Searching for something healthy among our toxic traits
I’ve spent a lot of the last few years following a variety of thought leaders on a variety of social media. I follow some extremely talented designers, researchers, inventors, and authors, and these people have a wealth of valuable wisdom to share with the world. Some of them are frequently engaged in deep debate over important issues affecting our industry. But they’re not the only designers arguing in the Twittersphere. Algorithms serve up posts with the most impressions and engagement, and nothing generates engagement better than outrage. Inevitably my feed ends up filled with designers’ hottest and cheapest takes: Should designers code? Can UI designers call themselves UX designers? What is a UX designer? Is a product designer a UX designer? Is everyone a designer? Should we stop calling users users? Is a hot dog a sandwich? Does pineapple belong on pizza?
Some — not all — of these takes might merit an actual argument were it not for the fact that these same positions get discussed over and over. The arguments are tedious, the reasoning is often anecdotal, and at the end of the day, no one’s mind is changed. And yet, the arguments persist and the algorithms continue to point our eyes to them.
There’s an interesting duality at play here. Designers crave nuance, because humans are nuanced, and we know that better than many other professionals. Yet, for a profession whose most common refrain is “it depends,” we sure do love to argue in absolutes.
A designer’s career thrives on two qualities: critique and conviction. We need to critique because we cannot innovate if we simply accept ideas as they are. A complacent designer is one who’s afraid to challenge the status quo, afraid to take risks, afraid to identify the problems that need solving. Many design teams operate with a cadence of design critique sessions, an open forum in which designers share their latest ideas and their peers are encouraged to challenge those assumptions. This is not a malicious opportunity to find faults but rather a thought exercise to test the variety of ways we approach a problem. But along with that exercise is a chance to practice defending our ideas. Even though the stakes are often low, we gain skills by holding firm to these critiques, by unwaveringly arguing and persuading our fellow designers to join our cause.
We practice critiquing around other designers because we need those skills to be sharp when we face other kinds of stakeholders. Ultimately, the final design is often driven by compromises around the problem’s external constraints, but that’s why designers should advocate hard for their ideas as long as they can. Designers have a responsibility to unequivocally champion the user’s cause throughout a design review because if the designer folds too quickly, the product’s direction will be driven purely by time or budget or corporate politics.
But critique is nontrivial and conviction is often performative. When someone else’s idea is solid, it can be hard to find a fault. When we know our idea isn’t perfectly feasible, some salesmanship is necessary to hold up the argument. That’s when it can be useful to play the devil’s advocate, to test the strength of someone’s design choice by proposing the opposite. On the job, we do this by arguing meaningful user experience issues. Off the job, some designers keep those same skills fresh by arguing trivial semantics.
Designers also know how to practice empathy. When actively designing, this means we excel at understanding struggles that we don’t personally experience. But when we engage in design rhetoric, sometimes this means taking an opposing position and holding firm with it. You might not have a strong opinion about the definition of UX, or whether pineapple belongs on pizza, but perhaps it’s an exercise in empathy to pick a side and argue on behalf of that side.
So, should designers code? Is UX the same as UI? Does any of this matter? Designers may never cease to ask these questions, but fortunately the answer doesn’t matter. As long as we continue to ask provocative questions, to exercise our criticality, to pick a side and stick to it, then this isn’t wasted rhetoric.