Undoing the Toxic Dogmatism of Digital Design

How do we start to dismantle and rebuild a system that disempowers and excludes by “design”?

Illustration by Matthew Warlick

“I don’t know who needs to hear this, but…”

With this portentous beginning to many a well-intentioned post, you can almost be certain that what follows will be some distillation of painfully direct life advice intended to remind people of what’s important. Consider this article a really extended version of that, directed primarily at digital designers in senior and leadership roles as they are our industry’s best chance to right the ship. In order to bring you to the forward-thinking, uplifting bit, I’m going to have to first unsettle you with some difficult truths.

For the last few years of my career, I’ve felt the weighty realization that the design industry’s accepted and most practiced ways of creating digital products are more deeply flawed than I ever imagined and much more than most will admit — as is the way we educate aspiring designers. This has been nagging at me to such an extent that I realized I could not stay complacently on the sidelines watching it happen any longer. If you follow me on Twitter, then you know I haven’t exactly been silent on this topic, but up until now, I haven’t really pushed for action, and that platform doesn’t really lend itself to fully expressing ideas. This then is my attempt to get a lot of my thoughts out in one place to hopefully catalyze new discussions. And I know many of you share these feelings even if you don’t dare talk about them.

“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind — even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. And do your homework.”

— Maggie Kuhn

Right about now, you may be asking, “Why would you dare kick the hornet’s nest that is the community of Design, Lisa? Why would you risk the inevitable onslaught of ‘reply-guy’ comments or attempts to discredit your statements?” The answer is that I’ve talked to too many of my peers who recognize that something is wrong and want to help but don’t know where to start. And I’ve heard from more than enough young designers who are genuinely lost and blaming themselves for it that I can’t just watch it continue any longer. They deserve better from those of us who have been doing this work for decades and have been actively forging the path for those who follow.

The design industry is a living paradox. By many measures, it is smugly self-satisfied and self-absorbed while simultaneously being full of some of the most talented and generous people you’ll ever meet. But self-awareness is not our strong suit. We ascribe our inability to get equal consideration in workplaces to external factors. We act as though we come to businesses all buttoned-up with strategically chosen professional methods and standardized workflows. And we all know that’s a lie. Name any other profession that could continually get away with the incredible inconsistencies in quality that we collectively generate. Now I know every industry has a bit of messiness when you look under the hood, but we’re designers. We’re uniquely positioned to create a better way. We have the ability to solve this. It’s not enough to just go on Facebook or Twitter and rant about what’s not working. We have to come to an industry-wide understanding of why these issues exist and commit to doing something about them.

“The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one”

— Will McAvoy, Newsroom

We have to call these issues out by name and own them. Our social media feeds are full of astute observations of the problems, but where is the next level of conversation? When do we finally get to the part where we tackle solutions?

So in that spirit, I’m letting loose a rant I’ve been sitting on for a long time about what I see as some of the most major roadblocks to good practice in design and then touch on some suggestions that I hope will spark productive dialogues.

This is a long one, so get comfortable. Better yet, grab a snack.

Woman eating a snack

Are you good? Great. Let’s proceed to dive into my “top of mind” areas that are most obviously not working in our wacky world of digital design. This is an attempt to raise issues, not cover them in any exhaustive way. That will require a lot more discussion, research, and time from all of us collectively. There are also some critical topics that I intentionally left out that I intend to cover in the future. Feel free to bring up your own topics in the comments, but trust me, this is a long enough rant as it is.

First, though, I want to add this disclaimer:

I am by no means putting forth that these issues exist for every designer everywhere.

However…

They are common enough and damaging enough that they warrant our full attention.

It starts with how we teach design.

1. Design educators and industry leaders have never reached a consensus about what comprises a “good enough” foundational education for digital design.

As in “this is the bare minimum of things you need to know and skills you need to master to succeed.” We talk at length about the “years of experience” required for the different levels of seniority, but experience in what exactly? Which set of skills? What depth of knowledge? Which methods? Every book, blog, boot camp, and university curriculum offers different combinations and flavors of the skills, methods, and processes that are supposed to give one the knowledge and instill the confidence to succeed in UX/product design. But the pride of completing any of these educational paths is short-lived once a designer enters the industry and realizes they are not as prepared as they thought and/or that their preparation looks nothing like the person working next to them who selected a different path. Those designers fortunate enough to have completed a highly respected university design program can lean into the sense of preparedness that pedigree affords but only for a while. Even they are not immune to the eventual sinking feeling that these programs' processes and methods have never been fully tested under the rigor of very complex work. They haven’t been held accountable for the outcomes they produce. They provide no guidance on adapting them for the logistical nightmare that results when trying to properly execute them in a resistant-to-change workplace.

This, more than anything, I feel is the true root of the prevalence and unique intensity of imposter syndrome among designers — the relentless fear that despite our best efforts to seek adequate knowledge and guidance, we still aren’t fully prepared to do justice to the work we’re hired to do even when we actually are. This fear gets internalized in so many other destructive ways that go far beyond just second-guessing ourselves doing the work. Ways like — we don’t always speak up for the integrity of outcomes when we need to. We don’t feel empowered to call out unethical practices. Or we feel lowkey apologetic about demanding that clients and employers stick to the terms of our service. It’s a dark cloud that hangs over many of us that we adapt to instead of eradicating. Instead of confronting its causes, we collectively ascribe it to human nature — just a thing we have to make peace with. And to a certain extent, that is true — imposter syndrome definitely is a normal part of life. Still, we can mitigate the crippling degree that we experience as designers by being honest with ourselves about the overarching contributing factors, facing them head-on, and then forcing ourselves to radically rebuild how we work and teach.

2. We do not properly retire methods (or ways of conducting them) that have been shown to be ineffective.

How people engage with technology has evolved significantly over the last decade. Our methods for designing products for that technology have not kept up. We tweak methods we’ve never held accountable for efficacy and then debate the merits of those “improvements”. But at what point do we say, “The outcomes produced by X method don’t warrant the effort we put into it, so maybe it shouldn’t be our go-to anymore.”

Let’s take a look at a staple of UX and service design work — the journey map. We love making them. The storytelling potential of a well-constructed journey map is immense. It is a highly effective workshop facilitation tool. It produces a nice artifact for external communication afterward. But if I’m truly honest with you, in my gut, I know that the majority of them don’t help do more than tell the most surface-level story of limited user paths. And an inaccurate story at that.

No one in the 21st century actually interacts with any system in a well-defined linear flow, not in consumer settings or enterprise. It’s not how purchases are made and not how work gets done. Why are we taking the time to create narratives and map stories in sequences that don’t actually happen? Do they illuminate anything that we could not define better using other methods? And does the fact we can’t easily answer that question disturb you as much as it does me? As much as I’ve promoted the use of journey maps in my career, I would argue that they do not. The thing is, I can’t have an honest debate about this in any forum and have it result in a productive dialogue. It’s not a discussion most are interested in having. And that’s the problem. For many designers, the idea of letting go of an established tool or method in their arsenal, especially one they’ve staked their career on, is akin to saying they were wrong for ever using it in the first place and therefore putting their expertise into question. But that’s the flaw in the practice of modern digital design. We don’t embrace the volatile and disposable nature of what we do to continually evolve how we do it as other design disciplines do.

And before you fire off a missive to me about journey maps, it was only an example since I didn’t want to use the much-maligned go-to of methods — personas.

Don’t come for me.

I also truly believe there are many beneficial ways to leverage well-researched journey work — just not the deliverables-focused, superficially high-level diagrams we typically produce. Deliverables are not the work. They are the evidence of the work, so if your focus was creating a pretty map that’s easy to consume, but you don’t also have a down and dirty version that actually allows you to work through the important insights, then you’ve missed the entire point of mapping journeys.

Okay, junior designers, this next one is for you.

3. Design team seniority levels are meaningless.

In theory, a designer should start their career as a junior, then a mid-level, then a senior, and then either branch off into management with a path to upper-level leadership or remain a hands-on practitioner at the principal level. A depth of knowledge and capability is expected to align with each level. Except that is usually not the case. In practice, companies hire mostly seniors because they don’t understand what we do and don’t want to have to train anyone. They figure senior means “they’ll know all they need to know to perform in any design function we need; then we don’t have to supervise them or hire more than we can afford.” And at some companies, anyone can be hired in at a senior level regardless of experience. Add to this the fact that every company defines their levels based on different criteria using different titles, and you have yourself a cluster that makes seeking design jobs a mind-bending trip into the unknown.

We need a ladder that makes sense, one that employers can reference, and one that begins with hiring and training junior designers. However, to do that, we have to agree on what to train them in (see point #1). Yes, I’ve seen all the charts and Venn diagrams attempting to address this problem, but none of those frameworks help if we don’t universally commit to following them. The reality is that it’s not the responsibility of hiring companies to figure this out for us. It is ours.

We are the reason there is no work for junior designers.

Whilst you’re stewing on that, I want to shift to a major issue that impacts actually doing the work.

4. We’ve collectively lost the safety (and subsequently the desire) to explore and fail.

If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.

— Linus Pauling

This is a big one. Design as a discipline when applied to digital products and service delivery no longer follows essential design principles and practice — at least not in most workplaces. It’s the dirty little secret of our industry that those of us with foundational backgrounds in the design process rarely get to do the work the way we were taught we should. On product teams worldwide, we are dissuaded from generating multiple ideas, working through and testing concepts, then throwing away what doesn’t work — essentially the most fundamental parts of design ideation. In short, we are not allowed to explore, and we’re definitely not allowed to fail.

Bassel Deeb explores this tragic reality in his piece — Please let me fail: failure, vulnerability and creativity. In it, he writes about how we all are internally demotivated against failure:

You live in a society whose institutions shame failure, from the educational to the parental ones. You are saturated with a culture that only glorify the small percentage of exceptional achievers and their successes, while you are left alone to deal with the blame of not pushing enough. Yet they still ask you to step outside and be creative.

For many, work-life is an endless series of compromises on the practice of design. We’re encouraged to do this — to adapt to the environment, to work within the constraints. Rarely though, do I see any practical advice on how to do that and maintain the integrity of the process or how to recognize when the standard process does not apply. So designers (and user researchers) often default to dogmatic, methodical recipes, with or without enough understanding of the principles that informed those methods to adapt them to the work at hand. This, unfortunately, results in designers cutting corners where it matters because they don’t know how not to. No one taught them how to properly scale their work. The knowledge is out there, but it’s not getting to the practitioners who need it the most.

“We need to stop designing faster and learn how to start designing less.”

— Laura Klein, Designing the Smallest Possible Thing

The results are often final designs iterated from a single initial concept that miss the mark on multiple fronts. Designs that don’t work for everyone. Designs that the designers aren’t able to feel good about. Afterward, we pick them up and tell them it’s okay because they “did their best under the circumstances.” But each time, that uneasy feeling creeps in — those unsettling thoughts in the back of their minds that tell them that it’s not true, that they could have done better using a different approach if they’d only known which one, felt empowered to try again, or had more time. These are the thoughts that sow the seeds for early burnout and feed the imposter syndrome beast that I reference in point #1.

It doesn’t help that, as an industry, we glorify individual designers more than the work they produce. With so much emphasis on personal advancement, our view is distorted, and it leads to us obsessing about the designer’s success instead of learning from successful outcomes. We then elevate a select few successful designers from an unlevel playing field to rockstar status for all to emulate.

This leads me to my next point.

5. We afford well-known design leaders too much power to dictate how design is discussed and conducted.

To be a designer is to be brave, to be bold. It requires the ability to take risks, to explore ideas without fear of failure, or at the very least, the ability to continue forward regardless of fear. It is to be an advocate who can represent those who can’t represent themselves in the process of building products. It is a noble pursuit with heavy responsibilities. It is simply not possible to do that work well while engaging in sycophantic adoration of design icons or “more successful” peers as if basking in their trajectory will lead to success of one’s own.

Yet, this is what happens over and over again. We see it at conferences, when those design leaders release books, and online when they share their thoughts and expertise. It’s perfectly fine to learn from someone highly experienced and be inspired by what they’ve achieved, but that’s where the adulation should end. They are just another resource for your ongoing education. Take it all in from as many sources as possible, then forge your own path with your own ideas. Following any ideology without question is antithetical to what it truly means to be a good designer.

And speaking of “good” design…

6. We have no ethical standards.

At least not in any formal “designer’s code” kind of way. It is up to individuals to make highly subjective, ethical decisions in the moment, often without leadership support and almost always by putting their employment status at risk.

In their recent book, “The Conscious Creative”, a thoroughly researched examination of ethics in the creative industry, veteran creative director Kelly Small states:

As creatives responsible for mass communication and millions of audience impressions per minute, we’ve got a lot of power to make an impact. For better or worse, we creative types deeply affect the way information is interpreted, how brands and products are consumed, and the ways that people experience the mediated and artificial world.

We wield this tremendous power and still have not yet incorporated ethics as required coursework for foundational design education, nor have we set any standards for how to do our work in a consistently ethical way. With the incredible rising potential for misuse of design applied newer technologies, such as those driven by AI/ML, the urgency becomes evident. We can no longer afford to keep pretending that we don’t have an obligation to do much, much more than we’re doing now.

7. Inclusive design and accessibility are afterthoughts — both in design education and in practice.

We’ve normalized this. The business says anyone outside the “primary” set of personas is an edge case. So those representing other demographics — race, age, ethnicity, and ability — well, they fall off the radar to hopefully be included in later releases. I even put this topic last on my list to drive home that point. These issues were not even on the radar for far too many of you before this last incredibly tumultuous year. This is why the “percentage of potential users” is a shit way to prioritize features when building software. We can no longer allow ourselves to determine whether to make a design fully inclusive based solely on the number of people affected.

We have to accept and agree that people are not edge cases.

And while we’re talking about it — let’s state for the record:

Accessibility ≠ Inclusive design

I see many use the term “inclusive” when they are only really talking about accessibility. It’s related, but it’s not the same. Let’s start with the definitions:

Inclusive Design is design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference. — Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD U in Toronto

Accessibility in the broadest sense is the goal to ensure that products support a user’s needed accommodations and preferences. It is outcome-focused and often defined by specific standards, whereas inclusive design is process-oriented and considered throughout the design lifecycle from day one. A fully inclusive process should lead to fully accessible products, but just accounting and designing for accessibility does not mean your design is fully inclusive.

Inclusive Design should just be Design. Careful consideration of all the various types of folks who will use what we make and accommodating their needs should already be how we work on every project, every time. But it’s not. Why isn’t it? Because despite how much we talk about it, most of us have no clue how to really conduct the necessary activities and methods in a way that will fit into our existing workflows, nor are we being encouraged to find out by those we work for (and remember, we’ve been conditioned not to fail — see point #4). So we defer learning how to incorporate it into practice for another time on another day, just as we do with ethics. Every time we do this, what we’re really saying is that it’s fine to release a product that may not work for a significant portion of the population — real people who are already being shortchanged daily by the design of everyday things. It’s well beyond time that we stop letting this be the norm.

So what now, you ask? How do we address these issues? Well, the first step is agreeing that they are, in fact, issues. Then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and do something.

What can we do together?

We can start by being brave and open to having challenging conversations. And yes, I know what I’m asking here. If you’ve ever tried to engage in discussions about these topics with other designers, particularly design leaders with a lot of influence, then you know how soul-crushing these conversations can be when they go wrong. This is especially difficult for designers from underrepresented backgrounds who feel less empowered to speak up. Political polarization and pandemic stress have heightened the differences between us, making bridging the gap that much more difficult yet critical. But it’s important that we still try. Doubly important for those who have an easier time of it to gracefully make space in these conversations for those who do not.

And here’s something we can also do right now to make this easier for all of us; stop deifying “thought leaders” who are doing a craptastic job of leading, especially when they are being bullies. If you see an established leader engaging in gaslighting, being abusive, shutting down a conversation, or using their following to attack someone who simply disagrees with them — call them out. If that doesn’t result in their taking responsibility, stop following them, stop encouraging them by buying their courses and books, don’t attend conferences where they speak, and block or mute them online. We not only have to encourage high standards for our work but also how we interact with each other. No one should get a pass just because of their career accomplishments. Besides, there are enough great and selfless leaders in this space to follow that we can more than afford to shed the bad ones without missing a beat.

And we can’t continue to view candor about what’s not working as some sort of threat that will diminish our industry’s standing. We have to stop being apologists for the dysfunctional way we work. There’s this underlying idea that if we air our dirty laundry, businesses will decide that we don’t actually know what we’re doing and stop hiring us. Let me disabuse you of that notion. Business folks don’t actually care what designers talk about amongst themselves. I mean, let’s be honest, they barely listen to us even when we’re speaking directly to them.

Here’s another thing we can do every day — amplify those who are saying the right and true things, especially women and BIPOC. Take, for example, this tweet thread I came across by Karen VanHouten:

I read that thread and found it to be one of the most honest and true things I’ve ever read about the work we do in a long time. And yet, it got minimal traction because the algorithm isn’t built to bring you the good, only what’s popular. But these are the types of posts that everyone should get to read. So when you stumble across contributions like this from people you don’t know, amplify them, share them, and follow the person. This is how the algorithms that drive what you see get better.

And at some point, we also have to face the elephant in the atelier — the lack of anything resembling consistent standards industry-wide. No one wants to take this behemoth on, understandably. Discussions regarding standards usually delve into certifications for practitioners or accreditation for courses and schools that inevitably smack face-first into the proprietary way design methodology is taught and the reality that certain entities want to brand and own approaches instead of freely contributing to a larger body of industry knowledge that continuously evolves. We need a consistent, tried and true resource of processes and methods fully vetted by testing in actual design practice with complex, real-world problems to be used as a complement to very solid instruction in critical analysis to consider ourselves a mature, professional field. As it is now, a designer who is aspiring to learn as much as they can is bombarded by constant and often contradictory advice from every direction. I don’t blame them for not knowing what to believe or what to practice.

Jeff is right. It’s a hot mess, and we need to clean it up.

Here is what I pledge to do…

I am currently creating a platform to dive deeply into many of these topics in a way that hopefully participants feel welcome and safe enough to keep the discussions going. I have an upcoming limited publication called “Far from the Valley” now in production that will be focused squarely on looking at these issues in-depth.

Far from the Valley illustration and logo
Illustration and logo by Matthew Warlick

I am dedicating every issue to these topics while emphasizing equity, ethics, and inclusive design. But let me state emphatically; I am not the expert, and I have no intention of trying to own these conversations. I am pulling in the voices of those who are dedicating themselves to doing this work to highlight their knowledge in a way that allows us to all learn and grow together. As I approach my last few years in design, my hope in doing this is to leave our industry a slightly better place than I found it. If you’re interested in getting an update when this project launches, you can sign up here.

Some parting thoughts…

Where we are as an industry is as exciting as it is painful. We have an opportunity to shape the growth phase we’re in and make the field so much better for those who come after us. None of us can, nor should, do this alone. Together we can create an inclusive and supportive community that models the values we want to see in the world. We just have to consistently do the work… a lot of work.

Many smart and talented folks have already started. One initiative you should definitely be aware of is HmntyCntrd, created by Vivianne Castillo in collaboration with Sekai Farai and Alba Villamil.

HmntyCntrd is “an online course and community designed to help UXers do the personal work required to do our best professional work.”

Go follow these ladies and get more information on this amazing project.

Yes, I mean right now. I’ll wait.

I also highly recommend the book by Kelly Small that I quoted above, “The Conscious Creative.” It is full of practical ways we can all contribute to advancing ethical practice in our industry.

I say this often, “Outrage is not activism.” If you want things to change, you’re going to have to be willing to do more than gripe about them.

One last thing — if you do decide to take up this challenge with me, I only ask that you remember this — above all else, be kind to yourself and each other. Compassion and kindness are far more effective than shaming. I know it’s hard in a heated moment, but try to keep as your north star the idea that our goal is to usher in real change, not continue contributing to the polarization of our industry and, by extension, society.

Two of the most beautiful things designers can create are harmony and balance, between patterns, between objects, between people.

Let’s start with each other.