6 Non-Design Sources offer Important Design Lessons

Eric Forest RGD, MDes, Professor at Humber College, presents insights he's received from sources outside the industry that provide valuable lessons for designers


Design with users, not just for users.

Anna Karenina (1878) by Leo Tolstoy
The Story: Anna Karenina is set in a time of rapid transformation and liberal reforms to Russian society. The abolition of serfdom has created a new, technically free peasant class. However, it is a privileged class of lawmakers and public administrators comprised of landowning nobility who is designing the legal framework that will emancipate the serfs into free peasants. In effect, nobles decided what peasants can earn, own and do.
Konstantin Levin, himself a wealthy landowner and local lawmaker, sees the fault in this. Levin enjoys the exhaustion of hard work, and then taking hard earned mid-day naps in the long grass. At one point Levin has an epiphany that people like him know nothing about peasant life, and so even with the best intentions could never create laws that serve them well. He realizes the impossibility of creating for users, without those users.
The Lesson: As a designer I was reminded by Tolstoy here to involve the user in the design. Suppose I am creating a menu, I tend to think that first it must meet the client’s branding requirements. But what about the client’s client, the end user? Is this restaurant low light? Is it multilingual? Does it cater to an audience who needs to know specifics about ingredients? I know that I cannot anticipate those needs without involving those users.

Don't trust one metric to evaluate your work.

Talking to Strangers (2019) by Malcolm Gladwell
The Story: Malcolm Gladwell examines how interactions between strangers spiral out of control into tragedy. In one case he looks at the tragedy of Sandra Bland, whose experience of being arrested after failing to signal a lane change was so traumatizing that she committed suicide in her jail cell. The arresting officer was operating under a policing model that prescribes frequent stops for minor infractions in high crime areas. Police adopted this model because metrics do demonstrate that it causes an absolute reduction in crime. But Gladwell draws our attention to other metrics that had not been considered enough: this model reduces the public’s goodwill towards the police, it reduces community cohesion, and most importantly, it costs lives. Sandra Bland’s suicide represents the long term impacts of those missing metrics.
The Lesson: The stakes are not as high for graphic designers, but we should take away that more complete design assessments emerge from more complete metrics, or at least, greater variety of metrics. When we measure engagement, we need to go beyond “number of impressions” or “number of likes.” When we pick a typeface, we need to think harder than standbys like “a sans serif with a tall x-height is more legible” and try to understand why, in what cases, and for who, it is “more legible.”  Instead of relying on validation, we can borrow from the sciences and try for invalidation. We cannot trust one metric to judge a design choice. We need to find multiple metrics that attempt to encompass the multiple users and uses our designs will inevitably find.

Be honest in your critiques.

Lying (2011) by Sam Harris
The Story: Lying is a long format essay about the personal and societal benefits of a commitment to being truthful and the long term costs of even white lies. His examples range in scope from the impact on citizens' trust in the Bush administration after they lied about WMDs in Iraq to a parent’s critique of their child’s artwork. Harris endorses a commitment to the truth at all levels of society, and I include design in there. He argues that hard truths build trust, and that means we know people mean what they say they mean.
The Lesson: I immediately drew a connection to my role as college instructor. I need to encourage and support student efforts, but I need to do it honestly. If I offered false praise then nobody would benefit; the students would emerge unprepared, the school loses its reputation, employers have to train or dismiss their junior staff and I have failed in my role. 
We also need to be truthful to ourselves about our work. Telling the truth can be a challenge, but it is a challenge that forces us to work out solutions and that is a valuable proposition to the iterative design process. As designers, we benefit from hearing and speaking the truth.

You work with other people.

Working with Bitches (2013) by Meredith Fuller
The Story: Meredith Fuller is a practicing psychologist who “heard so much detailed distress from clients about bitches in their workplaces” that she decided to write a book about it. The author explores objectionable workplace behaviours of all kinds and offers strategies for coping and for understanding. For example, a certain annoying or aggressive behaviour from your cubicle mate might be understood in several, sympathetic ways. She uses real-life scenarios from her clients to illustrate why diverse perspectives often collide, while demonstrating that they rarely need to.
The Lesson: This book demanded that whenever I dare to evaluate others’ behaviour, I do so with caution and humility. Designers are constantly interacting with people and often those interactions feel like an interruption to our flow, bringing more work or unwanted input from non-design people. This book challenged me to evaluate my own behaviour in the workplace; every time someone does something that gets under my skin a little, I try to remind myself, “this is probably normal to them, and I probably bother them when I do *normal* things.” For the record, when I asked my co-workers if I ever do anything that bothers them, I learned that I talk to myself while I work.

Designers are treated as risk.

The Story: The thesis of The Innovation Blind Spot is that the many investment opportunities are overlooked, not because they are bad, but because what makes them good is not in any of the investors' risk-mitigating check boxes. So something like a mining investment can be be risk-appraised, but something like a micro-loan doesn’t fit the risk evaluation model, even if it has potential. Further, bad startups can game the checklist by faking the check boxes.
The Lesson: Designers are evaluated as risk in two ways: when applying for a job and when pitching a client. And client’s risk mitigation practices can also produce irrelevant and obscure checklists.
I used to occupy a design position where the job brief was written by someone in Human Resources, not someone in the design department. Human Resources also provided the design manager with the shortlist of interview candidates. The hiring manager had no say in the top ten or so, out of hundreds. The connection between the brief, the work, the employee and the manager was all obscured. Nobody could really asses the risk because nothing about the ask was obvious or even known.
When a designer negotiates their services, a large part of that negotiation involves demonstrating that our services are low risk. We do this by showcasing our awards, displaying our work for previous big name clients and highlighting trade publications that feature our work. We know these things make clients feel more secure. But if we are gaming what we know to be a bad checklist, are we complicit in a “design by committee, design to brief” exercise and perpetuating something untrue and unhelpful?