Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Concerning design superstars

Concerning design superstars
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Last fall I was commissioned by Oliver Lindberg and the folks at .net to write a feature on “getting unstuck”. (You can read it here if you’d like.) During the process, I contacted a number of designers at various stages of their careers, asking them to share their thoughts on the topic. Most were gracious and responsive, but one made me want to heave.

What I was looking for

I believe design process to be unrealistically mythologized. This leaves young designers bewildered, thinking they should expect grand moments of inspiration. In my experience, this hardly ever actually occurs and the only real solution is to just keep working. Many of my peers share this perspective: good work habits lead us to address specific problems systematically. Sometimes we even stumble upon a great idea along the way.

As designers we’re always learning, and I think it’s smart to share what we can. Through my article I hoped to tap other designers’ suggestions and demystify this process by showcasing the methods they use. In my mind, we need to actively dispel misunderstandings about creativity and the design process. In doing so I believe that we stand to strengthen our practice.

This one individual’s response, however, was rather self-congratulatory with little interest in exchanging actual insight. There were a few vagaries and some rather snippy remarks on lifestyle decisions. Overwhelmingly though, I just felt as though this person (who I respected) had heard too much praise and started to actually believe it.

We pick type and draw stuff

Now, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. This individual is well regarded and has a strong body of work. Additionally, we’re only human. Being told that you’re great feels nice; it’s understandable that one might “drink the Kool-Aid” after hearing that sort of thing enough. Nevertheless, that email stuck with me and I haven’t been able to shake the feeling it left me with.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe in design and am a vocal proponent of it. At the same time, I sometimes feel that we too easily inflate the importance of what we do. We talk a good game with terms like “strategy”, “problem solving” and “design thinking”. Mostly though, these remain lofty ideals that surface only occasionally in our daily practice. On the flip-side, we designers love our toys, the novelty of our profession, and the fact that choosing type is arguably more pleasurable than reconciling bank statements.

Aside from a very limited few who concentrate on more socially relevant design, our work rarely dabbles in the kind of relevance we’d like to claim. We don’t save lives or fight poverty. Even those talented designers we laude most aren’t curing cancer. Mostly, we solve minor problems; the rest of the time, we do window dressing. I like to think that we’re the “plumbers” of communication.

The dawn of design celebrity

Many in design work independently; as such, we enjoy learning about others who share our experiences. I personally take comfort in finding that others are struggling with the same things we here at smashLAB do. As a result of forums, blogs and communities, it’s starting to feel as though we’re all on the same team, regardless of geography.

The design trade is really quite small and as a result, we’re getting to know one another quickly. Along the way, we find ourselves seeking icons to uphold as representative of our practice. This craving for shared touch-points leaves us with “micro-celebrities”. Although my neighbor may have little knowledge (or interest) in names like “Tibor” or “Spiekermann” these names hold certain relevance and connotations amongst fellow designers.

Although it saddens me to admit it, celebrity isn’t distributed virtuously. Those addressing concerns of social inequity, public health or education are not revered as they should be. Design, however, seems poised for such a cult of personality. Our work is compelling and tends to photograph quite well; additionally, there’s a growing public interest in what we do. Although we’ll never see a “Shia Lebouf” or “Megan Fox” of design (thank goodness), a few people are becoming familiar with names like Karim Rashid, Bruce Mau and Shepard Fairey.

Design is for the people

It’s certainly conceivable that a few well known practitioners in design will help build awareness and interest for what we do; therefore, I concede that such icons are probably good for our industry on the whole. More discussion about design, coupled with a greater literacy around it is something to aspire to. Design impacts everyone; as such it should be a matter of public discourse. Curiously though, it’s exactly this point that makes me uncomfortable with the notion of design celebrity.

Celebrity lends itself to qualitative beliefs largely predicated on social standing. As a result, celebrities and their insights are held in higher regard than the rest of us “plain folk” just doing our work. While art, music, literature and film can accommodate big egos, I argue that design is not so geared. Ours is a practice of utility. We aren’t concentrated on exploration, but rather the matter-of-fact process of planning and shaping outcomes.

Perhaps our work results in a more “grip-able” handle for a can opener, or a website made easier to navigate. It could be a design treatment that better entices customers, or perhaps a compelling book cover that begs us to look closer. It needn’t be banal. Just the same, it shouldn’t necessarily be exclusive. With the materialization of design celebrity, however, we find this notion challenged. As a “design-class” starts to emerge, two points of concern arise: Celebrity places the personality above the design solution; similarly, it creates a rift between the public who use the stuff and those appointed “arbiters of design”.

This is a problem. Designers are here for the people; not the other way around. When we — as individuals or as a practice — start to think we are somehow better than our peers, clients, or those in other professions, we belie the populist nature of design. At its core, ours is a medium of the people. We should remain weary of forgetting that.

An “ego-free” zone?

I look back at that email from a year ago and I vacillate between taking offense and thinking that I’ve perhaps read it the wrong way. I can’t, however, shake the feeling that there’s something distasteful there: perhaps a kind of dismissal of other’s struggles as pedestrian or a belief in them being somehow unworthy of thoughtful consideration. Although it may be unrealistic, I expect more from my peers, and this was a letdown.

Of the few things that really bother me, snobbery is certainly at the top of the list. I find it bothersome in the context of narcissistic Hollywood-types but at least it seems appropriate in such a domain. Design as a practice, however, shares little with the vulgar indulgences of Tinseltown. Ours is a pragmatic pursuit that begs the designer to cast aside ego in the interests of the solution at hand, and ultimately those who benefit from its devisal.

Given the rising interest in design, I don’t question that a few of our friends will become semi-public figures. Some will appear on the news and a few will become minor-celebrities. They’ll go to nice parties and be treated well. Perhaps they’ll do projects that are more exciting than the ones the rest of us take on, and good on them. It’s great to see a few of our own recognized for their hard work. My only request to those who are so lucky is that they don’t take their praise too seriously.

Even our nicest work rarely changes much. The last thing we need is for designers to start thinking they’re rock stars.

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