If you’re a designer and you want to design meaningful experiences, you want to take part in things that are important for you, you want to have a positive impact in the environment, in your society, for the people or causes that you care, if any of these resonate with you, and you still have to make a living from design, working for industries that don’t make a positive impact to the society, and you feel at unease with that, then this article might spark some thoughts on you.
As designers we often have to base our work in assumptions which will be later confirmed. I’ll start this article with these three assumptions about the readers:
- that you’re all good people, with ethical and moral values, seeking to contribute to justice and a more equal society;
- that you’re all aware of the environmental challenges that the world in which we live is facing, and that we respect the plants and animals with which we share life in this planet;
- that you are all design practitioners because you all want to make a positive impact on the society, on the environment, on our planet.
Over 15 years in the field of design I’ve talked to lots of people (those who know me know that I like to “talk to people”, and above all to “ask them lots of questions”). I’ve learned that we are a lot of people in design sharing these motivation. We are in this profession, with all its downsides, because “we want to change something, we want to solve problems, we want to improve the experience for those who are going to use our design”.
We are in this profession, with all its downsides, because “we want to change something, we want to solve problems, we want to improve the experience for those who are going to use our design”.
However, as much passion I’ve heard in many conversations, I’ve also felt a lot of frustration, mainly due to the lack of purpose at work.
What happens when you have to work for an industry that is not at the top of your esteem?
What happens when you want to make a living of your profession, but the greatest part of the demand when you’re looking for a job or clients is coming from industries or companies that are fostering careless consumption, contributing to gender inequality, or even greenwashing?
What happens when most of the open positions are coming from companies funded by a system that’s continuously fostering the planetary depletion and societal deprecation? Or simply that they’re not doing anything meaningful, or all they could do, to make the impact you’d like?
Well, I guess (assumption alert!), that we all do this to earn money, and some times we cannot always reject a job or a project because we are not making the impact that we’d like. So, what happens when this is the case? How do we feel when we are working for an industry that doesn’t necessarily make the lives of most of the people better or fairer?
How do we feel when we are working for an industry that doesn’t necessarily make the lives of most of the people better or fairer?
Do we feel guilt? Do we loose the joy for designing, hence for our job, that’s what we usually do most of the time that we’re awake in our adult life? Do we quit our jobs and try to find something more meaningful for us, knowing that in any case there will be another designer coming after us that we’ll do the job in our place (and enjoy the salary they’ll get for that?)?
This is a question that’s been in my mind for quite a lot of time. It was only recently that I’ve discovered that I had already found the answer.
Here’s a list of things I’ve done in my career, when I couldn’t find the purpose of my job in the products I was designing:
- Empowered my colleagues (especially if they’re women or part of a minority). Created a fairer working environment, giving visibility to their skills and high quality work and helping them to be recognised as they deserved, and not to dwell in the shadows of their senior colleagues.
- Empathised with my team members. I tried to understand them, by knowing their personal lives, their interests, learning about their context, their worries, what challenges do they face everyday when they come to work… Especially during globalised times, where most of my team was working in underdeveloped countries, or in regions threatened by natural disasters, or in a society where women and minorities are strongly oppressed.
- Practiced communication skills with different stakeholders. Because of my role I had to talk to many different stakeholders, many of whom I wasn’t aligned with in terms of values. At the beginning the idea of creating design solutions to make their lives easier wasn’t very tempting for me. Rather the opposite. But I took it as a chance to practice communication skills to persuade them, to learn “how to talk to them”, how to manage to be heard by people that might undervalue me and my colleagues, or just think that my voice is not worth to be heard. Improving my communication skills gave me the chance to handle difficult conversations in a more efficient way, managing to make my message go through, regarding more meaningful matters.
- Brought up topics that mattered for me to discuss with stakeholders. For example, gender identity. I helped to spread the voice to create awareness and understanding. Working in a traditional industry many times the gender identity was overlooked in forms and other places, mainly because of lack of knowledge. That time it didn’t change anything in the final product, but it was the first time that many of the stakeholders heard about it. It was an opportunity to learn and create awareness.
- Mentored junior designers. Career growth gets a lot of attention among ambitious designers. I made sure to always have time to offer feedback and mentoring sessions, putting the focus on the designer’s interest, even if sometimes it was opposed to benefits of the team or company.
- Fostered diversity when recruiting. For many years I’ve been a team lead and had the opportunity to recruit new joiners for several teams. When recruiting I put special attention to give an opportunity to minorities and to give a chance to candidates whose documents weren’t the standard case for an HR dossier (specially nationality, which is a huge barrier to work in Europe). Once we had a candidate fleeing from a country under a armed conflict.While debriefing after the interview with my peers, some doubted about the candidate’s availability due to having to deal with family burdens created by the war. It was a clear case where the human side of the candidate, being vulnerable because of a war conflict, searching for a job with way far less privileges that the local people, was let apart. I’m happy to have pushed for giving the candidate a chance. At the same time awareness of unconscious discrimination was brought up to the team.
- Shared my experience and encourage others to do so. During my MBA I attended classes about communication. It is a crucial skill when managing people and leading a team, but often times it’s given for granted or undervalued. But I found that sharing my experience about it and sharing resources from where to learn more was empowering colleagues to better handle difficult situations. That’s how I contributed to form a Women’s Group to share experiences about bullying and mobbing, moderating the discussion with certain structure and feedback giving methodology to make the most out of our meetings. The goal was to share challenging situations of unfairness at work, to seek for feedback or advice on what to do next.
- Reflected on my values and my actions. Finally, a practice that became a routine for a me, to reflect on my own actions and the impact they make. Sounds like a no-brainer, but there’s a huge difference between doing it and doing it consciously.
I know that these are only small actions and might have a relatively small impact, compared to other radical actions against unethical industries. And the feeling of not doing enough is always there. However, I see it as a positive sign. A sign showing that I’m not sunk in conformity. That feeling of discomfort it’s my engine to keep trying to do good. These small actions are my bit.
That feeling of discomfort it’s my engine to keep trying to do good. These small actions are my bit.