Is it a genuine shock to argue we are all designers?

Paul Boag

As design becomes business critical to many organizations the number of people making design decisions is rocketing. But what does that mean for the traditional role of the designer?

Recently I watched a superb presentation by Jarod Spool about the journey that companies go on as they seek to integrate design thinking into the heart of their operation.

The entire presentation is packed full of great insights into the struggles that organizations face as they attempt to adapt to a world where customers demand an outstanding experience. However, one comment that Jarod made especially jumped out. He said:

Anybody who influences the outcome of a design is making design decisions and therefore are designers.

It was a comment that resonated with me and my experiences of working with large organizations. The truth is that people who have no design training make the majority of design decisions within a company.

‘Non-Designers’ Make Design Decisions Every Day

Think about it for a moment. The final decision over many aspects of design is often made by groups of people with little or no design training. Decisions about branding all the way through to what appears on a site's homepage.

Then there are the indirect decisions colleagues are making about design. Choices over performance or how the company funds web projects. All of these decisions impact the user experience and so are in a sense design decisions.

That is a situation that will only escalate as design becomes an increasingly important factor in differentiating companies in the marketplace. The more critical design becomes, the more design decisions the company will have to make, and the more stakeholders are involved.

How then should we respond to this as designers?

As Designers, Should We Resist the Interference of Others?

It was interesting to watch the reaction that Jarod’s quote received when I shared it on Twitter. The vast majority of responses were from ‘professional’ designers who felt that Jarod’s comments in some way undermined the role of the designer. That design should be left in the hands of the professional, and the idea that everybody should be making design decisions was horrendous. But is that even practical?

The idea that ‘professional designers’ will make all design related decisions does not scale. The number of designers a company would need to employ would prove cost prohibitive.

Then, of course, there is the multi-disciplinary nature of our work. There are no clear divisions between design work and other disciplines. The lines are blurry and require a lot of collaboration.

What then is the answer?

The Future Role of Trained Designers

In his presentation, Jarod argues that we should embrace the idea that in the end, every employee will be making design decisions. He explains that they will, in some senses, become designers.

I would agree 100% with this. It is the reality that we already live in and moaning about it is not going to change that. Fighting for a role that is infeasible, unscalable and insular, is at best self-destructive.

Instead, I believe our role is now to educate our colleagues to ensure that they have the design skills they need to make sound decisions on a daily basis. My opinion is that those of us with formal design training need to spend less time pushing pixels and more time empowering colleagues.

Not only that, we need to focus on addressing the more significant design issues and setting standards within which others can operate. As Jarod put it:

If everyone’s a designer, the people with the most design skill will be solving big problems, not working on producing wireframes showing different 25 states of the same dialog box.

He is right. As designers, we spend too much of our time doing ‘donkey work’ when there is so much more we could, and should, be offering.

A Semantic Debate, but With an Underlying Lesson

I think the thing that most annoyed people about Jarod’s comment was the implication that everybody who designs is therefore a designer. It was a comment that many felt undermined their role. I can understand this position and even sympathise with it. But I think that is to miss the point of what Jarod was driving at.

We can have semantic debates about the definition of a designer all day long. But there is a more important underlying lesson that came out of the conversation I witnessed on Twitter. That as a discipline we are overly precious of our role and as a result we are failing to do it justice and limiting ourselves to laying out interfaces when we could be doing so much more.