We Make Everyone Think They're Designers


Steve, from EightyOne Design, wrote in their graphic design blog:

I am probably right in saying that not many people would tell a mechanic how to fix your car, or lecture an electrician how to re-wire your house, so why does everyone think they can tell a graphic designer how to design? Friends and family all constantly give me creative advice and critique my work, which I don’t mind at all, but sometimes I do have to grind my teeth and say the classic “That’s a great idea, but perhaps not quite right for this project” line.

from “Why does everyone think they are a graphic designer?”

If a mechanic was fixing my car and he goes around tinkering with things inside my car which I think aren’t problematic, I’d probably tell him to stop what he’s doing and fix this specific problem with my car. If my electrician puts up mineral insulated cables in the master’s room, I’d tell him that the only hot thing that would happen there wouldn’t corrode any materials. And if my doctor told me I needed to get a bypass surgery, I would have looked at him like he was nuts—because I know that the only thing I need is aspirin for my headache.

But if my doctor told me something like, “I’m sorry, but it seems that you have hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy,” I wouldn’t go and tell him that, “Nope, I’m sure I don’t have superhuman strength.” I wouldn’t do that, because I probably wouldn’t know what Hereditary Sensory Autonomic Neuropathy is.

What’s the Difference?

In the first three instances, I know that even though I am not a mechanic or an electrician or a doctor, that person I am dealing with is showing me his bone of incompetence with the subject. I may not know everything about fixing cars, wiring houses or treating rare medical conditions, but in that particular instance, I know what the problem is and I know that they’re wrong.

But in that second case with my doctor and my HSAUN, I would just stared at him like he was talking non-sense, because I probably really wouldn’t know what he was talking about. If he told me I’d need an operation, I wouldn’t question it—this is a subject to which he is the competent one and I am in total ignorance of.

It is the same with designers. Everyone thinks that they could throw you suggestions because they think that they also have the competence, just like you.

Are you saying we’re incompetent designers?

No, I’m saying that everyone thinks we all can be designers. Because unlike mechanics, electricians and doctors, most people don’t look at designers like “real professionals.” I mean, you don’t need a degree to become a designer right? Just pick up Photoshop or Illustrator and click shapes and stuff. Easy right?

It is the nature of our work that gives people the idea that anyone could do it. People think that because we create beautiful stuff, that because we work with colors and shapes and texts, that it’s the only thing we do. And because we work with aesthetics and because everyone has their own idea of what they think is beautiful and what is not, they think that everyone could really be a designer.

What people don’t understand is that we’re not creating art. We’re not creating beautiful things. We’re conveying meaning, we’re delivering messages. But because they can’t see this underlying work that happens only in our heads and through the mastery of our tools, they think that pushing pixels is everything that is in our jobs.

We’re Fueling Their Illusions

The real problem is that we, as designers, don’t tell people otherwise. Like Steve, most of us result to the smiling routine. And we are too chicken to prove that they’re wrong.

“That’s a great idea, but perhaps not quite right for this project.” Do you know what this line does? It gives people hope. You’re telling them that they’re good, that they know something about design and that they could be designers themselves. You’re fueling this illusion in their heads and they think that they could actually do that thing you do.

If you interrupt your mechanic in the middle of his work and tell him that he’s doing it wrong, he’ll probably snarl at you. If you barge in in the middle of a brain surgery and tell the neurosurgeon that you think it’s better if he make the incision here rather than at the other side, he’ll probably stick a scalpel into your eyes. Who the fuck do you think you are to tell them what to do? And why the fuck can’t we, as designers, do the same thing?

What if we say something like, “Shut up, Mom! Go back to the casserole. This is a real designer’s job!” instead of the goodie-two-shoes line above? Aside from probably getting a bump on your forehead courtesy of mom’s pan, you’ve effectively shot their dreams and their illusions of being a designer. You’ve done what is right—you’ve drawn the line between you as the real designer and all the other wannabes out there.

A Designer’s Exercise.

Of course, not many could be as harsh or as mean as the example above. That’s where this designer exerise comes into play.

The next time a wannabe designer friend or family members gives you unsolicited advice, do something like this:

With this exercise, you did two things: first is that you’ve established that your wannabe is wrong and that you, as the real designer, is the one competent enough to see the problem and the possible solution to it. Second and most importantly, you’ve shown your wannabe that there’s a reason for doing this particular thing instead of the other and it’s not all about creating a nice things but solving real problems and conveying real messages.

And you know what’s even better? You’re actually helping your wannabe. If the wannabe becomes stumped from what he learns, he’ll probably stop giving you unsolicited design advice. But if he figures that design is not only about art but also involves creative problem solving, then he’s on his way to becoming a real graphic designer. And it’s all your fault.

So the next time you’re given unsolicited advice by someone who doesn’t have an inkling to what you’re really doing, do the right thing—be a little more mean and show them who the real designer is.