Why does design exist?
Design exists to make things better. If you’ve spoken to a designer or watched a few Steve Job’s interviews you’ve probably heard this simple explanation before. But “better” is a subjective term right? Better can mean better for some but worse for others.
Say better communications design for Kim Jung Un’s propaganda can mean worsened levels of independence for the people of North Korea. Better systems design of a casino can mean a worse probability of winning for gamblers. When the conversation around design gets elevated to higher impact scenarios like this, its importance to our lives follows. It stirs the pot of good and bad, undresses design from its beauty, and makes us consider, who design is better for?
Design can be seen as just a cosmetic touch to the peripheral eye of consumers. From this perspective, “better” is a synonym for faster, easier, simpler, higher status, more resilient, longer lasting, personalized, accessible, and bluetooth compatible of course! All of these words paint a picture of a better world. But better for who?
When you ask why each individual word is necessary for something to be better it may become apparent that they are synonyms for acceptable and consumable; words that describe mass marketable products. Who cares most about if products are acceptable and consumable? The producers of the product of course. Who pays design agencies? The producers of the product of course. So when the purpose of a design agency’s existence is to make things better, they should ask themselves, “Better for who?”.
If a design agency successfully completes their mission for a product producer then the producers will have an increase in acceptablility and consumability by their customers. What does better look like to customers though?
I believe the answer of the customers should directly align with the answer of the product producer and the design agency. When they do not align there is a disagreement on the meaning of “better”, inevitably resulting in worse for one party.
Designers can become so focused on being hirable that the pride of their portfolios overcomes the pride of the impact from their work. If they truly exist to make things better then maybe the focus should shift from being hirable to looking for hirable clients.
Let’s start with an easy example; An overly simplified and one-dimensional scenario that supports this viewpoint. A car company wants to make a better car. Its key improvement, it’s faster. A lot faster. 0–60 mph in 1.2 seconds. “Wow.. holy shit”, the consumers subconscious blurts out in amazement. This is the first street legal production vehicle capable of this speed. The car company is 10 years old and evaluated at $10 Billion. The design agency can be paid $20 Million for the branding of the product, marketing strategy, and campaign content creation. The agency has the global infrastructure, the qualified team, and skillful capabilities to do so. As the agency, what questions would you ask to get the job done?
- What are the specifications of the vehicle?
- How is it made? Where?
- Who are the key stakeholders to consult with for decision making?
- What will the price of the car be?
- How quickly does the project need to be done?
- What are the milestones?
- What does success look like?
- and many other questions that hopefully will be asked in a discovery session.
Here’s the problem. The acceptance of the job was already implied. Of course they’ll do it! What I suggest is that acceptance isn’t automatic. Because first the agency should ask the most basic of questions first: “Why does a car need to be faster?” Who is that better for?
I am not saying that fast cars aren’t great! But it is almost as if the most basic of questions get glazed over or even not considered at all. Is it because the answers to these questions are implied? That faster is better, easier is better, more accessible is better, simpler is better. Is it?
I beg that design agencies harness the behavior changing power of design to ask, is it better? Who is is better for? Is it better for the world we want to design?