What do designers look like to “normal” people, and how does it affect their work’s impact?
I read David Graeber’s recent piece The Center Blows Itself Up: Care and Spite in the ‘Brexit Election’,which was not about design thinking. It, nevertheless, brought my thinking around to “approaches to design”, and to the way we communicate about design.
The part of the piece that shot a flare up for me was when he began to discuss the values of the professional/administrative/bureaucratic class of workers vs. that of the “caring classes” (people engaged in service/care work):
Whereas the core value of the caring classes is, precisely, care, the core value of the professional-managerials might best be described as proceduralism. The rules and regulations, flow charts, quality reviews, audits and PowerPoints that form the main substance of their working life inevitably color their view of politics or even morality.
At its best, human-centred design practice is a disruptive force in otherwise bureaucratic, hierarchical organisations.
It’s very easy to see it as just another brand of corporate hogwash, though. More flow charts (now “experience maps”), more PowerPoints (still PowerPoints) and another set of rules and regulations, albeit “creative” ones. A different toolkit wielded by the same expensive consultants.
The result of a “design sprint” is just as likely to be a slightly rejigged script for the call centre as it is to be an “out-of-the-box”, “innovative” new approach to the work or the product.
Have you encountered human-centred design before?
What is it again?
[EXPLAINS the typical practices of a designer]
Ohhh yeah. One came into my office. I’d been telling my boss we needed to do [specific things that would improve the work environment and outcomes] and then this consultant chick shows up and wants to sit down with me and “understand” how I do my work, like, watching me and asking questions. It was fucking annoying.
And did she just tell your boss exactly what you’d been saying they should do?
Yeah, of course. But she got paid much better than me.
Hey, you work in [team name] at [organisation], right?
Have you dealt with [the human-centred design team there]?
Oh? Ha ha. Yeah.
They came up with a plan to completely change the way [your team] works, didn’t they?
Yep. They had a “future vision” where we [look completely different and do completely different things]. It was idiotic. We told them so.
Is it gonna happen?
Oh, hell no.
Says Graeber about the professional/managerial classes:
For most care-givers… these people are the enemy. If you are a nurse, for example, you are keenly aware that it’s the administrators upstairs who are your real, immediate class antagonist. The professional-managerials are the ones who are not only soaking up all the money for their inflated salaries, but hire useless flunkies who then justify their existence by creating endless reams of administrative paperwork whose primary effect is to make it more difficult to actually provide care.
It’s these professional-managerials, these much-fetishised “senior stakeholders” who are the ones hiring design teams and consultants like me. They’re the ones we need to impress with PowerPoints.
On-the-tools, on-the-ground workers aren’t often the ones inviting us into their workplaces (although that’s happening more and more, and when they do, the results can be pretty great).
Is it difficult to understand why “design”, when it appears in a workplace, might be resisted, unconsciously or openly, by those whose job it is to Do Their Jobs as opposed to dreaming up exciting “future visions”?
Hey, did I see you in [our organisation]?
Yeah, I did some work there. I was with the [design team].
Oh yeah, right.
Do you know much about what they do?
No, nothing, mate. They never talk to us. They hang about [in their design quarters].
You’re the only one from the [design team] I’ve ever spoken to.
How would you do useful design if you thought you were being seen as the “class antagonist” of the people you’re designing for?
That’s a question that comes up for me when I discuss design with normal people (to whom, it’s worth remembering, HCD and service design mean absolutely nothing).
I think it’s of benefit to clients that I don’t have deep knowledge of their industry/challenges. I work to help them, the people with the actual, deep knowledge — squeeze stuff out of their heads, visualise it, help them think a bit differently.
But I certainly need to have done some homework before I show up, and consider how best to comport myself with them and their clients.
I went out with a colleague to interview people in a depressed suburb, and he drove us out there wearing Armani, in a Beemer.
They let us into their house and offered us a drink of water, which he turns down, and says “Let’s just get down to it”.
He was literally holding a clipboard. I immediately started doing the opposite — relaxing my demeanour, rolling my sleeves up, being informal. After two questions from him, they started only talking to me, didn’t even look at him for the rest of the interview.
Then we leave, and as we’re going to the car he says, “Wow, you did really well with them — you have to teach me your interview techniques!”
You could point to the scenes I’m including here as cherrypicked instances of “design done wrong”, or as dramatised hearsay from me. That’s fine. If these kind of conversations seem alien, and what you see around you in designworld is Great Work Being Done By Amazing, Considerate People, I am genuinely happy for you.
I notice, though, a lot of talk among designers about how to drag recalcitrant stakeholders along on the design journey, how to “sell” design, etc. This is a major focus for designers, who need work so they can eat, and for internal design practices at large companies, who need to show “outcomes”.
Would we need to drag people if we understood the importance of their work and were clearly “on their side”?
How was the climate change workshop?
It was one of your kinds of things, with the post-it notes.
Ah, right. Was it good?
First thing they did was they went around the room asking everyone to say what their “values” are. I had no idea how to answer that. Everyone else in the room was a green activist so they had answers ready to go.
They didn’t give you any “food for thought” to start off with.
Basically, they pumped us for our opinions on ideas they’d already had and then kicked us out quick because the caretaker needed to lock up the room.
In Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, he delineates for readers the different types of “bullshit jobs”.
(A bullshit job is defined as one that the person employed in the job believes should not exist — because it’s unnecessary or because it’s damaging to the world. This is different to a “bad” job, which may be unpleasant to perform but is nevertheless useful, even vital.)
Again — at its best, human-centred design practice is valuable.
However, I suspect we can all think of examples of design work that comes under Graeber’s definition of “duct-taping” (a job created to solve problems that should not exist in the first place), and, in unfortunate cases, under his definitions of “flunky” (a job that exists to make someone else look good) or “box-ticker” (exists to make it appear as though a job is being done — when it isn’t).
Do you need to earn your living? Then you may not be able to turn down the duct-taping, flunky or box-ticker gig that happens along.
But we can certainly ask ourselves, when engaged for a job:
- What, realistically, will we be able to achieve in the time we have? Does it match what our client expects?
- Do we have enough context (understanding of the situation we are in the middle of) to do the job effectively? What are the political issues between our stakeholders that will affect the outcome?
- Are we focusing on the middle- and senior manager we need to get “across the line” at the expense of the caregiver or call-centre worker our “future visions” are disturbing — or displacing?
- Are there ways we can reach out more effectively to stakeholders? Do they understand why we’re in the room? Have we even met them?
- If we really believe in our own practice, what can we be doing to give its “tools” to our clients so that our “duct-taping” won’t be required by them in future? And are we game to do that?
- How do we appear to others while doing this job? What does it mean to “look like a designer”? What will the effect be on the results of our work?
David Blumenstein is a service designer and visual communicator in Melbourne. If you have a design project or communication issue you need duct-taped, he can certainly help with that. Alternatively, he runs workshops on Drawing for Story which might help you solve the problems yourself.
[Originally published on Medium, Feb 12, 2020]