Over the past few years, I’ve gravitated towards this definition of design from Yves Behar.
Our principal role as designers is to accelerate new ideas, and the adoption of new ideas.
I like how it highlights the designer’s agency to choose which ideas to accelerate. That’s a political decision! It reminds me to think about whether the negative social effects of my work might outweigh its positive outcomes.
I also appreciate that he doesn’t mention creating new ideas. Sometimes designers start their own businesses, and are responsible for advancing their own vision. But more often we’re in the position of advancing someone else’s: whether a product manager, CEO, or investor. Behar’s definition helps me reflect upon who my work benefits. By accelerating a product’s adoption, who do I personally enrich?
I also like the accessibility of Behar’s language, framing design around ideas instead of value creation. In a capitalist society, “delivering value” is usually perceived as a positive, but most people understand that ideas can be good or bad.
There are plenty of other great definitions of design that I love, but Behar’s resonates most at the moment. It feels like a unifying thread in a career that spans wildly different tools, methods, and technologies.
But it wasn’t always that way! As a baby designer, I thought Steve Jobs’ credo that “design is how it works” was impressive enough to justify my profession’s value to others. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.) As I cut my teeth in sales-driven product companies, I began framing my work around value delivery and ROI to try and conform to the culture. Still later, as I gained more confidence, I gravitated towards Ryan Singer’s metaphor of user interfaces as a bridge between humans and capability.
All of that is to say I’ll probably see Behar’s definition as irrelevant someday, too. Which isn’t surprising if you think about it! Designers spend their time constantly striving towards ever-changing futures, and so it makes sense we’d embrace ever-changing descriptions of our work.
So I can’t help but wonder: if I find this definition so useful right now, what circumstances would lead me to abandon it?
Off the top of my head, I have a few ideas:
The org-wide diffusion of design. I interpret Behar to mean that designers are uniquely responsible for accelerating new ideas within a team. But as services- and content-driven companies exert more cultural influence, that may no longer be the case. For example, no matter how talented Netflix’s designers are, their data center and recommendation algorithm engineers have made a far greater impact in moving the film industry towards streaming.
Fast servers and micro-targeted content are definitely design choices, but they’re not the designer’s choices. I’m curious how I might redefine my role if designer-led companies start going out of fashion.
A movement to decelerate tech. One could argue that much of the social damage caused by big tech platforms stems from their universal application of their mission statements at massive scale. After a certain point, something like Facebook’s desire to “make the world more open and connected” has disastrous social effects that are beyond their ability to control.
Given this, you could imagine a future where the UX design community starts to see themselves as conservationists. We may see it as morally necessary to limit our own creations, pushing back against our employer’s ambitions where necessary to preserve the social fabric.
I’m sure that others out there (like Papanek, whom I haven’t read) have written more intelligently about the designer’s social responsibility than I ever could. So I’ll try to keep this short, but I imagine this movement could take a few forms. Maybe we’ll start to focus on intentionally limiting adoption, catering to niches, and turning away users whom our organization isn’t equipped to treat humanely.
It’s possible some major new antitrust action will start incentivizing huge companies to act this way. Or maybe a rise in democratic socialist candidates could give explicitly anti-capitalist designers the social cover to openly express their views.
Regardless of what the future holds, I love how my job description is perpetually in flux, dependent on so many personal and external factors. I’m grateful for the definitions I’ve embraced in the past, for helping me center myself in my role. But I’m still excited for what comes next.