Toxicity in Digital Design: A Status Report

Two designers, one white male and one black female sitting across a desk engaged in conversation. Between them on the desk is an iMac displaying a document that reads “Inclusion, Equity, Ethics”. On the wall behind them is a whiteboard with the words “Now What?”
Illustration by Matthew Warlick

No, seriously, it’s been a year.

As I sit to write this, it’s been exactly one year since I published my long-ish rant: “Undoing the Toxic Dogmatism of Digital Design.” Follow the link if you haven’t read it yet to give this follow-up more context. The response to that article was overwhelming — far beyond anything I could have anticipated. I’ve learned so much since through subsequent research and conversations about why the issues I outlined exist, how practitioners feel about them, and what, if anything, can be done about each of them.

When I wrote the piece, my only goal was to spark conversation. It definitely did that, but there were unforeseen reactions that I found genuinely surprising and others that were incredibly rewarding.

The backlash never came.

I expected to provoke at least a decent percentage of folks who would rush to tell me how wrong my assessment of the state of things was. I braced myself, and… nothing.

Kimmy Gibbler from Fuller House: “I thought you’d be more upset”

A few people on Reddit and in the comments were pedantic about my definitions or the provocations I sprinkled in, but for the most part, the reaction was positive. While that is a relief for me personally, it didn’t say great things about where we find ourselves as an industry. I really did not want to be as right as it turns out I was.

People wanted to focus on me.

As flattering as it was to be the object of such interest — with all the invites to speak, interview, or write, I turned everyone down. The only thing most of them knew about me was that one rant, and I had no interest in being the spokesperson for the ills plaguing digital design. As I said, I intended only to spark deeper discussion and motivate people to grab onto an issue they felt passionate about and run with it. A few had those discussions without me, like UXPodcast with hosts Per Axbom and James Royal-Lawson, who did a great job of breaking down the topics and adding their own astute insights. Some started Slack groups, while others felt more empowered to share their perspectives through writing and giving talks.

Overwhelmingly, I got the sense that many wanted me to keep it all going, as if I somehow knew what the greatest minds in our field did not and could lead the charge toward the solutions. We humans have this way of anointing others as champions for simply making keen observations because what they say resonates so profoundly with us on some level.

Morpheus from The Matrix: “She is the one”

The thing is, I don’t have the answers. The issues I raised, especially those surrounding Design Education, Inclusion, and Ethics, are much bigger and require far more analysis, coordination, and collaboration than any one person is capable of orchestrating on their own.

My network expanded in the best possible way.

I was already connected to some incredible people, but now I get to chat and collaborate with so many more from all over the world — everyone from prominent industry leaders to those just starting out. On any day of the week, I can tap experts to discuss the many wicked problems we collectively face. I learn so much with every conversation, and they have all informed my thinking in ways that have helped me chart new and exciting paths. And I get to connect with great people like you.

But enough about me.

We need to chat about some things that are still causing us to get in our own way. Scoot in close now because I need you to hear me. After all, this part is why you’re really here now, isn’t it?

Kermit the frog drinking tea: “Spill the tea, gurl”

To avoid any confusion, when I say “design” in this article, I refer to “digital design” — UX, product, service, or whatever made-up title people are using on LinkedIn.

In my previous piece, I talked about the following topics:

  1. Design education has no foundational standard for “good enough”
  2. There are no benchmarks for method efficacy
  3. Seniority levels for design teams are meaningless
  4. We’ve lost the safety and desire to explore and fail
  5. We afford design leaders too much power to control the conversations
  6. We have not adopted ethical standards for design
  7. Inclusive design and accessibility are afterthoughts

So what progress have we made on that list in the last year? Well, it depends on how you define progress. If you’re looking at the professional life of the average designer, then not much has changed. Design education is an even more expansive, inconsistent mess with an ever-growing number of boot camp scams popping up regularly. Methods are still all over the map as far as usage. Seniority levels continue to be defined differently by every organization. Exploration and failure are still discouraged. And concerning ethics and inclusion, while there is limited progress, the public sector is putting the private sector to shame in making both a priority. One important exception is accessibility, which is seeing substantial growth and interest across the board. It’s nowhere near close to the level of ubiquity it needs to have, but the uptick is promising. As for the disproportionate deference paid to design leaders, I am starting to see their actions now being viewed through a more critical lens, but it’s not occurring nearly often enough.

I have no interest in unpacking those topics again. I feel I did a pretty good job of that the first time. However, I am going to add to the list. There are a few things still left on my mind that I want to address.

So without further ado, here are four more areas I see as barriers to progress in digital design.

  1. We don’t share critiques of successful work enough.

Can you imagine talking about I.M. Pei’s architectural designs without showing a single building? Or discussing Herman Miller’s furniture design without seeing his chairs? Me either. Yet, we do that in digital design every day. We talk about design systems, frameworks, tools, methods, etc., without showing the outcomes. And no, I don’t mean the Dribbble-esque showcases of UI. The mere existence of a nicely crafted interface is not the measure of its success.

When I started in design some 20 <cough> years ago, we spent a lot more time reviewing case studies and doing critiques to dissect methods and review the tangible results. Now we take it on faith that the person giving that talk on a new framework (that looks suspiciously like the old frameworks) is offering something of value without having any clue if using what they’ve described has resulted in any success. We adopt design systems we don’t even like because they’re robust, complete, and come from the design teams of big successful companies (I’m looking at you, Material Design). We focus on the “influential designer” and their career but not what they’ve actually accomplished. We’ve lost the critical analysis perspective that pushes other design disciplines to be better.

There is so much young designers can learn from good examples, including understanding what makes them good and what could make them better. Telling the story of the work is a skill we all need to develop anyway, and it’s a key differentiator for good portfolios and interviews. It also helps weed out the imposters, which is definitely not a bad thing. We need to evaluate processes, frameworks, and methods through the critiques of the actual work much more often.

2. We fail to recognize power dynamics on social media.

Not a week goes by in My So-Called Online Life that I don’t have someone, usually a white male, come to tell me my opinion is wrong. And usually not in any “agree to disagree” way, but in that condescending “oh you just don’t understand the topic well enough, so let me help you” way that sets my teeth on edge. I tend not to be dogmatic about my opinions (it’s kind of my brand), but I have been doing this a while (see previous reference to the 20 long-ass years). When I say something, I firmly believe it to be accurate based on my experience and education. I welcome genuine discussion. What I don’t welcome is someone looking at my avatar and assuming things about my identity that gives them license to “educate” me. It is especially annoying when the reply-guy is well-known with a large following because they’ve now instantly boosted the visibility of the discussion to outside of my network — to the part of the platform I desperately try to avoid. Design is not immune to its share of sycophants, and typically several will immediately come to defend “well-known dude” to impress him, turning my notifications into an unwelcome shit show brimming with multiple versions of “Well, ackshually…”

Rhianna giving a look: “Try me, boo”

For me, it’s only annoying. I can hold my own. I have the receipts for what I say and know when to block ’em. For someone far less experienced and from a historically excluded group, these encounters can be traumatic. It’s even more traumatic if the intellectual dressing down comes from someone they otherwise respect. These are the kind of incidents that can quell people and prevent them from embracing their voice.

If you are respected in this industry and have a substantial following, you have an obligation to think about your impact before you engage. And just in general, if a marginalized person is expressing themselves, don’t assume you need to participate in the discussion at all unless they’re asking for advice in a way that makes it clear they would benefit from your expertise.

3. Not enough historically excluded folks own alternative channels of design education.

University design education is not broken. Like many other systems that serve to elevate some and exclude others, it works just as intended. So waiting for it to change fast enough to address the pressing issues we face as a society is not a viable option.

If you’re like me, you gained a more useful design education from books, tutorials, and blogs than any university class. And this is where I believe we can affect the most significant changes. We can’t change design education unless we change the perspective of design education. To do that, many more black, brown, LGBTQ+ and disabled folks have to own and participate in the channels through which we all learn about design. That means more of us writing books, giving talks, creating educational platforms, and owning publishing companies.

4. We don’t know where to put our frustration with how things are, so we’re directing it to all the wrong things.

If you’re in tune with the collective consciousness of designers, then what you’ll see today looks nothing like it did only a few years ago. I mentioned last year that we could start by “being brave and open to having challenging conversations,” and that is happening. Efforts that started well before I wrote that have gained significant traction, with more initiatives launched every day. I’ve seen designers from all over the globe taking on complex topics and having difficult conversations. More and more forums, talks, podcasts, books, and articles are coming out daily that take direct aim at disrupting our toxic established norms. Everywhere I look, I see what Alba Villamil refers to as pockets of resistance, and it’s inspiring to witness.

But an unfortunate side effect of this heightened level of awareness is growing intolerance of and greater dissatisfaction with business-as-usual design jobs, making the workplace a growing source of frustration and anxiety. The division among designers has deepened, dividing our ranks between those who see our role as catalysts for positive change viewing “value measured by revenue” as secondary and those on the other side who want to keep their heads down, do “good enough” work, and make a decent living. It’s a hard divide to reconcile because if you’re a designer who cares deeply about the impact of your work, once you see what’s not working and how many people it’s not working for, you will never be satisfied designing the same “old way” again. The rub is, if you want to stay employed, you’ll likely be forced to anyway.

So while we’re processing our personal shifts in values and trying not to lose hope, it’s essential to recognize that not everyone is there yet. I have come to accept that not everyone is inclined to become a changemaker and understand that many feel that identifying as one is to risk their livelihoods. This is especially true for those who have never been allowed to create generational wealth. For them, the change they need to see first is for their own families. And others genuinely view capitalism itself as the vehicle for change. As much as I don’t align with those viewpoints, I understand them. And I think we too often wield judgment like a blunt instrument on those who don’t appear to our very minimal view of their lives to be doing precisely what we think is right. We are spending an excessive amount of energy pointing fingers at each other instead of pulling together.

If we truly want to elevate our profession, we have to take ownership of the outcomes of our work and how we behave while executing it. We must set non-negotiable limits on the behavior we’ll accept from those around us as well as from ourselves.

In The Toxicity of Performative UX, Trina Moore Pervall eloquently states:

By failing to hold UX professionals accountable to being design humanitarians, we end up with a field riddled with bigotry which insidiously manifests in product designs. Under the title of UX, people are designing experiences that are embedded with ableism, racism, and gender bias.

What I wouldn’t give to be considered a “design humanitarian”.

There’s a quote by Will Durant that has a line that goes, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” We are supposed to be advocates for the people who use what we design, not just tools to serve the business. We need the ability to hold ourselves to a higher standard for everything we say, do, and create. These are the habits worth forming.

And we need to stop being so petty and shallow. Sure, that eleventy-millionth meme about UX/UI annoys me, but at the end of the day, who gives a shit? Our job is to throw enough positive energy and better information into the design zeitgeist to drown out the noise. Don’t shout down. Shout louder.

I know none of this is easy. We’re winding down on year 2 of a global pandemic with no end in sight. It’s enough just to get dressed every day and report to our jobs without falling into despair. And truth be told, I don’t always manage that getting dressed part.

In recognition of how hard things are, let’s give those genuinely trying to be better a break and extend them a bit of grace. And for those who aren’t, provide them with nothing at all — not our time, our energy, nor our anger. Let them wither from the lack of sunlight. We would do well just to stop caring about what others are doing in general and focus more on our own accountability.

This is my last rant. I no longer want to live in the headspace of picking things apart. I am choosing to put all of my energy into exploring solutions in the areas where I can have the most impact. If you are determined to continue on the road of tearing things down without building anything better to replace them, I won’t be traveling with you. But if you want to become an integral part of the design future we all hope to see, I will stand beside you.

Choose an issue you care deeply about that feels personal to you, think carefully about how much time and energy you can reasonably commit to it, and find a community that will hold you accountable for doing the work. Select from the many existing organizations or start your own. Don’t worry about perfection. Just do your best to keep going and stay involved. Change is driven by the radical few, and the more of us who take the leap, the more new paths the reluctant masses will have to follow.

This is your time. The next move is up to you.

As a parting gift, I will leave you with this happy Twitter thread. I asked my network what positive changes they’ve seen in the last year, and as a follow-up, who they saw leading the charge. May this provide you with inspiration and new connections. Peace. — L

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Lisa Angela

Lisa Angela

1.1K Followers

Writer/researcher, antireductionist, antifragile. Hard-core Trekkie. Science nerd