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How designers lose their minds

Published January 31st, 2017

The other week, “community of designers” Dribbble was bought by some agency. If you don’t know what Dribbble is, it’s a sort of work in progress design “show and tell” network where you can post things you’re working on for comment by other design professionals. Naturally, this mostly turns into sycophantic back scratching and platitudes, where designers compete to out-compliment each other in their own digital hug boxes devoid of real criticism. I find it insipid – if that wasn’t already obvious – but a number of my colleagues and friends seem to enjoy using it and it can be a handy way of finding local design talent.

Thanks to this lack of real criticism and our pathological need for attention, many designers have dedicated hours of their time working on projects exclusively to show off on Dribbble. These projects typically take the form of brief animations or redesigns of widely used applications and websites, the latter being by far the most popular. For example, a search for “apple redesign” yields a significant number of results, meaning well over 100 people have decided to knock together their own versions of Apple’s mobile UI, app icons, flagship applications and websites, with some accumulating as many as 250,000 views.

That guy, checking his view count

Just to be clear, none of these people work at Apple – these are done purely for attention or the exercise. People recreate and tweak recognisable interfaces and iconography for internet points in a weak attempt to prove they “get it” more than the professional in-house designers at major tech companies and corporations. You know, the ones that are working with planning and development teams in critical environments and are privy to actual data surrounding their applications which may be both limiting and informing their design decisions. If I had produced anything like this, I’d be wary of putting it on my portfolio – all you’re really proving by doing so is that you can flatten and tidy someone else’s interface, not work to a design brief with unique requirements. Especially when you’ve chosen to redesign something like Amazon, the likes of which have been rigorously A/B tested for many years now.

As you may know, designers are only capable of communicating through Medium posts, which is probably why this article on design plagiarism recently appeared on my timeline. The author highlighted another drawback of this kind of work: it’s easy to steal. In her article, she complains that someone took her “personal project […] to be used for interviews”, a redesign of popular customer review application Yelp, and passed it off as their own work. The majority of the article compares the original with the forgery and ends with a call to action, asking designers to stay vigilant while using words like “dangerous” and “toxic behaviour” in a display of wounded hyperbole. For all of the reasons I described above, I have limited sympathy – if you want a better read on design plagiarism, I’d recommend this (again, Medium) post by Bobby Anderson.

Design police
Send in the design police

So, thanks to Dribbble, we’ve established that autonomous designers – producing work for an audience largely unwilling to criticise – tend to gravitate towards vanity projects that recreate popular interfaces produced by large businesses. This, despite being completely ignorant of the knowledge or structure actually working for those companies would provide.

But what happens to those that perhaps don’t get enough criticism in their day jobs? There seems to be a real world possibility of any designer with either a reasonably sized following or a long term senior job role to completely lose their minds. Without the frequent reality checks that complicated work, large teams or difficult clients can provide, some designers retreat into fantasy, imagining and announcing lofty new phrases, job titles and projects with pompous fanfare (only on Medium, obviously).

Take “ethical design” advocates and “definitely no daddy issues here” design power couple Aral Balkan and Laura Kalbag, who famously over-promised and under-delivered (yes, more Medium) after raising funds to build an alternative social network without all the nasty data harvesting bits, despite being a team of only two people. Aral’s original dream of a fully functional smartphone product with its own “services, cloud storage, privacy” instead became a prototype chat program with corresponding public personal pages, the links to which appear to be broken. Aral has been a fixture of the design talk circuit for many years, accumulating over 35,000 followers in the process, and leveraged this popularity to solicit donations towards an unachievable goal. One he dreamt up while admirers and followers praised him for all the wonderful things he had TED talked about, not considering for a moment that all that dick sucking and “self-congratulatory futurism” may have affected his ability to reason. For all their talk of ethics, it didn’t seem to stop them ripping off a Banksy piece for their company logo then trademarking it.

For a more local example, check this post (of course, Medium) by Creative Director of Edinburgh agency Realise, Don Smith, entitled “Reinventing myself” where he pontificates on “different, but better”, a phrase that could mean literally anything. The post – written in that ridiculously pretentious way where every other sentence is its own paragraph for emphasis – is a potential mid-life crisis presented as an “epiphany”. A grown man who is paid real money to evaluate an agency’s creative output crowns himself an “invention and disruption consultant” which is the kind of job title you accidentally read on LinkedIn then spit take your coffee all over your monitor or nearest colleague. Evidently, some senior creatives (or the “connector class”, as he prefers to call them) reach a breaking point and begin to believe their own bullshit, their minds warped by endless sales pitches and dull meetings in which they’re paid to say words. Somehow they think they’ve transcended the roles awarded to them by others and invent grand new positions to better reflect their own inflated opinion of their abilities and value, all the while “inventing” nothing more than new ways for those who encounter them to feel suicidal contempt.

Simpsons freshest bottle of wine
Only cultured people like this reference Taoism

No designer is beyond reproach, least of all those with a fan club or a senior role. Criticism is a key part of how we learn, work and keep our egos in check. Without it, you run the risk of producing work with little to no value, being unrealistic about what you can achieve or thinking yourself some design equivalent of David Bowie, talented and important enough to warrant reinvention. We don’t need a “Dribbble 2.0” – it was bought by designers, the only significant change they’ll make is the interface – what we need is to be more comfortable critiquing the work of others, even those we don’t know personally. It’s the only way we’ll push anything forward and preserve the sanity of our more popular or unhinged colleagues.

Also, fuck Medium.

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Steven Clark

by Steven Clark

Steven is an award-losing designer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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