Discovering hope's transformational role in design
Discovering hope's transformational role in design
This question can feel rhetorical, but we usually have an internal answer—something that sounds something like, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.” And there’s a confidence in this refrain. Rather than pure perfectionism, it’s the drive to keep improving. No one with a designer’s intent sets out to make something more difficult, complex, or convoluted, though these attributes can at times become unintended consequences when pursuing improvement. However, true intent seeks to refine.
This drive for better is beautiful. It can lead to innovation and reinvention. Though cynicism can grow in areas of constant critique and analysis, as designers focus on problem-solving, this restlessness fuels them to better the world around them.
Throughout my design career, I’m continually surprised by how often I encounter hopelessness. While it can sometimes take the innocuous form of downtrodden clients, it can also be a toxic force. Hopelessness can spread like wildfire within the very organizations that we are seeking to help.
And it doesn’t just crop up on the client side of the equation. Like most of us, I get a good laugh from stories of ludicrous client interactions. However, these moments can quickly snowball into collective villainizing of the very people we’re seeking to support. This hopelessness can lead to us viewing our clients as roadblocks rather than patrons who are funding an effort that may benefit people in need.
A designer not only has tremendous opportunity to provide hope to those interacting with our work, but we also have a responsibility to do so. Our confident expectation fuels us often in spite of our clients. If clients had a confident approach, and the skills to implement their goals, they likely wouldn’t have hired us.
I could formulate a strong hypothesis that a lot of the negative feedback that create these designer/client horror stories stems from this precise lack of confidence. When we examine how we act in times of low self-esteem, we notice that the patterns are no different when multiplied to the size of the organizations that we’re serving. It seems glaringly obvious, but it’s worth the reminder: Organizations are just a collection of people. We shouldn’t treat them like this lifeless, inanimate thing.
We have a propensity to use language in design that inherently creates these inanimate entities. Words like “brand,” “product,” and “application” begin to feel sterile when they become commonplace in our vocabulary. And they become completely lifeless when divorced from the real people that they are serving. These final products are only as powerful and organic as the real-life interactions paired with them.
It’s our job to generate hope not only in our process, but on behalf of those whom we are serving. Just as hopelessness can spread like wildfire, so too can hopefulness. Sometimes it takes a while for our clients to rekindle hope in their mission, brand, or product, but that simple spark left smoldering can generate a flame. The larger the organization, the longer these effects can take to ripple out to the edges.
Before a pen touches paper, a marker touches a whiteboard, or a pixel is pushed, we must start with hope. Clients seek our help for a final product, but they may also come to us because they want another eye to recognize the value in what they’re doing in their community and in the world.
To our clients, hope often doesn’t look anything like a confident expectation; it looks more like a pipe dream. It’s our responsibility, better yet our privilege, to redirect that expectation toward an attainable future.
My biggest fear upon the technological horizon is that we’ll lose our humanity in the quantification of it all. Data is now so easy to capture and analyze, and it can mold our minds into persuasive traps. Our confidence can stop being informed by hopefulness and can start to be informed by manipulation.
There’s such a sadness in seeing this play out in our society. Faces are transformed into numbers, and numbers are quite easy to manipulate. This manipulation may start upstream of our audience interacting with our design, but it creates a vicious cycle that sends our processes into a tailspin. Visions of success pop up like a mirage in the desert when we’re seduced by dehumanized data. We learned it in kindergarten: the game is much easier if you cheat. Allowing hope to power our practice is much harder than a cheap spike in analytics.
These persuasive traps are just as tantalizing to our clients. Tension between our clients and their users can make that fragile line feel quite taut. This is where our hope has to influence both parties.
We can’t stop at simply hoping on behalf of our clients; we have to hope for our users as well. Advocating for users is something we will have to do repeatedly. It can be exhausting to constantly redirect the attention to the people we’re serving, but it serves as a necessary reminder to us as designers.
The truth is that hope will take hard work. True confidence doesn’t come without the proper amount of elbow grease. Blissful ignorance can be quite good at perpetuating blind optimism.
However hope doesn’t come without belief in an outcome. Hopefulness is a form of optimism that looks for the true and beautiful around us rather than endlessly searching for the imperfections around us. This restlessness that feeds us can drive any talented designer mad. Paying closer attention to the systems around us only reveals their troubled nature. Offsetting this harsh reality with blind-folded positivity isn’t hope at all but rather something else.
Maybe the confidence aspect of hope is informed by experience. Maybe it comes from trusting the discipline. Regardless of its source, we know that it comes from an intimacy with the problems we’re solving. You cannot solve what you do not know. We have to hear from real people and live amongst their words. Only then can we have the confidence to begin removing their barriers.
How can we begin to foster hope within our practices and on behalf of the people we’re serving?
Here’s a start:
1. Talk about hope.
There are topics that we neglect because we feel like they should be assumed. Hope is the foundation, so it’s well worth mentioning. It’s okay to tell those you’re serving that hope is your goal. Speak it into existence.
2. Hone your skills.
For the designer, we can confidently expect what we’re intimately familiar with. The more outcomes we produce through our design, the more confident we’ll become in reproducing the process.
3. Dive into the messiness.
If you see something that needs a designer’s eye, get in there. Hurling critique from the outside won’t create change. It’s only in getting acquainted with the ugliness of real world problems that we can generate solutions that create lasting hope.
Amidst our daily work, hopelessness can cause us to respond with cynicism to the phrase, “It’s just not my job to _____________.” (I’ll let you fill in the blank.) Encouraging our clients is often out of scope, inefficient, and doesn’t always impact our profit margins, but I believe it’s our job and the source of so much hope.
True hope calls us to have courage and endurance. It will take time to foster within ourselves and even more time to foster within the organizations we’re serving. However, the time required shouldn’t deter us from seeking hope as our end.
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