From being sexy to being the change
“Designers are some of the most self-important people on the planet.” I will confess to not remembering where I read that—probably in the comments after watching a video of Stefan Sagmeister. But it’s stuck with me. Because it’s true.
You’ve been guilty of it, I’ve been guilty of it, and pretty damn well near every designer, ever, has been guilty of it at some point. Even the nice ones. Even the ones who aren’t outwardly cocky. Designers, as a collective, are a self-important and judgmental bunch.
Gone are the days when we were all clamoring to sell our souls in the hopes of getting them back one day, don our evil goatees (I’m holding a goatee cutout on a popsicle stick in front of my face), and sell the shit out of every equally soulless product and company to the unwitting with witty creative content. You could make a lot of money that way. But advertising today isn’t the fast track to riches that it once was.
Now it’s all about design for social change, a much better use for design.
But here’s the thing. Social change requires a deeper effort than a mere polish with some design. I’ve written about this before because I think that showing how powerful and worthwhile design can be is one of the most important things in the world. But not as a polish. Not just as a beautifier. Including design and all it’s applications in any endeavor with the right amount of depth requires all designers to be accessible and to take a step outside themselves to view the world through another’s shoes. This is the only way to make something that is all at once desirable, helpful and useful for others.
But how can we do that when we’re busy being self-important and judgmental?
I wrote to a well-known entrepreneurial designer in the New York scene a few years ago, mentioned a time when we’d connected previously at an event, and invited her for coffee. Her assistant responded to my invitation with a link to a Meetup group I could join if I was interested in meeting and connecting with other designers. I had to pinch myself because I wasn’t sure if I’d accidentally emailed Beyoncé’s PR agency.
Connections are the lifeblood of finding others to work with and be inspired by. But attempting to make connections is no good if one end views themselves as in any way too “famous” to meet anyone who is not equally as “famous”. By behaving in this way, we’ve already shot ourselves in the foot. I don’t care if you party in secret Bushwick warehouses and write your own blog, if you work for a Pentagram partner, or even if you’ve started a tiny business. You are not too good to connect with other talented designers, and you are not “famous” enough to be so choosy about who you spend your time with. Do we think we're too sexy for everything?
I remembered this again when I visited Pentagram’s office in New York not long ago. Here I had a very pleasant experience. The partners were kind, happy to offer advice, and came across as entirely accessible—the caliber of designer I’d truly expected less acknowledgement from, yet here they were, happy to share.
If young designers are serious about wanting to make a change in the world, oftentimes the first place to start is with oneself. Now is the time to stop counting industry awards for a few minutes, put snobbery and judgmental attitudes behind us and take some time to really connect with others. In communities. In classrooms. Even on the street. Now is the time to start to genuinely experience the world through another’s eyes. Now is the time to understand what moves people, what excites people, what bothers people, or what scares them, what their needs are and what troubles them most in their world—not for our own gain, but because we truly want to connect and help. It is only through this kind of experience and understanding that one can solve problems and make a positive change in the wider world.