"The vanishing designer" says more about the state of the profession than it intended to do.

Hi, Kevin here.

To those of you who know me, it comes as no surprise to say that I like good critiques. And I like especially a critical look toward design, its various practices, philosophies and implementations.

I stumbled upon "The vanishing designer" by Chuánqí Sun, following a recent newsletter from UX Collective. The piece is published on DOC, presented as the more high-quality and edgy companion to the now famous Medium publisher.

DOC • The vanishing designer

"The vanishing designer" is a critique of the state of the design profession and its future and although the piece does an OK job of highlighting many of its themes and topics, it feels also a lot “réchauffé” (it says nothing new or in a different way) and present some issues.

Hasty foundations

Look around us. Every business is an app and every app feels the same, because every designer has the same resume, follows the same process, graduates from the same program, uses the same tool, scrolls the same Dribbble feed, reads the same Medium articles, expects the same career outcome, lives in the same ideology bubble.

This is a gross over-generalisation and although one can agree UX designers tend to stick to the same kind of tools, claiming that’s true of “every designer” is most likely an argument from ignorance.

I’m especially uncomfortable with the notion of an “ideology bubble” presented here because it is not defined at all and therefore left too much open to interpretation. What I think the author suggests here is the heterogenization of the ideas and philosophy of what design is, what it is supposed to do and how it is supposed to be done. But if so, the term “ideology” here is, firstly, questionable and, secondly, justified only by opposition to the notion of “idiosyncrasy” used later in the piece. The notion should have been explored to support this first argument, an argument that serves as a foundation for the rest of the critique: its lack of development renders part of the critique somewhat tautological.

Besides, there is some irony in sustaining this argument here when taking into account that the author lives in the US and works for a major Silicon Valley big tech company. The objectification of “Design” as a utility device to the operationalization of business models and a de-risking practice to “marketable ideas” are both most certainly responsible for the commodification of “design” in its popularised form, a movement largely coming from an overly anglo-saxon (US) cultural imperialism.

Naïve idealism

At the start of our careers, it’s common for us designers to look up to celebrated designers like Steve Jobs, Massimo Vignelli, and Dieter Rams. […] But years later, many of us made no progress towards our ideal model of a designer. If we suddenly wake up, we would see how badly we have been short-selling our talent. […] Most of us are just replaceable commodities on the labor market. The market sets the price. The employer decides what we work on. We no longer own our career, let alone our dreams

This pseudo-anti-capitalist “wake-up call” is as naïve as to believe anyone could become Dieter Rams or any glorified figures in design. This is because there are two conflicting positions in this paragraph. If I'm expanding on what is said:

  • Design idealism: design is intrinsically good; the pursuit of design is a form of virtue and is celebrated through glory: a sublimated form of “true meritocracy” (or the idea that “what is beautiful succeeds”).
  • Design realism: design is a commodity that can be traded; trading this commodity always serves the benefit of others, of [the market], to the detriment of the practitioner: value creation does not happen in design itself but is rather external to it.

My question to the author: are you an idealist or a realist?

This sounds pretty much like what a disillusioned idealist would write. It’s like putting in your wishlist “Do something remarkable” and 10 years later wondering why this never happened, blaming the world for that. This was not actionable in the first place and you could not have planned for that.

Furthermore, the two positions are contradictory only on the surface. First, because the glorification of some design practitioners (and the pursuit thereof) respond to similar mechanisms. Glory itself is a commodity that can be created, acquired, transformed and traded and the conditions for that are far from being based on merit – which in any case is probably not a good basis. This brings to the second point, that a third perspective here would be from a pragmatist vantage point. The pragmatist does not reject the two prior positions, on the contrary, but rather than talking in absolutes is grounded in the context of action.

Design, solved?

The Silicon Valley giants, testifying with their runaway success, claimed to have “solved” design as an engineering problem.

Such a statement is partially true, but also far from being news to anyone. Something worth noting is that this is not a fatality either.

First, because the success of some very few giants hides in actuality a valley (pun intended) of dead bodies (i.e. most startups fail). If we accept that “design as a commodity to business” has some form of value through its “utility towards success”, then design is never solved.

Secondly, it is interesting to take this sentence in the light of the previous claim that “every designer […] lives in the same ideology bubble”, because the “Silicon Valley giants” are far from representing the majority of businesses around the world, and the majority of designers do not work for them. Hence, even if the “Silicon Valley giants” had solved design as an engineering problem, one could reject the idea (hidden in the subtext) that this is an issue facing most designers.

Essentialism and dichotomies

The solution substituted the human essence of design — intuition, ingenuity— with the tangibles, measurable, and deliverables.

This essentialism relies on a dichotomic characterisation: “intuition and ingenuity” is opposed to “tangibles, measurable, and deliverables” suggesting the former is better than the latter by virtue of being of “human essence of design” (whatever that means). This can be seen as a form of inversion of the burden of proof, which would set any criticism against this claim in a disadvantaged position to defend an opposite position already categorised as “not of human essence”, without having to substantiate the original claim.

In reality, none of these things are contradictory (this is a non sequitur) and one can justifiably argue that the qualities of “intuition and ingenuity” do not oppose necessarily the qualities of “measurable and deliverables”. One could even argue that the latter are products of the former, making it ontologically “of human essence” – that is, if you like essentialism.

Metrics and attribution issues

Companies say they are “design-driven”, but designers are actually driven by dashboards filled with metrics like CSAT, NPS, CES, DAU, MAU.

We rigorously run tests, studies, experiments as if innovative ideas are hidden in spreadsheets, waiting to be extracted.

This is an easy critique of metrics and, sure, only fools would believe that they actually serve the purpose of generating innovative ideas. Three points to add to that:

  1. What's unfair here is that the premise of metrics is monitoring the operationalization of ideas, not the opposite;
  2. To that end, metrics by themselves are not inherently bad;
  3. One could argue that generating “innovative ideas” isn't necessarily what’s expected from most designers either.

Is success calls for trust or trust calls for success?

We’ve put too much trust into the systems of governance that businesses have in place. The system measures success. The system guarantees success. The system did help many startups take off and eventually become giants themselves.

There seems to be an inherent contradiction in this statement.

Yes, indeed, many organisations put too much trust in their system (only because they are the system, mind the level of granularity), but asserting that should prevent one from concluding that it then “guarantees success”. If the false belief is in “putting too much trust in the system” then it is necessarily untrue the system brings forth success; otherwise, it would be trustworthy, wouldn't it?

The fact is that “organisations as systems” always prioritise internal consistency over external coherence, no matter what you do or who you are. The problem isn’t in trusting this process per se (it does what it does) but in blindly believing the process has a direct cause on external factors (i.e. measuring success and causing success are 2 entirely different propositions).

Convenience and diffusion of responsibility

We invented the attention economy, created a generation of social influencers, and built media platforms that reshaped the publishing and advertising industry. This is not backhanded criticism on how companies took away our privacy and destroyed our real-world social fabric. I truly believe this generation of designers has changed the world, in many positive ways.

If by “we” the author really means “us designers” then this is yet another incoherence. As the piece suggests so far, we, designers, are not in control of our work nor of our careers (because of “businesses”, the “labour market”, the “system”, etc.). From this position, it appears very cheap to limit the burden of our decisions to designers:

If the “system” (read the Silicon Valley big tech companies) cannot be trusted –meaning you concede that no matter how well-intentioned one or several individuals are, the system will necessarily reduce them to what it’s designed to measure and produce– then pointing these people as responsible for both the goods or the bads is quite convenient and/or intellectually dishonest.

Harder. Better. Stronger.

This efficiency is realized by a chain of standardization. The design output has been standardized to interface with engineering. The design process has been standardized to supply design output. The designer’s skillset has been standardized to follow the design process. The design education has been standardized to build the skillset. Every link of the chain ensures predictability, predictability ensures stakeholders of profit, and profit incentivizes further investment into the standardization. Welcome to the industrial complex.

Although I agree with this statement, this again is far from being news. And this has to be said, but most of this is also a “shared suspension of disbelief”, a form of social illusion.

Design isn’t about the interface. Design isn’t about the output. Design isn’t about a design process. Design isn’t about a predefined skillset. This is not a chain, this is a rhizomatic network.

Red ocean

Losing the design diversity means falling into a singular narrative of how design must be done, which grants unfair and self-reinforcing advantage to the mainstream while discouraging, stifling, or even punishing the idiosyncratic designers who bring unorthodox but remarkably innovative processes to the table. The true opportunity cost is the diverse future that humanity can no longer access.

Although this is overly dramatic and negatively framed, I pretty much agree.

A granularity issue: design as an ecosystem

While every design is guaranteed to be good, none will be great. New designs are marginally better than previous ones with the rate of improvement eventually approaching zero. We have reached the heat death of design.

Indeed, loss of diversity increases heterogeneity, but to claim “we have reached the heat death of design” is 1) quite a leap; 2) overly dramatic; and 3) fatalistic.

We also have a major issue of granularity here. Design as a field of academics and professionals is broad and should be seen as a landscape with uneven topography and ecology (or an organic network with uneven distribution). This is not a monolithic thing and there is diversity hidden in plain sight.

The epistemic injustice of good intentions

To myself, to other designers, to our discipline, to this young and ever-shifting industry, in defiance of standardization of the design process, in defense of design as a humanly art and craft, I urge you to design with courage, as a human, with idiosyncrasies. It is also your responsibility to educate and influence people around you.

This is problematic to force expectations onto others in a discussion about ethics. It is preferable to enable others' agency/autonomy to decide for themselves. Designers are humans and those interested in going beyond superficialities will explore different routes anyway. One can even design to help others do that, and that would be far more ethical.

Thanks for reading!