Who’s the designer now?

All design is intended to ful­fill a pur­pose even if the design itself even­tu­ally fills a dif­fer­ent role than what the designer intended.

Con­sumers, users, and all the other vague con­trivances we use to seg­ment and reduce humans to data point based ghosts can help inform our deci­sions and direct the result of design toward our intended pur­pose. How­ever, because our designs are cre­ated for oth­ers to use and con­sume, at some point we have to ask our­selves whether we should be design­ing for oth­ers or if we should relin­quish con­trol and allow our users to have a go at the whole thing. After all, who knows bet­ter what they need than the user himself?

It’s a tough ques­tion to ask as design­ers. Most of us have invested years of our lives and thou­sands of dol­lars on edu­cat­ing our­selves about the finer points of design and how best to apply that knowl­edge. Ced­ing con­trol to a neb­u­lous user is tan­ta­mount to throw­ing all of that down the drain. I mean, why bother if any­one can do it. What makes us spe­cial or any bet­ter than the aver­age Joe? For that mat­ter, who gave us the author­ity to con­trol how the rest of the world com­mu­ni­cates? Let anar­chy rule the day!

On the other hand, we are design­ing with human inter­ac­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion as the goal. Whether that’s a web­site, app on your phone, a busi­ness card, advert or any­thing else, design is inti­mately tied to peo­ple. Design­ers are highly trained and skilled in under­stand­ing human inter­ac­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion so why should our work be treated any dif­fer­ently from that of a Doc­tor or Archi­tect? Each of those fields require spe­cial­ized knowl­edge and skills that your aver­age indi­vid­ual won’t have and I’d wager that it would be cause for great con­cern if any of these fields ceded con­trol to the masses.

We live in a time when design and design think­ing are now main­stream. All of this atten­tion lends itself to a hyper­sen­si­tiv­ity toward the design process and ven­er­a­tion of almost any design arti­fact. Tech­nol­ogy has given the masses unusual access and capa­bil­ity to con­trol the visual appear­ance of their com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But capa­bil­ity is not the same as skill. With­out con­text, knowl­edge or delib­er­ate pur­pose, there can be noth­ing more than the veneer of design; win­dow dress­ing if you will.

While it may be tempt­ing to accept the idea that our users know their needs best and are best qual­i­fied to design for these needs, I don’t believe that it holds true. The knowl­edge of typog­ra­phy, aes­thet­ics, his­tory, and con­text all cre­ate a frame­work that makes design­ers uniquely qual­i­fied to direct the design process. How­ever a frame­work alone is not enough. Per­haps the answer is to take a step back from our data points, come down from our glass tow­ers, and talk to real peo­ple. We might be sur­prised at what we learn.

Aaron Dickey
Author: Aaron Dickey

I’m a graphic designer from Greenville, South Car­olina. When I’m not work­ing, you can usu­ally find me read­ing about design, study­ing type, or paint­ing tiny war gam­ing minia­tures in my spare time. I try to keep up with this blog to record my thoughts on design, typog­ra­phy, or pro­vide tuto­ri­als for paint­ing miniatures.