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Designers: 2017 Is The Year To Find Your Purpose

Everyone has to make a living, but designers can make a difference. 2017 is the year to do that.

Designers: 2017 Is The Year To Find Your Purpose
[Photo: iDriss Fettoul via Unsplash]

We all agree that 2016 was the worst. Everybody cool died, everybody horrible was elected, and our polar ice caps have probably reached their irreversible melting point.

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The world is literally ending. And yet, on the deck of this global Titanic, when we should all be MacGyvering lifeboats from the closest buoyant candelabras, I’m getting pitches for app-controlled light bulbs and smart ovens that can barely cook a piece of salmon. We’re all culpable for making a bad situation worse. But a whole lot of designers had to work to make these products happen. And that’s a whole lot too many.

You’ve redesigned the app. Checkout is more intuitive now. You’ve got the hottest Kickstarter. People wanted a boombox in their cooler all along! You’ve crammed a tiny sofa bed into a tiny room. You’ve shrunk a human-sized apartment down to 350 square feet and suckered an upper-middle-class bachelor to move in.

But the truth is, the world in which any of us give a shit about how thin the new iPhone is is over. It’s now time to stop pulling the low-hanging fruit while your stock options vest–from introducing the mainstream consumer to Bauhaus sensibilities to remaking the internet with proper kerning to convincing us that clicking a heart button is really worth anything at all. It’s not that small solutions can’t have big impacts; it’s that some small solutions are just small solutions. And we all need to get to work solving big problems again.

There’s a lot of distraction, and that distraction is born from a designer’s ability to hyperfocus–even lovingly obsess–on the most trivial of details. Companies like Apple have paved the way and turned this design tendency into a highly profitable religion. Look, all the crap I use and buy is pretty much fine now. So even if you design things for the consumer market, you need to stop stroking your chins over the same old Post-It notes and look to what your profession is capable of next.

As designer Richard Pope put it recently, “If you work in software or design in 2016, you also work in politics.” No one works in a vacuum anymore. We live in a world where a few big problems—ranging from mass income disparity to normalized bigotry to unstoppable misinformation—are so multifaceted that no single project can take them on. Like much of the public, many designers ignored these issues for a long time. And in the worst cases, they enabled such behaviors across digital platforms that connect the world in milliseconds, messing things up at a magnitude our forefathers could only have dreamed of. Be more mindful about how your work interrelates to the greatest problems in the world today.

Products need to be more than intuitive, more than convenient, more than beautiful. We need informed, emotionally cognizant design—a corrective for the anger-filled post-truth era.

Take the Atlas of Emotions, developed by the data visualization company Stamen, the psychologist Paul Ekman, and the Dalai Lama earlier this year. It’s a fuzzy lithograph of how designers should be thinking in this new place. Half science and half art, the visualization is intended to help people identify and deconstruct the impossibly complex interplay of emotions that all humans feel. I’m not under the illusion that anyone you’d want to use these graphs would actually use them—white nationalists aren’t going to question how anxiety, desperation, and terror are all intertwined when exploring personal prejudice—but at least Stamen took its best shot at articulating something terribly important: the foundational emotions that build the human condition itself. It took a real professional risk, too, attempting to graph feelings for which there are no simple qualitative numbers.

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Or look at Scrip, an intricate copper wallet by NewDealDesign. It’s just a concept that would be ironically expensive if it was ever actually produced. But its entire purpose for existing was as a thought provocation about how the ease of digital transactions can hurt consumers, and how design could be tailored to sting our psyche as much as spending cash money—if only credit card companies cared about our budgets as much as we do. (Yet as it turns out, the design may have had real impact. Several financial institutions have since been in touch with the studio.)

Or even the work companies like Disney have frankly done for ages now to literally design happiness into its parks. The company recognizes that happiness and security run hand in hand, and it places cues like water fountains to appeal to the deepest parts of your lizard brain, so as you hunt for Mickey Mouse on a muggy Florida day, your subconscious reinforces that you’ll be okay. Is it just a pipe dream to think that, with the proper intent and focus, we might be able to build similar emotional responses into everything from our public streets to our Twitter feeds?

I’m not saying that designing empathy will magically solve everything, but there are worse places to start. When designers train users to be driven by dopamine–to respond to likes, shares, and push notifications like a bunch of lab rats paying T-Mobile $80/month for the privilege–they create bad products that leverage our worst human traits: fear, hate, envy, and disgust.

At Facebook, fear of looking biased curtailed efforts to stop bad design that made it easy to share false information in the lead-up to the election. I get it; I’m in the media myself. But the problem is, when you put your head down and do the work without asking yourself the hard question of your own social impact, you do exactly what some of my peers in the media have done: You position climate change as a debate. Or Trump supporters as a joke. Or–in so many cases–athletes and actors as people we should admire, despite the deplorable things they do when the cameras are off.

When societal impact isn’t part of the discussion during the design process, fanatical alt-right typefaces get rendered with the steadied stoicism of the New York Times. Our search results prioritize quack healing sites as high as WebMD. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the only person responsible for problems like fake news. It’s hundreds to thousands of talented people across the industry–including designers, engineers, product managers, and more–working in tacit concert without asking, “Should we be doing this?”

Everyone has to make a living, but designers can make a difference. For starters, stop lending your talents to business plans that are ignorant or just plain unethical. Whether it’s building idiotic smart products, or creating platforms that promote dangerous misinformation, stop following the general’s orders. In 2017, pointless products are as scary as nefarious ones. They’re all—in the words of Mickey Goldmill—a waste of life. Please, solve real problems, and solve new problems. Don’t be a cog in someone else’s bad solution to a dumb problem.

Think about everything you do in relation to the larger world–from the impact on someone’s mental state to interrelated social issues. If it’s making a negative impact, protest, refuse, or simply stop until someone gives you a stake in the decision. If it’s neutral or irrelevant, pay your bills as you must, but consider where else you might help—even if it means picking up pro bono work. Because the world has a lot more problems than it does designers.

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And if you’re worried that there won’t be an audience for your new work, that people won’t care as much about thwarting bigotry, or providing clean water, or fixing voting, or redistributing wealth, or democratizing education, or building livable housing, or preparing our cities for impending ecological doom as, say, they might laud some new app, I can promise otherwise. We’re ready and waiting to write about the amazing things you do next.

Now go get to work. There’s no way we can let 2017 be the sad-sack year that 2016 was.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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