A designer’s role is NOT “at the table” | by Ida Persson | Mar, 2024


Designers come in all shapes and sizes. We all have different skills, different backgrounds, and different interest areas. But one thing that we all have in common is the struggle to explain “what design is” and what we do in our day-to-day jobs. Every time I visit my mom, I’m met with the same request. “Could you explain what it is that you do again for work? I tried to explain it to a friend, but they didn’t understand.” I had a friend a few years ago who worked as a Graphic Designer. She used to tell me that “her mom thinks she draws comic books for a living.”

For decades, designers have asked for a seat at the table in the boardrooms where decisions are made. Yet, this seems next to impossible, given that the people sitting next to us often struggle to understand our role (it’s not just moms). A FastCompany article from 2020 explains how after surveying 1,700 companies, McKinsey found that CEOs don’t understand design leadership at all. The survey revealed that “Only one-third of CEOs could detail what their CDO (Chief Design Officer) oversaw at the company. In other words, 66% of CEOs couldn’t say what their CDO actually did, or how that success should be measured.”

When you listen to these kinds of “seat-at-the-table” discussions, the obvious conclusion might be that designers just need to do more to prove that they deserve to be there. But what if we’re approaching this in the wrong way? What if designers’ roles actually AREN’T at the table, but rather out in the field talking to users, and in the rooms where “making things” happens? What if rather than spending time proving our worth, we spend time expanding our definition of the “business case” to incorporate more ways of working and being?

The above-mentioned FastCompany article states that:

“In most cases, the CDO (Chief Design Officer) is supposed to represent the end user, whether that’s a consumer buying a new phone, or a manager subscribing his company to a delivery service. The CDO is the voice of the customer, the person who will speak up to ensure the best experience for the person using the product.”

I agree with this definition. When essential features are removed from a product, or call center support being replaced by a chatbot, designers are there to raise their hand and voice and explain why and how users will suffer from the decision. When someone asks us to add more words to a short article to satisfy SEO requirements, or to “make the logo bigger” to help boost brand recognition, designers are there to explain why these changes will make it harder for users to absorb and understand the information being presented. By the nature of our work, we are the default protectors of usability, and whether we like it or not, we’ve also assumed the responsibility for helping business leaders understand how technical and financial decisions affect the experience of real people.

As important as our role in boardrooms and decision-making conversations may be, users or customers themselves are rarely “at these tables.” They are out and about, living their lives. Designers can represent them in the conference rooms, but I believe that we can have an even greater impact if most of our time isn’t spent speaking FOR users, but rather, speaking TO them.

From the very beginning of my design career, I was deliberately taught how to explain the rationale of my work to my non-creative teammates, as well as my clients. Account managers would ask me “why” I designed the logos and brochures the way I did, and what impact the design would have on the clients’ business goals (the end user’s experience was rarely part of their concerns). I got really good at writing rationales for everything I made and a decade later, I have no trouble explaining the reasons behind my design decisions (recognizing that my rationales are biased by my personal experience and our industry standards). However, a decade later, I’m also realizing that the way we show the value of design is not actually by talking about it, but rather by doing it. Design is a “show, rather than tell” practice — or better yet, “experience, rather than explain.” The designer’s role is not at the table explaining our work, but rather in the room where we can make things — for and with users.

Don’t get me wrong. As a communications designer, I love exploring different ways to make knowledge exciting and engaging through language, but I think it’s important to look beyond the words and explore different ways of communication. As I was writing this article, I kept coming back to this website that explains the tenants of white supremacy cultures. White supremacy culture teaches us to worship the written word. On the site, they explain that:

“Worship of the written word is a cultural belief that something only has meaning if it is written down, and only if it is written down according to a certain very “white” standard in a certain very “white” way. This belief leads us to ignore and devalue all the wisdom that comes to us intuitively, through our bodies, through story, music, film, and song. Through slang. Through humor. Through children’s games. Through prayer. Through Spanish or Arabic or so many other languages, including the ones that communities are working to restore.”

In business, we show our “value” by using words and numbers. People who can explain and show the numerical value of something are promoted and put in positions of power. However, ask any designer, and they will tell you “spreadsheets are not my language.” The language of design is play, connection, trying and failing, making. It’s a language of discovery. It’s a language of learning from the stories of real people. Of asking questions. Lots of them.

Rather than asking designers to fit our practices into the parameters of business, maybe we should expand what we value in business. A successful business needs people who are good at different things. People who use different ways to express themselves and explore new ideas. By rewarding only certain types of behaviors in business, we’re neglecting the importance of other ways of being and communicating that are just as critical. We’re missing out on creativity, and we’re missing out on the magic that happens when we value differences.

So, my challenge is this:

Instead of trying to prove why designers deserve to sit at the table, what if we invited the CEOs, CFOs, and clients who do not understand how our work “can be measured” into our world. What if they got to experience the work of design, rather than just the rationales? What if we helped them break out of that (spreadsheet) cell and joined us in meeting users, making things, and asking questions?

What if, next time someone asks you what you do as a designer, you say “join me and I’ll show you”.


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