Who hurt you, John Maeda?

27 March 2019  •  Filed under ,

Design personality John Maeda made waves recently in an except from his Design in Tech Report 2019. There’s a lot to unpack, but a couple themes rose to the top for me.

Influence as Leadership

“The role of design is to not aspire to be a leading actor — it’s goal should always be to become a great supporting actor. Imagine a movie or TV show without any supporting actors. It wouldn’t be a particularly interesting piece of entertainment. Yes?

So indeed I don’t believe in ‘design led’ as the winning paradigm. My primary goal in leading Design at Automattic is to aspire for design to be as awesome a supporting player as Jennifer Connelly or Mahershala Ali. Not bad, huh?”

First of all, “design should be a supporting actor” is a pretty broad brush. Design doesn’t— and probably shouldn’t—lead in every instance, but let’s leave some room for nuance. Sometimes design should absolutely lead. Like all things design, it depends on a lot of factors.

Secondly, “Not bad, huh?” is not the way anyone wants their profession described. There’s a weird “just give up on your dreams” angle to this analogy, and a (probably false) assumption that supporting actors are perfectly content to never have a lead role. As if Jennifer Connelly arrives on set every day with the goal of being ONLY a great supporting actor as opposed to a great actor, and never expects more, desires more, or would elevate a movie if she could be more than that. I know analogies can be easy to pull apart, but this one seems especially brittle.

Perhaps I am far outside the loop on this one, but I have never heard a designer colleague say that they need to be promoted into a position of authority or final decision-making to be a design leader. I always saw the push for design to increase its influence (and perhaps lead, in some cases) was not exclusively about roles or power, but about the value that informed design input can provide. That important “seat at the table” that design has been struggling to get is not about wrestling control or ignoring the contributions of other disciplines, but ensuring that teams are infused with the trove of valuable insights that design has to offer, beyond of the head-patting realm of UI prettiness. Being teammates and leaders are not mutually exclusive roles. Designers can be leaders while being equals.

I don’t think that word means what you think it means

Maeda’s interview in Fast Company gives a closer look at the influences that are shaping his assertion of design as a supporting role:

“I find that any company that wishes to be design-led is going to index high on experience quality. If [the company’s] audience is designers, and people with high standards of quality, then fantastic. But if they do that, maybe they won’t worry about the tech stack, that actually it’s a brittle tech stack and maybe it works 99 times out of 100, he says. If they’re so focused on experience, maybe they’re not going to be asking product questions about is this going to help us break even.

Frankly, that’s just a description of poor design, where the focus is on disproportionately fixed on the veneer of the product. Every designer should care about the materials they are working with (technology) and seek out & synthesize the knowledge held by stakeholders and subject matter experts (business requirements & strategy).

Maeda’s conclusion that design should not lead seems born out of observations of dysfunctional, imbalanced teams and immature design behavior. On the one hand, it’s kind of sad that there are enough design divas out there to perpetuate this stereotype of the uncooperative, selfish, misguided designer. On the other hand, this kind of designer is not normal in my world, so it’s weirdly comforting to recognize that.

But not comforting enough. Who are you, designers who hurt John Maeda?

© Jared Christensen

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