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Interviews

How to Fix Design

Twelve leading designers and creatives come together to point out what they feel is the most pressing issue in the field of design today – and how they would fix it.


No one likes dealing with problems. They force us to take a detour away from what we really want to accomplish while we stop and untangle them. But here’s the thing about problems – they’re the genesis for good ideas. They provide the opening for solutions, which in turn give you a leg up on your career. The stronger your fundamentals and core competencies are, the better position you put yourself in when you make your moves, whether it’s a play for new business or showing how your designs provide value far beyond the aesthetic layer.

That’s why we’ve asked some of the world’s leading designers and creatives to point out what they feel is the most pressing issue in the field of design today – and how they would fix it.

Admittedly, this is a lofty, nuanced question. And it insinuates that something is broken. Nothing is broken here, but there is always room for improvement. Like, is design too indulgent for its own good? Or maybe designers have trouble conveying their importance to clients? Or there is a lack of diversity within the industry?

We gave our subjects free rein to go in whatever direction they deemed to be the most troubling, so you’ll see all of these topics and more covered in the following responses. The feedback provides a chance for self-reflection, to see if you’re guilty of any of them, while also serving as an ongoing checklist to make sure you’re doing everything you can to be at your best.

 

Problem:

The combination of a misguided education system and culture’s obsession with fame.

Antidote:

“American culture has a habit of placing too much attention on people and their stunts versus a critical focus on people’s work. Additionally, our capitalist-driven society is a tough place for people looking to develop skills in the arts. Sadly, these factors have negatively impacted how we teach design in the U.S., resulting in work that doesn’t always stand up on the world stage. For the most part the American design curriculum is either focused on self- expression to form one’s individual style and/or focused on creating portfolios full of spec work to appeal to larger marketing agencies for employment.

Additionally, the cost of education is incredibly high, which only magnifies the issue with the pressures to find work to pay off student loans. Now if I had a magic wand… I would move design education out of larger institutions and into small apprentice driven collectives that utilize the age old master/Apprentice method. These collectives/micro-schools would be small gatherings of like-minded practitioners that lead workshops and have one-on-one lessons with students with a very clear teaching methodology.

A curriculum focusing on typography, process-driven conceptual thinking, and workshops in artistic mediums such as photography, painting, illustration, and motion. Philosophical study that champions critical thinking and collaboration. And lastly, a deep dive into art history to ensure that students understand how political, social, and cultural ideas affect artistic expression.

This could be a more effective and affordable alternative to our existing design programs. The ultimate goal is to create designers with a well-rounded skill set making them valuable in a wide-range of work environments.”

– Mitch Paone, Founding Partner and Creative Director, DIA 

 

Problem:

Design cannibalism.

Antidote:

“The proliferation of “inspiration sites” has created an environment where design can be too reliant on surface-level visuals and not enough on the concept and strategy behind the work. Many creators are no longer looking at design’s rich history or considering the future opportunities to elevate a concept when formulating their research. As a result, design trends are recycling at astronomical rates, all at the expense of true meaning. This lack of conceptual thinking strips the work of its ability to effectively communicate, which renders it relatively worthless to both the client and the designer.

To solve this problem, and produce timeless work that effectively communicates, designers must reinvigorate the meaning in their work through meticulous research and experimentation. As designers we are problem solvers, and it is our responsibility to build strong conceptual foundations, not just paint the walls of an existing structure.”

Sam Allen, John Antoski, and Dustin Koop, Partners, Wedge + Lever

 

Problem:

Designers can’t convey their real worth to clients.

Antidote:

“Once in a while you meet a client who asks tough questions and demands numbers: What do we really get? How will this help us? What has your reference project really solved? Most of the time such questions come from people with a defined business background.

As design thinking emerges rapidly, design isn’t isolated from the typical deliverables regime anymore. And design as a methodolgy or process can solve a hell of a lot more than a beautifully crafted logo. Design as a field of work has become more specialized and more fragmented. Where Massimo Vignelli and his team helped clarify the subway system, service designers now work on how to bring the queue for cancer patients down to a minimum. Both are important, but design as a profession is growing.

For too long the term design has been defined by the workings of an old-fashioned advertising industry based on campaign thinking and with thick marketing glasses on. Not that a market perspective isn’t important for a designer as well. To explain design to potential clients, investors, or collaborators, however, we need to understand our own role in business development from a team perspective and not just as consultancies. Then, we can choose which chair to sit at and what hat to wear when we now finally have a seat at the big boys’ table.

As design as a business tool finally has a seat at board meetings (alongside finance, tech and the rest), we as an industry also need to take responsibility for defining and redefining how we educate our own clients and prove our own worth. It’s about time we stop talking about the list of deliverables and start talking about our methodology. When used right, it’s both people-friendly and business-friendly. Why talk about logos when we can talk about real change in a business? It’s a lot like the New York subway system. The designers didn’t change the infrastructure – they changed the presentation and the perception. Made it accessible and helped users actually use it in the right way. It wasn’t about being cool.

There’s no real reason why metrics shouldn’t apply to the design industry as well. Most of our projects always involve restructuring some sort of information to make it more understandable, functional, or efficient. Such an exercise should be applied to our own communication as design agencies as well. And here, also to take stock of our limitations. What are we actually good at, and what kind of working environments do we fit into? I don’t believe every medium-size agency can solve any kind of graphic design task in a good way. Embrace specialization and embrace collaboration. On a day-to-day basis we designers get a unique insight and perspective into a huge variety of industries we can learn from. Bring design into them as a methodology, more than a deliverable. It’s rational; it’s not art.”

Mathias Hovet, Managing Partner, Heydays

 

Problem:

The public doesn’t truly understand what exactly the design industry does.

Antitode:

“Most people where I live are ignorant about graphic design because the discipline was popularized circa 1970, so it is still quite new. Indonesia is a growing country where agriculture plays an important role in driving the economy, so design is considered a less important element in building the country, even though the government is starting to promote the creative economy.

To fix this problem up, professional designers, including myself, have created the Indonesian Graphic Designer Association, a member-based organization with a business development department that has started approaching the Indonesian government to try and collaborate with them. In the past couple years, we have collaborated on the 2018 Asian Games (to be held in Jakarta) and new signage for Jakarta’s mass rapid transit system. By doing this, we are opening the public’s mind about what graphic design is all about and showing the importance of design in everyday Indonesian life.”

– Eric Widjaja, Creative Director, Thinking Room

 

Problem:

The space is suffering from a bad case of look-alike syndrome.

Antidote:

“As I see it, there are three big problems in the online space right now: too much design looks the same, too much of it seems to happen in a silo independent of other factors, and it’s too wrapped up in looking pretty rather than working hard. At Jam3, we try to avoid that by challenging our design teams to articulate the real intent behind everything they’re doing. If a designer can’t concisely describe their design decisions, we’ll push back until they can. For us, “it looks great” is a requirement, but it’s not a rationale.

Design intent for us goes beyond aesthetics and includes describing how the proposed design will help with the client’s business challenges and how it will come to life in the development phase. If it’s going to be a pain in the ass to develop, there better be a good reason. Working this way and really pushing on the question of intent is harder up front, but it pays dividends in the product, the process, and ultimately in the bottom line, too.”

Greg Bolton, Creative Director, Jam3

 

Problem:

Clearly articulating how design touches every aspect of the business spectrum.

Antidote:

“Design isn’t a “thing.” It’s a process. It’s everything. I don’t think you can compartmentalize each phase. Or hand off parts of the process and portions of the work from one department to another. Great designers are part of the full journey. Design, above all else, is about solving problems. Used correctly (which is to say strategically), design, as described by Paul Rand and Philip Kotler, “is a potent strategy tool that companies can use to gain a sustainable competitive advantage.” I’ve always liked that line of thinking.

Great designers are great thinkers—they are business-minded. I fear that the more we silo our thinking (and this discipline), the more likely that design will be seen as little more than the aesthetic layer—as superficial as wallpaper.”

Dave Snyder, Executive Creative Director, Firstborn

 

Problem:

The dualistic nature of the designer’s ego. We love and hate ourselves — designers are masters of arrogant insecurity.

Antidote:

“We so often think of ourselves as brilliant auteurs who are changing the world with every mouse click, altering the course of human existence through our decisions and design solutions. We believe that our insight is critical to every decision about everything, as we shape the world in every conceivable way. At the same time, designers are frightened of not being taken seriously by anyone who is not a designer. We collectively lose our shit at being asked to work for “exposure,” constantly complain about how bad our clients are, and lament how companies did not consult every single designer on earth about their new rebranding.

Designers can combat our arrogant insecurity by developing a more considered and meaningful relationship with our creative practice, specifically by examining and understanding the internal dialogue and relationship we should have with our work. We need to think deeply about the whys and hows, we need to understand our process, influences, and preferences, and we must be accountable to ourselves with what we are making. Then we can have a clear sense of how our creative practice can and should relate to everyone else, without being pompous or self-conscious.”

Mitch Goldstein, Assistant Professor of Design, Rochester Institute of Technology

 

Problem:

The problem is that the design school curriculum is a lot slower than the speed of technology evolution.

Antidote:

“We’re seeing a lot of problems. The new issues are brought forth through digital technology and open the window of thinking. For example, there are so many different apps that profoundly change the way we live, how we shop, how we eat, how we get around, and these things weren’t even possible back in the day. But now, with digital technology, we’re able to open our imagination. It’s a double-edged sword. That’s the good part of it, but at the same time, because of the extremeness of it, other points of view become really pigeonholed by it.

Design has been around since the very beginning of mankind, but I think there is this incredible demand for designers on UX/UI products. This demand has become such an incredible force in the field of design, as well as design education, that people forget to go back to the very fundamental question: What is classical design training? There are a lot of problems that we need to solve that are not necessarily rooted in the contemporary UX/UI approach. Design thinking, which is a very trendy thing right now, is a step-by-step process to kind of teach you design. But what it doesn’t teach you is how to actually think about problems through the lens of design.

And that’s because it really comes down to the program, or the design of the curriculum itself. It needs to have strong classical training, but then that training needs to be put into the context of today’s media landscape, and it’s really up to the schools and the professors to do that. If time allows, I would create an integrated program for graduates and undergraduates that could bridge the gap.”

Natasha Jen, Partner, Pentagram

 

Problem:

Those of us who consider ourselves part of that design world tend to view it too narrowly.

Antidote:

“Identifying the biggest problem in the design world is tricky because I’m not sure what “the design world” even means in the first place. An interior designer and a user interface designer are both designers, but they run into vastly different problems on a daily basis. Who’s to say which of these problems is the “biggest”? As much as we’d like to regroup these vastly different fields under a single grand unified theory of design, the truth is that what makes any designer great is precisely an intimate familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of their own specific craft. Yet sooner or later, all designers will get stuck at some point in their work.

And that’s where considering ideas from other disciplines can become so valuable in helping you to move forward.” Instead of assuming every other designer out there is more or less like us, let’s remember that design is a discipline with literally hundreds of branches, and that we have a lot to learn from even our most distant cousins.”

Sacha Grief, Freelance Design and Coding

 

Problem:

There’s a lack of diversity within design schools.

Antidote:

“This creates a domino effect, pulling from the same pool of people, pulling from the same kind of class. We’re accepting the same kind of class, with a disposable income that can afford to send their kids to a certain kind of school or live in a certain kind of city –  it’s a cycle. If I could change one thing, I would try to make the design world less self-reflective, and I’d try to inject more hubris and humility into the design world. I’d try to encourage designers to find more balance and to not be completely obsessed with design all the time, to have a better foundation in the real world.

There’s a real disconnect from reality when you get into the real design world and that extends to designers making publications for other designers and having the pressure to have this perfect looking Instagram or Tumblr or Twitter account. Like, is that the point of design? I don’t think it is. I wish there was more curiosity in the design world.”

Lindsay Ballant, Creative Director, Foreign Policy

 

Problem:

Too quick to action. Sometimes our instinct is to start with aesthetics before fully understanding the problem.

Antidote:

“We have a tendency to focus on the wrong thing first. This is partly because for a long time our job was poorly defined, but it’s also because we’ve perpetuated the focus of pixels over problem-solving. This, in turn, leads us to fall in love with our solutions instead of the problems were trying to solve.

A designer’s first step should always be to understand the problem. Understand all of its intricacies, its audience, its origin, its impact. Get used to it. Fall in love with it. Make sure it’s well-defined because that will often lead to a better solution.

How do get a more defined problem? Ask a lot of questions. This was something I was taught early in my career that has stuck with me. The more you ask, the more you’ll understand. Sometimes this process might even help you avoid pointless projects, as the repeated questions might help the stakeholder realize it’s not a problem to begin with. That’s in your best interest. Who wants to waste their time?”

Jared Erondu, Product Designer and Advisor

 

Problem:

Clearly defining what design means.

Antidote:

“We have design of the thing, the artifact (which people consider more art-based and visual) versus design as a methodology, which is problem solving. All of that falls under the umbrella of design, but I think when you use the term design generally, it gets confusing to people. Part of this is educating people on all the phases and methodologies of design, with the idea that designers are not just the individuals doing it, that it takes a team of people to create a product or service that is valuable. You have to teach people about how all these interdisciplinary skills work together.

There are a number of high-end programs you can go to to learn about design, but part of fixing design is making the education process start earlier and offering it across public education, so that we’re now making critical thinking and problem solving accessible to a wider audience. Right now you already have to know about the design industry to understand it, but there’s a huge subset of people that don’t even know that this exists, that it’s something beyond just visual design.”

Doreen Lorenzo, Director for the Center of Integrated Design, University of Texas

 

Kiana St. Louis

Kiana is the Assistant Editor and Community Manager for 99U. She is also a lover of fashion and the arts and believes the world could be a better place if everyone just wrote a little more. Follow her personal blog here.

Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him at mccue@adobe.com. 

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

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