As we’re making our way into 2022, there’s a lot of chatter about the state of design. Design trend articles are interesting to me because they indicate our profession’s ongoing existential crisis about its raison d’être. Trend articles are a good and necessary self-reflection, but they can also lead to misconceptions about the purpose of design.
Bad design trend articles focus on tools and trends instead of strategy. They list out elements like “dark mode” or “glassmorphism” alongside “virtual reality,” as if they carry equal weight to strategy. It’s like an architecture magazine listing only doorknobs, concrete, and fireman poles to define their industry ethos.
For our industry to grow into the best version of itself, we have to make design strategy the heart of the conversation. We’ll always need elements of the craft — grids and color swatches, interaction states, and box charts. But now we need to shift our skills, ways of thinking, and industry culture before our industry can realize its true potential. Here’s what that looks like.
Know the high-level business goals
Non-designers are learning more about the design process, and they expect us to know more about what they do, too. Business and product leaders want designers to know their strategic initiatives, underlying drivers, and how design directly or indirectly impacts revenue.
Embrace the strategy work
We need to move from being assembly-line craftspeople to strategic facilitators. When design tools become better at automating low-level design decisions (John Maeda highlighted this shift back in 2018), that frees us up to focus on meatier design problems and the strategic aspects of our craft.
Part of moving toward strategy work is measuring our success differently. We need genuine metrics, not vanity ones like the number of times we talk to customers or how many projects a design team is involved in. Good metrics relate to the three foundational metrics that enable all other metrics:
- Purpose (why do people use the product?)
- Action (what do people do with the product?)
- Cycle (how often should people use the product?)
Lead from strategy
Traditionally, design leaders are promoted for their individual talents and ability to art direct others. This new design leadership is not about creating clean interfaces (or even art directing others in doing so). It’s about stagecraft and statecraft. We need leaders who speak the language of the business, own the design team’s impact, and promote design as a driver for innovation and change in the business. These leaders shape culture in the company and create conditions for consistent success.
Prioritize service design
The products we create live inside of broader service contexts, not in a vacuum. Service design is about the people, systems, processes, and events that happen when a customer interacts with a business. We need to move beyond “user” context and consider all front-end and back-end processes in our design strategy. We can work with customer service and other non-designer teams to create better experiences for customers beyond an app or a website.
Collaborate with non-designers
Design thinking enables more than designers. We have an opportunity to lead other teams, clients, and even users through the collaborative design process.
Designers design for participants. (We may traditionally call these “users,” but that’s an exclusionary term that implies exploitation. “Participants” includes anyone who participates in the design process — whether that’s someone who interacts with it or someone who supports that product or service.)
We should include them! There is immense power in telling participants, “Hey, we heard you. We’re sorry this happened, and we’re going to fix it. Would you like to work with us to do so?” When we exclude participants from the design process, it is a recipe for dark patterns and goals set to maximize profits at their expense.
Design more ethically
The products we build today will ultimately scale and connect users in ways we could never imagine. We have a responsibility to plan for secondary and tertiary outcomes once our product is out in the world, considering what users will do on the platform (good or bad), and uncovering governing and enabling constraints to make those platforms resilient. We must check our egos and recognize that we’re a supporting actor in a broader collaborative effort, not the starring role.
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