Thinking Critically About Design and Design Criticism

Insights from Khoi Vinh’s Interaction18 session on the state of design discourse.

Designers are at a tipping point in their relationship with the digital realm. The lack of thoughtful criticism of the work designers do is limiting the profession on many levels. We caught up with Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe, at Interaction18 to capture his thoughts about the state of design discourse.

Type “tech backlash” into Google and you’ll see no shortage of recent headlines that express mistrust in big online products.

A commonality across these headlines is that they all frame the underlying problem through the lens of technology. More specifically, they peg business leaders and engineering teams as ‘responsible’ for the issues with the products discussed.

A New York Times article about the downsides of Facebook was titled, “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” The headline frames the drawbacks of the network as a bug as if the problem stems from an error in the code that was written, and not a problem with the other aspects of the product or experience.

“On the surface, the basis for these stories are ‘tech problems,’ but as designers, we know better. We know that at least half of the issues discussed stem from design,” said Vinh.

Design’s Critical Discourse is in a Poor State

Type “design backlash” into Google and you won’t get any mention of these issues. Instead, you’ll get a bunch of random links that don’t reflect the notion that there’s any backlash on design or the role it has played in the issues attributed to ‘tech.’

This says a lot about how the world views design’s contributions to the internet and digital sphere. When things go wrong, the media turns to engineers and business leaders for answers and responsibility, as if there is an inherent belief that design doesn’t have anything to do with it or have anything to say in this arena.

“I’m an optimist. I believe that a lot of the issues we’re reading about will be resolved, and I think designers will play an important role in reconfiguring our relationship with the digital world. I bring these issues up to highlight the kind of discourse that we have around these problems. I’m concerned with the role designers will play in conversations about tomorrow’s problems.”

Emerging innovations like artificial intelligence, blockchain, big data, and more are coming to the forefront. What happens when those reach the critical mass that mobile technology and social networking have reached? What happens when society confronts the unintended consequences of these innovations? What role will designers have in those discussions?

“The root cause of design’s poor state of critical discourse stems from our inability to give proper context about the work that we do, and its ramifications,” said Vinh.

Unless designers are able to level up the way they talk and think about their work, history will repeat itself. Arising issues will continue to be viewed as technology problems, not design problems.

The Design Profession is Focused on Execution

Execution is central to current design discourse. Designers love to delve into the details of the things they build, and they seem to have a general apathy and disinterest in ideas.

More energy is going toward figuring out whether one should implement a hamburger menu than there is in asking tough questions about whether something is going to meaningfully contribute to public welfare.

“We’re very comfortable with discussions that are biased towards does it work? We’re much less comfortable with conversations about is it good?” said Vinh.

Whether design work is good is not an easy question to answer, which is in part why it’s important. Designers seem averse to a qualitative discussion that risks labeling them as ‘the ones who simply make things pretty.’

“But if we continue to think exclusively about ‘How well did it work? Did it produced certain quantifiable results?’ we’re ultimately going to limit ourselves,” said Vinh.

“If you’re wondering why we don’t ask ‘is it good?’ often enough, you should look to who participates in design discourse – who writes, gets up on stage, and talks about design ideas. It’s people like myself who are paid to be designers that are almost exclusively the ones talking about design.”

Practicing and Writing About the Same Art Form is a Conflict of Interest

While designers writing for designers is essentially good, as it shows that the community really wants to help push the craft forward, it’s not good enough.

“We need a class of knowledgeable professionals whose job it is to think critically about design, the context of what it means, and whether it’s good or not,” said Vinh. “It may sound unrealistic because we’re not accustomed to that in our industry, but this exists in other serious art forms.”

Vinh cited several examples of independent critics including:

One thing that’s important to note about the above examples neither were practicing professionals in the field they were critiquing. If they were, their audience wouldn’t take them or the art form they represented seriously.

There is currently no class of independent writers critiquing design. You have people for whom writing about design is a contribution, but it’s also inherently a conflict of interest.

“We all must consider our clients, customers, and other designers when talking about our field. Because it’s such a small community, we can never be truly free to say the things that are important,” said Vinh.

Independence is Essential for Worthwhile Criticism

Design criticism is important because the design industry asked for it to be.

“We’ve asked for the close examination of our work to be important by making you the passionate argument over the past 20 years that we deserve a seat at the table,” said Vinh.

If you have the power to make decisions, then you should have the responsibility when those decisions turn out in unexpected ways. Responsibility means accountability. Designers should be quick to take credit for success, and not conspicuously quiet when things fail.

Failure is Not Bad, Design Makes It Good

Failure is not bad, but the profession tends to treat it like it is unknowingly. By failing to examine failure, designers reinforce the misinterpretation or the mischaracterization that design is superficial.

When a design solution works, its labeled as good, but if a design solution doesn’t work it’s assumed to be bad.

“We’ve worked so hard to get beyond the idea that design simply makes things pretty, to the point where we’re able to say design makes it work,” said Vinh.

“We need to take things one step further to get to a place where we can say design makes it good, which means it’s pretty, it works, and it’s good for the users, the community, and the world.”

Design has waged a multi-decade campaign for greater credibility. To get to the next stage, design as a craft – and designers as professionals – need to embrace rigor and accountability.

“We want to be a central participant in the debates around new innovations, we don’t want design to be disregarded as being a part of the solution,” said Vinh.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely the design industry will get an independent paid critic, as great as that would be. For now, if you consume design content, you’re on your own to figure out what is motivating the publisher/writer/speaker of what you’re consuming. You must understand their credentials and what their agendas and biases might be.

Criticism Isn’t Just for Haters, It’s for Optimists Too

Some people think that the best way to contribute is to simply do good work and push the craft forward that way. This is likely because many people seem to think that criticism is about enjoying other people’s failures.

“I believe thoughtful writing and criticism are inherently optimistic because critics imagine a better world and they help us figure out how to get there,” said Vinh.

You can find Khoi Vinh on Twitter @khoi.