The vanishing designer

Written by Chuánqí Sun

blurred face

Visionary designers have lost their conceptual integrity to an industrial complex optimized for consensus, predictability, and short-term business gain. The rise of data-driven culture cultivated a generation of designers who only take risk-free and success-guaranteed steps towards the inevitable local maxima of design monotony.

person with their face hidden on a computer
backlit headshot with the face hidden

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.

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. They inspired us to believe in our practice and stick to our ideals. They gave us hope: when we were fresh out of school, we thought it would only be a matter of time before a client with great taste would notice our talent.

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. Well, one would be lucky to be able to sell anything, for it implies some bargaining power over a potential client. 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.

The Silicon Valley giants, testifying with their runaway success, claimed to have “solved” design as an engineering problem. The solution substituted the human essence of design — intuition, ingenuity— with the tangibles, measurable, and deliverables.

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

hyper-exposed  photo of tablet and computer

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. Thanks to the system, no customers will be annoyed by a surprising change in the UI ever again. Thanks to the business processes and systems in place, mobile apps, and SaaS businesses boomed, jobs were created, our lives became more convenient. 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.

But at what cost?

In order to achieve efficiency, measure effectiveness, and guarantee success, companies fitted the creative and innovative practice from design into the same project management framework optimized for predictability and immediate output, such as Design Sprints. A company can easily move designers from one project to another without losing productivity. But the leverage an employer has over its design employees is only a side effect.

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.

You may ask, “What’s wrong with building a more efficient economy? And how’s this different from everything that happened after the industrial revolution?”

A shift in the process symbolizes a shift in the culture, which gets internalized into our beliefs and values. As with any system that promotes a set of values, a standardized design discipline creates a mainstream that marginalizes people who don’t share the values behind standardization, effectively outlawing designers who follow idiosyncratic processes. The result? Look at the system that perpetuates racial inequality that we are trying so hard to fix today.

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.

photo of a laptop

A future without diversity is fundamentally stagnant: imagine designs so standardized that you can’t tell them apart. 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.

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. We can, then, also expand and diversify the designers we look up and have as references. Our industry needs new faces, new voices. Be the designer you aspired to be for yourself and for others. Tell them, or even better, show them the difference between a good design and a great one. If you don’t know how, start with this list:

Make a bold decision (that is controversial).

Make a mistake (as a result of a bold decision).

Challenge “conventional wisdom”.

Challenge authority (that preaches conventional wisdom).

Challenge hierarchy (that perpetuates conventional wisdom).

Ignore the committee (and the need to converge).

Decide who your clients are (and aren’t).

Ignore clients that aren’t (especially those who pay the most).

Cultivate clients if none exists (instead of compromising your design).

Be a generalist (and ignore your job title).

Be a specialist (who specializes in being a generalist).

Design things from scratch (and build them yourself from scratch).

Design things that no one wants (yet).

Design freely (and think freely).

Keep reading