My coffee is yet to arrive and we are already dissecting one of my designs.
I’m on this meetup where a bunch of designers get together and we criticize a product one of us designed. If you ever watched Animal Planet, it basically looks like a pack of raging hyenas tearing apart an Antelope — Antelope being your design. I love it!
The atmosphere is good, everyone’s participating. We talk interactions, layouts, the position of UI elements, how reachable that button is and how we could simplify a specific part of the flow.
The girl next to me draws some beautifully arranged rectangles in her Moleskine. I hear someone mention legibility. I hate him for it — who cares about legibility, it’s boring. I crack a joke about the notch on my iPhone — everyone laughs. I feel good about myself.
On my right-hand side, there’s this new guy. He’s silent, listening in awe about our ideas how AR could improve the onboarding experience. There’s something off about him. He’s not dressed like a designer.
We go on and on, and at one point the new guy breaks his silence:
“I’d say the flow makes sense. But wouldn’t it be better if the business process behind it wasn’t so cumbersome?”
The group takes a two-second pause, and we decide to ignore the question and move back to the AR discussion — cause we’re not here to talk about the freakin’ business.
We are here to talk about design.
Ok, ok, none of this actually happened. It’s just vaguely based on true events. But bear with me, I’m trying to make a point here for God’s sake.
So, in this true story, that didn’t happen at all, there is something that actually happens all the time.
We designers tend to forget that the very purpose of design is so strongly tied to the business that it practically doesn’t exist without it. Thus, when we talk about design, we often “forget” to talk about business.
In his struggle to define the word design and what it means to practice it, Paul Rand mentions one particularly interesting old, but back in the day, widely used term to describe graphic design — The Commercial art. While calling it “sufficiently specific to be truly meaningful”, he also mentions that the snobbery might have been one of the reasons for this term to perish from the graphic arts scene.
I find his choice of words very interesting.
Seems like designers don’t like to talk about business cause it makes our beautiful craft dirty. Maybe realizing that it’s ultimately about making money makes our profession less magical? Maybe it makes us designers lesser, even further away from being artists?
It feels wrong to talk about business and money when we talk about design. We’d rather focus on beauty and feelings and perfectly rounded corners. We’d rather talk about impacting lives and changing the world.
Or maybe we’re just afraid?
Whatever the reason, our inability, or lack of will to talk about business makes all the conversations we like to have about design… well simply incomplete. Whether we like it or not, the ability to make money is an essential part of design — engraved in its very DNA.
In our effort to impact lives with design and put something meaningful out there, there’s nothing more efficient than creating a successful product. The success of a product is almost always measured by its ability to earn money. How much value it brings to the customer and therefore to the business. Products that find their way to the customer are the only ones that end up truly impacting people’s lives. Those are the products that end up being meaningful. Those are the products that eventually allow the design to change the world… every once in a while. (Thank you Michael Bierut).
There are a lot of steps preceding the “change the world” part… and most of them are more or less business related.
At the core of every successful business, there’s a real human need. A problem (if you wanna call it that way) that asks to be solved. Without a real problem to solve, a real purpose to serve there is no need for a business.
It’s usually the business giving the designer a problem to solve in the first place. And when the problem is not real it becomes hard or next to impossible to design great products around it. It becomes impossible to truly practice design.
The paradox of a modern designer
At this moment, you can be a successful designer and still never create something that impacts people and the world around you. You can earn a lot of money without ever creating value for the customer or the business that hired you in the first place.
You can proudly call yourself a designer without actually solving a single real problem in your entire career.
It’s easier than ever. The market is soooo saturated with nonsense businesses. You could devote your entire career perfecting the skill of delivering high quality “designs” for nonsense projects and be pretty damn satisfied with yourself… and the balance in your bank account.
I know this cause I’ve been doing it for quite some time.
Unfortunately, none of this actually makes us designers. It makes us exactly the opposite. It skews the purpose of design and the very reason the world needs designers in the first place. Because as long as the business itself makes no sense, everything a designer does is irrelevant. Like it doesn’t exist.
It’s the business behind every design that actually drives all the change we like to speak of… and take credit for. It’s the success of a business that determines how much impact the design will eventually have. The design is just one of its many tools. Businesses were transforming our world long before the designer became such an important word.
Maybe understanding this makes a designer and his art lesser. But refusing to understand this does something much worse. It renders a designer irrelevant. It diminishes the influence design could actually have on the world around us.
Our inability to talk business is the very reason why we end up working on meaningless products. It is why we often end up being incapable of transforming these nonsense projects into something that might create some value for someone. It’s the reason why we remain unheard so many times, even when we are the most qualified person in the room.
Not understanding business and its language is exactly what’s preventing us from using the skills we already have, to design the very businesses of tomorrow instead of just drawing screens.
So It’s not the business that removes all the magic from our beautiful craft, it’s the lack of it that does.