No, We Aren't All Designers

Photo by bobech (bobech) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 ) or GFDL ( http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html )], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by bobech (bobech) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a UX researcher. I work with designers on every project I have. I talk about design all day long. I make research based recommendations to the designers I work with. I study designs. I study how people interact with designs. I’ve written about my view that designers are not, and should not be, researchers. I’m equally strongly opinionated that designer is a unique role within a product team.

Every now and then, a tweet comes across my feed saying something along the lines of Everyone is a designer. I usually disagree in my head and keep scrolling. I’m someone, but I’m definitely not a designer. Recently, I saw a Tweet from Jared Spool stating essentially that anyone involved with the creation of a product is a designer. That would mean PMs, Devs, Lawyers, and more would all be designers. The tweet had stimulated great feedback, with folks falling on both sides of the fence in term of agreement. I wanted to use this post to add my voice to the disagree column.

I suppose we can all be designers. In the same sense that anyone can be a firefighter or an electrical engineer - it requires training and dedication. There is a huge difference between the person impacting the design and someone who actually has the tools and techniques of a designer. Here are some reasons I don’t agree everyone touching the process is a designer.


Everyone is a designer fails to respect the craft of design

Taking the statement to its full conclusion, almost everyone is a designer. Particularly if you practice UX design and gather user input. Your usability testing participants would be considered designers. Many designers work as freelance or for studios with clients. Everyone influencing the design is a designer would mean the person paying for the work is the designer. They ultimately have the final decision and the budget to make the work happen. This idea is counter to the purpose a designer has been hired to serve – creating a design. If you pay for someone to design your product, it’s your design and your product, but you are not the designer.

Designers have training, both formal and informal, using specific tools and processes. The person sticking their head into a design review convincing you move the location of the “Submit Form” button is not a designer. At least, not simply because they were able to present their argument and impact the design.

Saying everyone is a designer is code for everyone has an opinion that we should consider valid. That isn’t true either. Again, designers have experience and training others don’t. Designers (if they are trusted) should ultimately make the final call on when we can say the design is ready for the next step in our process. We need designers to feel valued and allow them to use their tools and talent to create the best product possible. Deputizing everyone on the team as a designer diminishes the importance of the role, and potentially waters down the expectations and accountability for the role.

The logic that everyone contributing to a design is a designer doesn’t transfer to other roles, either. I’ve scheduled plenty of meetings for the projects I’ve been on. I’ve given team members tasks and dates I want them completed by. This doesn’t make me a project manager. It means I’ve taken on roles to help make sure the project is successfully completed. I don’t see a difference when we talk about others contributing to design. They are facilitating the process, and being contributing members of a team.

Business analysts play a huge role in determining the functions and features of a design. They provide the business requirements of a product and ensure they are met. However, this doesn’t make them designers. A designer uses their skill and expertise to interpret the business requirements through their design. A business analyst might review a design and demand a change due to an existing requirement not being met, but this doesn’t make them a designer.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to be both a PM and a designer, or a business analyst and a designer. You can be an astronaut and a designer. I’m saying you aren’t automatically a designer if contribute to a design. Many roles contribute to the outcome of a design. We still need designers.

An Analogy

Saying anyone influencing the design is a designer is like saying anyone influencing the meal at a restaurant is a cook. Let’s say I go to a restaurant and order a hamburger. I am vegetarian, so I ask to substitute a veggie patty for the meat patty. I’ve impacted the meal (design), but that doesn’t make me anymore the person who actually cooked the meal (designer). The wait staff will influence how the meal turns out: am I served a hot burger immediately, or do they let it sit until it gets cold before I’m served? That still doesn’t make them the cook (designer). The produce supplier might have delivered fresh vegetables the morning of my meal. That impacts the outcome of the food, but does not make the produce supplier also a cook (designer). There are many roles that need filled to get the meal (design) to my table. Each role is critical. Unlike the rest of the staff, the cook is also responsible for translating their vision into the meal, incorporating all of the required ingredients, and meeting any modifications or customizations I request. I, as the customer (user), get to decide if the meal meets my expectations, and whether I will eat it or send it back.

To what end

I think the conversation around what makes a designer is an important conversation. There might not be a one-size fits all definition. It is easier to say if someone is a lawyer, doctor, teacher, or other field requiring some type of certification. There is not an equivalent widely accepted and acknowledged certificate in design. Designer job descriptions are broad and inconsistent across firms and studios hiring designers. This leaves the door open to broad interpretation and confusion. Am I a designer because I’m on a design team?

I don’t think everyone influencing the outcome of a design is a designer. What do we gain from thinking this way? If the purpose is to create team cohesion and better buy-in for design, there are better ways to accomplish this. If the purpose is to acknowledge there is more to design than just designer, that’s a messaging problem we need to solve. Most people would say it is obvious that many roles and factors contribute to a design. We benefit from having a variety of roles and titles we are proud of. We risk losing the role of designer when we consider everyone a designer. Yes, many roles influence the outcome of a design. We still need good designers, proud of their craft, the same way we need good cooks, proud of what they create. We don’t need everyone in the kitchen calling themselves the cook.

What do you think? Please leave a comment and keep the conversation going.