Product Design

A Call for Genuine Design Discourse

Lisanne Binhammer

May 24, 2018

Search any publication today and you’ll find that the dialogue around design is pretty surface-level. A quick look at Medium’s Design section, for example, brought up these gems: “10 Cheat Codes for Designing User Interfaces,” “UI Design Tips for CTA Buttons,” “How To Make Your iOS App Typography NOT Suck,” and “The Seven Types Of Logo Designs And The One That’s Right For You.”

These are just a few samples from the never-ending supply of the currently #trending way to write about design: “How to _________ in ___ steps.” The tendency in design writing has become to talk about the “what”: what to do, what tools are out there, and what I did with which tools.

Why all these listicles? In keeping with the rise of clickbait across all media — not just in design literature — it’s because they’re easier to write, they get more clicks, and they tend to be more accessible to readers.

The last of these three reasons is, in a way, justifiable. C’mon, we’re designers! As a discipline, we always want to make things more accessible, more digestible, more “friendly” for our users. We pour our efforts into the onboarding experience of a UI, refusing to let a single person take more than a half-second to figure out how things work. We think through scenarios and reduce, reduce, reduce, so that when you open your app or site or Alexa skill, your journey feels intuitive.

But whether it’s intentional or not, our obsession with user-friendliness in product design has made us do the same thing to how we think and write about product design. Though these how-to articles provide all kinds of helpful tips and tricks, we’re increasingly writing things that make design feel so user-friendly and so consumable that we’ve boiled it down to a cross-off-able checklist. This is inherently problematic, especially given that the reality of design work is that it involves a lot of labour and even *gasp* difficulty on the back-end so that it’s easy for users on the front.

“Ok, Lisanne, but what’s wrong with writing helpful design guides?”

Nothing! But if we don’t also start to write in a way that educates and enriches the public’s knowledge of design, if all we do is pump out the light stuff, then people will slowly start to undervalue what we do.

In fact, it’s happening already. It’s a common complaint among designers (myself included) that “people think all we do is make shit look pretty.” But then we turn around and write articles on how to do just that! And when we do that, we are little by little damaging our reputation as thinkers and problem solvers. We are letting other people define our job (as Mike Monteiro suggests in his “third reason” why “this design generation has failed”).

If people are getting their idea of what design really involves from the community of designers, I fear we’re doing it poorly. We who know how much more is involved in design — and how much more is at stake in it — need to tackle the why no less than the what. We need to push hard conversations on each other, the ones that question our craft and its future; the ones that elevate us beyond mere pixel-pushers. We need to talk about making, not just pretty things, but the right things: the products that solve people’s problems. And that involves understanding the person’s needs, wants, and pain points in painstaking detail.

What’s scariest of all is that the more people think all we do is make things look pretty, the more we’ll start to believe it ourselves. We’ll start to say things like, “I can focus solely on how this looks without giving due consideration to the human being that will be interacting with it.” That’s a real problem, because whether we admit it or not, designers help shape the world that humans live in and relate to each other through. Things will fall apart quickly if all they do is look pretty.

Everything we design today defines what tomorrow will be like. If we aren’t taking a considered approach to the perception of product design as a discipline, then our jobs will be replaced by design systems, as Adam Michela predicts.

So when you go to write your next “How to _________ in ___ steps,” think like a true designer and ask yourself: Why am I writing this? Who is it for? And how will it enrich the field? Be a designer, damn you! And try to make the world a little more human.

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