the name of "design", then I see a problem. It creates a very specific problem for the tradition or approach of design. Designers are not necessarily equipped to deal with all kinds of problems in the world, which means that they will fail. It is a similar kind of problem or hubris as when some scientists argue that science is the way to approach all societal problems.

It is obvious to me that design as an approach is not 'designed' to handle complex societal issues in absence of a client. Each stakeholder involved in an issue may use a designerly approach of course, but there is no 'pure' or clean designerly way of approaching an issue that would make designers more suited than others to deal with a societal problem (unless the problem is of a type that is uniquely suited for a designerly approach).

Maybe more problematic is when designers see themselves as saviors or even heroes that are equipped with a more powerful approach than others, and they start to 'help' others without working in a close client relationship. Client-less 'independent' designers are no different than any other type of activist trying to impose their 'solutions' on others. To be clear, I have no problem with designers doing this as activists. In many cases, great designers can achieve great results in this manner. But it should not be done in the name of 'design'. It should be done as someone aspiring to create change and who is trying to use a designerly approach.

I truly understand that this reasoning is subtle and to most has no value or importance, but for me it is crucial.


Richard I Anderson said...

All design is political. All design creates change.

undef said...

(thanks for articulating a long-lingering thought)
I'd like to add I've observed a similar issue, at least in the business sphere.

By perpetuating the "hero" designer image who magically comes up with a solution (the big ta-daaa reveal) we retreat to a comfortable position where we don't feel the need or even can't explain why a solution is the right one: "Trust me, I'm a designer" just doesn't cut it in a business environment.

When a design is perceived as based on belief, even though it might be a properly designed solution, it'll fail to change anything at all.

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