Design Writing and the Self-Aware Industry

Almost every digital designer I can think of has produced an impressive amount of writing about their craft. Between personal blogs and publications such as A List Apart (and The Industry, for that matter), it seems like most designers have done at least some writing about their profession.

Perhaps I only know designers who are also writers. After all, publishing builds notoriety, so it’s likely we’re all aware of a disproportionate number of writer-designers. I suspect the answer isn’t so simple, though.

We designers are natural observers. We make a living exploring and analyzing the hidden patterns in the world around us — in our environments, tools, artifacts, and behaviors. The resulting knowledge shapes and informs our work.

That same trait makes one a natural author. We feel compelled to document our findings, often in writing as well as in our work. Broadcasting what we’ve learned comes with the territory; our natural inquisitiveness is complemented by a compulsion to share our findings with our peers.

Of course we’re not the only field that produces a massive body of literature. But consider how young our industry is, and how much writing we output — just glance at Designer News for proof. The field of digital design is uncommonly self-aware.

This self-awareness presents both opportunities and difficulties for our burgeoning field. On one hand, it fosters cooperation among designers, allowing us to learn from one another and avoid making repeat mistakes. By helping each other along, we can do better work collectively than we can in isolation. On the other hand, by creating an environment that often encourages iteration rather than innovation, we tend to fixate on the particular aesthetic du jour (skeumorphism, flat design, etc.) rather than carving a unique path dictated only by project requirements.

Our industry-wide introspection enables our field to move faster than it would otherwise. Since we don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time we start a new project, we can spend our time on the things that matter, outsourcing our understanding of common tasks to our peers. Most social networks have some sort of news feed — is that because every designer considered the problem from scratch and arrived at the same conclusion? Or because they all use each other’s products and can pull from the palette of proven design patterns?

I love working in a field where we value each other’s opinions, share knowledge even when there’s little benefit to ourselves, and share a collaborative spirit across competitive divisions. Design writing has become one of the core features of our industry, to the benefit of all of us. Keep writing, and keep sharing.

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