Design Ethics: Design For All?

September 27, 2022
6 min read

I started my first year of college in 2006. I’d taken a bit of a stab in the dark and chosen Visual Communications, or graphic design, as my degree course. I chose graphic design because it was a practical application of creative skills and, as someone who loved art in school, it seemed like a sensible choice. At that time I didn’t have a sense of the importance of design, its effect on society, or its value to companies on a commercial level. The four years I spent working toward that degree were intensive; we often spent 12 hours a day in the studio and then went home to work into the night. We spent the first year and a half of our education in lecture halls reviewing art history and design fundamentals, or in the studio working on image-making by cutting and pasting–in the literal sense, with paper, scissors and a glue stick. We weren’t allowed to use a computer until the second half of our 2nd year, once our tutors were satisfied that we had mastered the basics of design. 

So, after that slow, deliberate and thorough education, it’s a strange feeling to look around 12 years later and see the plethora of paths one can take to become a designer that didn’t exist when I was entering college. And not just the ways you can become a designer, but the speed at which you can become a designer–CareerFoundry, a popular online training institute, for example, claims “Our programs will teach you everything you need to get your first job in tech in as little as 5 months—even if you don’t have any previous experience.”  This increasingly rapid approach to design education makes me wonder if aspiring designers are getting the kind of quality education they need.

The last 10+ years has seen design become cool, mainstream, desirable. Apple is generally credited with raising its profile, tying commercial success to slick visuals (although companies like Mint, Airbnb, and many others have had a strong influence also) and it continues to lead the way amongst design-driven companies. The DMI Design Value Index, has identified the top publicly-traded, design-led companies in the U.S. based on a list of 6 criteria, and plots the financial success of these companies against the S&P performance for that year. The results over the last 10 years have shown these companies outperforming the S&P by 228%, “demonstrating that an unequivocal financial advantage is attributable to those that do dare to make design a priority.” It’s exciting to be living in an era where design is taken seriously and its value is recognized by large companies. At the same time, it drives up the demand for designers and for more plug-and-play design solutions. 

We arrive at a strange paradox where design is both highly valued and undervalued–or perhaps valued nominally, but not in practice. Design teams are increasingly seen as integral in organizations, but the educational backgrounds of those designers may be less robust as demand for them grows. At no cost, anyone with internet access can download hundreds of fonts on Google Fonts, design an app or website on Figma, or create a professional-looking presentation using a template on Canva. Websites like Upwork and Fiverr allow you to choose from thousands of designers with varying credentials, which can be a great resource, but it can also drive designers’ rates down as they compete with shockingly low prices and people unwilling to pay much more.

The role of a designer really is an important one and it would be a mistake to continue to undervalue it simply because it’s become easier to acquire the resources associated with that title. I looked at this role from a few different angles in my previous posts on accessibility, sustainability and diversity in design and I always come back to this quote from Kat Holmes:

“For better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly." 

It’s a simple and powerful reminder that designers’ actions have important consequences; they are often the gatekeepers to experiences in society. A designer’s job is not just to make things beautiful. They are designing products for humans of many abilities and backgrounds to interact with. In order for aspiring designers to be adequately-equipped to tackle the challenges that they’ll be faced with, they need a strong education in design fundamentals, theory and critical thinking. They also need to be engaged in design thinking which, more simply, is creative problem-solving. Design thinking acts as an overarching structure that guides them as they find solutions to problems and identify the most appropriate design executions, not just the most visually appealing ones. 

Any good designer will combine design thinking skills and technical skills to execute thoughtful, considered solutions. But what we’re seeing in the proliferation of these design bootcamps & online courses is a focus on the mastery of technical skills, for the most part. As I mentioned, many of them–like CareerFoundry, Designlab, General Assembly– promise that you can begin the course without any previous experience and be job-ready in under 10 months, some as soon as 5 months. And while that’s a very appealing prospect for anyone interested in a career-shift, the knowledge one leaves with after such a short period of time will necessarily fall heavily on the technical side rather than the theory and conceptual side of things. Tools can only be wielded effectively when there’s a concrete understanding of what they are being used to build.

However, griping aside, it wouldn’t be right to say that this is all bad. In fact, there’s a huge benefit in this democratization of design which I’ve touched on in many of my other posts: inclusivity. This new fluid way of learning and working is allowing people who have not had the opportunities to learn, for a variety of reasons, to come to the table and contribute to design. 

For example, the availability of free or inexpensive educational materials and courses has opened the doors to many people for whom a university education would be cost-prohibitive– particularly in the U.S. with rising tuition fees and student debt. And many of these free educational materials are being made available by elite institutions like Stanford University, MIT & Harvard, which would be out of reach for the majority of the population.

Not to mention, people who may have been excluded from higher education because they don’t perform well in traditional school environments now have an avenue to continue on their education and career path in a way that might suit their learning patterns better.

Additionally, the availability of online collaborative design tools (like Figma, Invision, Miro) has allowed people to learn and work remotely, inviting those with accessibility issues–whether that’s a physical disability or socio-economic restriction–to lend their perspectives to the design community.

So, there’s a lot of good amongst the concerns, and truthfully, no matter how we feel about this transformation in design education, it’s not going away. The most important thing to bear in mind is that the more people that can participate in education and in experiences, the better. With a more thoughtful curriculum for aspiring designers, focused on design thinking as well as technical skills, we can achieve more inclusive and responsible design solutions that serve us all.

© 2024 Soubriet Byrne & Associates, Inc.