Sorry, but we are not all designers
3 minutes read
“We are all designers” has become a rallying cry for some in the design industry. But is this true? Is this the right message to be sending out into the world? Before I answer those questions, I’d like to tell you a quick story. The story begins in a sleepy Spanish town near the city of Zaragoza.
The town of Borja lies an hour to the west of Zaragoza. Like most Spanish towns Borja has a number of Catholic churches, including the impressive Sanctuary of Mercy Church shown below.
Catholic churches like the Sanctuary of Mercy (Santuario de la Misericordia in Spanish) tend to be much more ornate than their Protestant cousins. In amongst the grand decoration there is a fresco painting titled ‘Ecce Homo’ (Behold the Man) by the renowned Spanish artist Elías García Martínez. Unfortunately, due to moisture in the wall the painting had badly degraded, so in 2012 an elderly parishioner and amateur artist by the name of Cecilia Giménez decided to attempt to restore the painting to its former glory. Armed with some paint, brushes and the permission of the church priest she took to work. Her restoration craftsmanship can be seen below.
Now I’m no art expert, but I’m not sure she quite achieved her goal. The botched restoration, dubbed the ‘Monkey Christ’ was soon world-wide news and whilst the story brought much need publicity and subsequent tourists to the town, this is a classic cautionary tale of what can happen when the job of a professional, is left to an enthusiastic, but under skilled amateur.
How hard can being a designer be?
You see there are some jobs that are clearly very, very hard to do. Brain surgeon is certainly one, along with pilot, trapeze artist, Formula One driver and countless other highly skilled vocations. Then are some jobs that clearly aren’t that hard to do. Often referred to as low skilled, these might include jobs such as fruit picking, shelf stacking and office cleaning. Then there are jobs that on the face of it look relatively simple. However, like a swan effortlessly gliding across the water, look below the surface and there is an awful lot of highly skilled work going on. These are jobs such as football manager, TV presenter, artist (or art restorer!) and yep, you’ve guessed it – designer.
Designer – A person who imagines how something could be made and draws plans for it.Cambridge Dictionary
On the face of it being a designer looks easy. Come up with some ideas, draw some things and then sit back to admire your work. Well yes, anyone can do that, but just like our amateur artist’s failed painting restoration, the results of an enthusiastic but woefully under skilled designer can be just as cringeworthy. Just look at the bonkers UI shown below if you don’t believe me.
Are we all designers?
Design has always been a team sport (see UX design is a team sport and is best played like one). New approaches such as Design thinking – a process for creative problem solving that has been popularised by IDEO (an American design consultancy) has certainly opened the sport of design to include many more players. It’s brilliant that more people can get involved, but I think the message that, “We are all designers” is not only untrue, but misleading. Sure, the CEO, the developers, the product managers, the support engineers and even the users can feed into the design process, but let’s not kid ourselves. They’re not designers.
The role of a designer
There is an awful lot to being a designer. Trust me, I’ve now been a UX / UCD / product designer for over 17 years and I’m not even close to being able to say that I’ve mastered the role. Not only is the role (and title!) of a designer constantly evolving, but it takes years and years to build up the craft skills, not to mention the soft skills required to really excel. These are not skills that can be learnt during a 2-day workshop, or by taking a short online course.
A designer is not just there to create something that looks good. A designer should also be a researcher, a problem solver, a thinker, a facilitator, a dreamer. As they navigate through the all too often choppy waters of the design process, a designer must wear many hats, including most importantly the captains.
We are all co-designers
The good ship design should be an open and inclusive ship, but it’s not going to get to its desired destination if everyone thinks that they’re the captain. Rather than “We are all designers”, really it should be, “We are all co-designers”.
Everyone can be, indeed should be part of the design process, but that’s very different from being the one leading and navigating that process. Great design is a team sport, but it’s a team sport where the role of designer is best left to designers.