Designer as outsider

Jesse reno-where have you been where are you now
Where have you been, where are you now by Jesse Reno, 2007

I guess if I’m being honest with myself, I never really felt like I fit in anywhere. I mean, sure I got along with people most of the time. But did I really feel like I belonged somewhere? I dunno. Not really. I guess it all goes back to the angst and awkwardness I felt as a teenager, and learning (eventually) that trying to fit in wasn’t for me. Perhaps this essay affects my future employability but maybe, as designers, we shouldn’t really fit in either, and remain as outsiders. 

A culture of counter-culture

For me, it started long ago. I would do a lot of the typical kid stuff, but I would also spend a lot of afternoons drawing. Monsters, usually, but it was all kinds of stuff (my mom probably still has some of that stuff in a box somewhere…). Later it became more about music. While my classmates were all into heavy metal, I was listening to the Beatles. Later still, while my family hoped I would become a dentist or a doctor, I decided to be a designer (hey, at least it still starts with a ‘D’). Anyway, I don’t want to sit here and just point out all my eccentricities, but by looking back, maybe it helps explain some of what I’m getting at with this essay. I mean, growing up, I felt different from everyone else, and it showed itself in the things I did.

But what is an ‘outsider’ and what does it mean to be an ‘outsider’?

Holden Caulfield is definitely an outsider.

The concept of the outsider is everywhere. Literature, art, movies, music, philosophy, chances are you’ve already encountered the idea at some point in your life, even if you didn’t realize it. Anti-heroes, oddballs, nonconformists, outsiders typically feel a kind of detachment from society or the culture around them. But it’s also this detachment that affords them a kind of distance that gives them the perspective to see things differently. As it relates to design, I feel like maintaining a kind of distance from the internal workings of your clients or company can be of great benefit to your work.

A spread from the great emigre magazine.

Take the above image for example. If you don’t know what this is, it’s a spread from one of the issues of emigre magazine, a seminal postmodern publication on art, design, culture. What makes it so important is that they were doing work on the cusp of traditional design and the burgeoning personal computing revolution. At a time when most graphic design (especially the West Coast style) was all Swiss typography and rational page layouts, Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko were doing things differently. I mean just look at that spread! It’s just one of the beautiful examples of a (then) new form of expressive typography that seemed to completely do away with grids and pushed the boundaries of legibility.

a spread from beach culture magazine, designed by David Carson

Later, the work from other designers, like David Carson (above) continued to push boundaries on traditional ideas of graphic design, often completely destroying legibility in print. In some cases, articles would just end, if there was no reason to continue the design. His reason? Surfers weren’t reading the magazines anyway!

Anyway, why bring this stuff up? Well, these were people working on the cutting edge of design. They weren’t out there to hack growth or drive revenue. They were not trying to follow conventional best practices for magazine design. They had nothing to lose by breaking the “rules”, so they did. And as a result, helped usher in a whole new era of design thinking.

One could argue that these 2 spreads look dated now (I don’t think they are), but I can guarantee that if these designs were presented in a meeting today, nobody would be “on board” with design concepts like these. They’re too edgy, too unfriendly. There’s no CEO out there who would ‘get’ these designs, not to mention that there are few who would even venture an attempt!

Different is ok. Different is good!

That was one of the ads for Apple from back in its heyday. Back then, Steve Jobs extolled the virtues of thinking different, which “coincidentally” also meant buying Apple products since most of the world was still on Windows PC’s. Thankfully, Apple products of that time were full of great human-centered design (and not just vehicles to sell dongles), and so different didn’t just mean that there was an alternative, different also meant ‘better’.

Designers, being different shouldn’t be a red mark against you. Seeing the world through a different lens is exactly what more companies need. After all, like (thinking) begets like (results). Imagine trying to significantly change something in your life. You would have to change habits and to do that, it requires changing how you think. Companies aren’t very different. If you need to change something significant in a product, well, it’s very difficult to ask all the same people who created the product to try and conceive of a new way to do things.

A lot gets made of ‘culture fit’ in today’s companies, perhaps too much. Especially when prominent VC’s write articles about how important it is for a startup’s early growth, it can tend to cloud people’s opinions on what’s really important. I mean, I get it. As a founder, you want people to help you fulfill your vision. But often times, it’s better to find people who will be honest with you, that maybe your vision kinda sucks, rather than just execute it with robotic efficiency. So rather than just give in to the madness of culture fit, maybe companies and founders should look at how diverse perspectives can help augment and improve their chances of achieving the big goals.

The Borg
An example of culture fit

Design is definitely one of those functional areas where it may be more valuable for there to be diverse perspectives. We take the inputs from the business people and try to come up with innovative new perspectives on all the same old problems. And the way to get to new solutions is with new thinking. Situations like these always remind me of this quote:

We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them

— Albert Einstein

Apparently, it’s not totally clear if it was in fact Einstein that said that quote. But the point remains. Solving the same problems in new ways basically means hiring new people with new ideas and methods. These things may be completely counter to what is endemic in your company culture, and it’s really important for a company’s leadership  to be comfortable with that.

Finding new perspectives

I know I’ll probably get some flak for saying this but…


I mean, when I was learning about design, the mantra “Design is Communication” was reinforced, time and again. I suppose it’s still true, but what occurred to me was that the most salient qualities of good design involved the way strong aesthetic principles worked in conjunction with clear conceptual thinking. If that meant that ideas were communicated, then great. But ironically, in school, you were more often criticized for how you cut mat boards, rather than the ideas that were communicated. Clearly, Design wasn’t just about communication.

Today, the mantra we have to follow is “Design is Problem Solving”. Of course, it’s important to solve problems that your customers have, but it involves so much more. I mean, why relegate good Design to just problem solving? Like my tweet (above), we as designers need to hold a stronger line on design being both a celebration of ingenuity of problem solving and aesthetic qualities. Furthermore, if Beauty is as unimportant as it seems, why has UI design evolved at all? If we accept that functionality trumps everything else, then wireframes should suffice as the sole artifacts of the design process, aesthetics be damned. Clearly this is not the case.

sometimes, the solution is merely just another question.

So how do we move forward from here? It starts first with understanding (and accepting) that not everyone does things in exactly the same way. The creative process is quite varied, probably as varied as its practitioners. Certainly, it makes good business sense to follow a process that’s repeatable, especially if it’s successful. But I have found that it’s better to vary your approach to suit the conditions you work in. For example, being consistent about conducting usability testing is important to help a designer do their jobs successfully, but how often do people/companies truly commit to frequent testing? In my experience, it tends to be more of the exception than the rule, even though we all know the benefits.

I guess I’ll close with this final thought. In companies all around the country, designers have longed for a proverbial “seat at the table”. It’s this idea that we should be recognized (finally) for our contributions to companies and products, and be rewarded with mutual respect for what we do. But if we’re really all outsiders, maybe just a seat isn’t what we really need. I think if Design is to fulfill it’s true purpose in society, in terms of helping shape how people think and act, designers need to be more than just people who solve ‘complex business problems’. As a result, maybe being an outsider, maybe not fitting in, is exactly what we need to get comfortable with.

Here’s my blog post for April! This is part of my “Year of Blogging” series for 2017. If you liked this essay, tell me about it on Twitter!

Designer as outsider

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