Designer Monoculture

I’ve been thinking about design and identity lately. Previously, I wrote:

I don’t know why I’ve been resisting the term “designer.” Perhaps because it’s a word that’s simultaneously too broad and too limiting. Perhaps it’s because so many designers use it to describe who they are, not just what they do, as if it were the core part of their identity. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve been chafing under the design monoculture (no, Medium article, your vaguely-different design process won’t solve world hunger).

Earlier this week, Uber unveiled its brand redesign. The responses across the design web — Twitter, Medium, Designer News — were utterly predictable. There were posts decrying the redesign. There were posts decrying the posts decrying the redesign. There were posts about how little the poster cared, but obviously not, since they’d taken the time to post.

The design world as a whole can have a holier-than-thou vibe sometimes. There’s this sense that, if someone doesn’t understand why kerning is important or uses the wrong font or something, it’s not just that they don’t know much about design — it’s that they’re actually an idiot. I think we all know that such a view is overwrought and counterproductive. And yet it, in some corners of the industry, this attitude persists anyway.

I write this out of love. I am profoundly thankful to have fallen into an industry with such an amazing group of brilliant, caring, generous people. People who are willing to make themselves accessible to anyone who reaches out to them. Who are willing to share their hard-earned knowledge in the hopes that the up-and-coming generation of designers will have an easier time.

For such a brilliant and creative group of people, we can be exceedingly homogeneous. Diversity should be one of our greatest strengths — and that’s not just a platitude. We design things for humans, and humans come from all kinds of background and experience — cultural, ethnic, economic, philosophical, religious. And yet we ourselves keep gravitating towards the same limited set of aesthetics and ideas.

I feel like I keep hearing the same design podcasts over and over. I keep seeing photos styled to hipster-perfection, with moody lighting and interfaces sketched in a well-worn Moleskine and a coffee cup placed just-so. I keep seeing conference videos that start with that one Tycho song (or was it M83?)

And yet, I’m not concerned about everyone wearing that one startup shirt or listening to the same music. I’m concerned about everyone coalescing around the same design philosophies, many of them superficial and lazily-considered. So many of us have formed opinions based only on the opinions of our peers, without delving into the deeper and richer resources available to us. It’s like we’re waiting in the foyer even though the doors to the library are unlocked.

There are exceptions. I’m consistently inspired by Frank Chimero’s writing. I fist-pumped my way through Wilson Miner’s When We Build talk. Debbie Millman, John Maeda, Khoi Vinh… there are plenty of great and vocal designers whose writing doesn’t sound like the echo-chambery thinkpieces we find on Medium or the listicles spamming Designer News.

The kind of design we do is young, but it’s part of an intellectual tradition that goes back for millennia. The philosophy of aesthetics is nothing new. Media theory has a body of literature extending from Plato to McLuhan. And the ideas we draw from don’t have to be limited to our own lane — the best work often happens at the intersection of seemingly unrelated fields.

How do we break out of our homogeneity as an industry? Embrace our diversity of backgrounds and beliefs. Read more — especially things that have nothing to do with our work. Listen to people. Think about unrelated topics and form opinions. Look for opportunities to cross-pollinate disparate subjects. Don’t shoot down your first and weirdest ideas. Take a break from Medium and pick up a classic that you’ve never read. Pick a day and only write positive comments on Designer News. Find inspiration by going outside. Don’t emulate your idols — make a choice to be comfortable in your own skin.

The design world is an amazing place filled with amazing people. It would be a shame to narrow ourselves to the usual behaviors that cliquishness fosters. It’s a big tent with room for as many ideas as there are people. Let’s embrace it.

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