If You Can’t Help People, Then It Doesn’t Matter Whether You’re a Designer

Note: This is Part 14 of the Ruminations for Aspiring Designers series.

Design is, by definition, a service relationship. All design activities are animated through dynamic relationships between those being served… and those in service, including the designers. Design ideally is about service on behalf of the other — not merely about changing someone’s behaviour for their own good or convincing them to buy products and services.

Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman, The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World, Second Edition. MIT Press. 2014.

As a professional in any career, it’s probably better to have a mindset that focuses more on what you can offer the world than on what the world can offer you.

As a designer, however, that is an absolute imperative.

Art isn’t utilitarian, and if it is, perhaps it isn’t art.

Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School

In exactly the same sense–

Design is utilitarian, and if it isn’t, perhaps it isn’t design.

Being a designer is all about servitude.

You design for a project, a product, a service, an organization and/or a good cause. Who knows, sometimes you even design for a bad cause.

You always design for something or someone. Even for yourself.

Whether you’re getting paid or not, many design works come in the form of helping. That’s because the designer is almost never at the centre of anything.

Even when you’re a celebrity architect or worldly prestigious star designer, you’re still designing for a client most of the times. Your client is always that centre, not you.

More often than not, a designer is there to help others succeed.

Framing your design work as help is especially helpful when what you can offer the world exceeds what the world (or your employer or client) asks of you. Fortunately or unfortunately – depending on how you see it – that’s often the case in any career.

Nowadays, some designers working on digital things tend to complain about how they’re limited by their organization, their employer, their manager or their client, or how their design is constrained in unfavourable ways. The pain is real, but sometimes that attitude is dead wrong.

We can define what we do, but what we do should never define us.

Simon Sinek

Likewise, what you’re merely asked to do should never define what you do – or yourself.

Understanding the power in our labor and how we choose to use it defines the type of people we are. As the great Victor Papanek once said, “You are responsible for what you put into the world. And you are responsible for the effects those things have upon the world.”

Monteiro, Mike. Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It (pp. 11-12). Mule Books. Kindle Edition.

As a designer, it’s your imperative to go out of way to help others. Maybe especially when others can’t help themselves.

Imagine a kid, his parent and a candy seller.

The kid loves and wants candies all the time.

The parent takes care of the kid.

The candy seller wants to sell candies to the kid (directly or through his parent).

A kid is the ultimate explorer. They will not listen to their parents all the time. They will disobey at times, they will behave badly at times, they will have their own ideas at times. After all, they’re not robot. They may not fully realize candies’ negative impact to their teeth or health. They want to eat candies whenever, wherever and however they want.

A parent assumes a guardian and caretaker role. They will not allow their kid to eat candies whenever, wherever and however they want. There are limits to eating candies for the benefit of their kid.

A candy seller makes profit and creates economic and other values by selling candies. They want kids to buy them, whenever, wherever and however they want.

I bet you can find “kids,” “parents” and “candy sellers” inside and outside almost any organization.

The question is: as a designer, what are your roles?

Are you the kid who wants to have their way all the time?

Are you the parent who helps through caretaking?

Are you the candy seller who makes irresistible offers?

Maybe all three at different times or even at the same time. But the ethical bottom line requires a designer to be a parent first and foremost.

It begs to repeat:

You are responsible for what you put into the world. And you are responsible for the effects those things have upon the world.

Victor Papanek

As a designer in a caretaker role, you help. Help your colleagues, your managers and executives, your organizations and your planet.

Sometimes, it’s a heavy thought about aspirations and ethics.

Other times, you just need a manifesto.

How can your design help?

How can you help?

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