The Dark Side of Design

There is something really nasty about the Design Industry; something many know of but never really spoke of. In our ever-competitive society, we always seem to celebrate the winners, and outcast the losers. We often talk about the one that made it to the top and leave no space for second place.

Just like in our Design world it is all about our award winning designs, the big budget projects, and the ones that the client and consumers love. However we never talk about our setbacks, the projects we hate, the ones that failed the engineering tests, and the ones that got away. We never like to talk about this so-called “Dark Side of Design”.

I like to share with you a number of real life scenarios that shows how the world of design can be a pure hellhole. I like to talk about how money seems to overcome morality and sensibility. Facing the “Dark Side of Design” head on is neither easy or fun.

1. You will have to design something you hate

Designing something you hate is something you never really consider when you get out of school. It just does not register. You love design and you love your work so it is not conceivable that you would have to design something you hate. It will happen, so be prepared and bask in the frustration.

2. You will have to work with someone you hate

You will get assigned to that snot nosed designer that can’t design for nuts but can kiss ass like there is no tomorrow. When it happens at work you suddenly realize why your boss is not paying you his salary in addition to yours. Worst he may be your manager.

Not only that, but you might have to work with a client or business partner that treats you like that piece of dirt under his/her shoe. That person may be unreasonable, belittle you, and hate everything you give him. Unfortunately, the only thing you can do is swallow your pride and turn the other cheek.

3. You will have to make a decision between giving consumers what they want or what they need

The majority of design work, sad to say, is all about feeding consumerism. The reality is that your designs are often not necessary, nor what people need. In school they teach you to study your consumer, identify their needs, and design for them. However do you really think that person needs another chair, laptop or mobile phone? I’m sure you can do a great job, but will it be right? What about sustainability? When does that happen or does it ever happen at all? You will suddenly realize there are forces at play that are beyond your control, and you will have to decide if this is the right career path for you.

4. You will not be able to distinguish between night and day

You will work hard. Sure, you thought you worked hard in school to graduate at the top of the class, but you will never work so hard in your life when you are a designer in the trenches. So hard that you cannot tell the difference between night and day. You will do it because you have to. You will do it because you care. Needless to say, you will hate it.

5. You will never have clear brief

In the real world everyone knows what a brief is, but nobody really knows what a brief is. You will have to face the fact that there is no such thing as a clear brief. It is also never the straightforward design process you learned in school. You will hop back and forth through changes so many times you will think you are a trick pony. What is worst, the schedule will not move because of someone elses “briefing” mistake.

6. You will be made responsible for a design that has failed

It is too easy. Product does not sell? Blame the designer. Product cannot be engineered? Blame the designer. Suddenly you will be in everyone’s “cross hairs” and be blamed for everything. Remember though designers make suggestions. The people who pay for the designs are the ones who own the designs, thus responsible for the outcome. This leads me to my next point.

7. You will never own your designs anymore

What was a great solo effort in school, will now becomes everyone’s baby. You will pour your heart and soul into a design to only get it taken from you and passed off to someone else. Your design idea would be lost, modified, “raped” and even killed. Not only that, there will be projects that will have so many people working on it, that nobody owns or wants to own it.

8. You will hate design

One morning you will drag your tired body through multiple all-nighters to present your work to an unappreciative client, and you will tell yourself something along those lines of “I hate design”.

————

They always say it is “darkest before the dawn” and in design it is.

Many designers quit before reaching this point, I almost did. Some of the popular excuses are likely to be “it’s too hard” or “not enough money for this BS” or even “no one appreciates the effort I put in”. My advice to you is to hang on because it does get better.

Strangely enough this turning point happens around the 5 – 7 year mark, depending on the amount of project hours a designer has clocked. Somehow after that, things just fall into place. It can happen like how it did for me, you wake up one morning and it just “clicked” as you reached that “tipping point”. You now know how to handle that abusive client, your 3D models just work with the engineers, and best of all, your designs start to kick ass and win awards. Trust me, I’ve seen it over and over again, not only with me but with other designers, the 5 year mark seems to be that magical number when your time in the trenches finally pay off.

I like to end this little post on another uplifting note. I cannot understand why people do not talk about their failures. They make great and interesting stories, especially if you can articulate what you learned and how you grew from it. In my humble opinion, this is far more important than always looking to sell your winners. Think about this when you next update your portfolio?

———-

Brian is a multidisciplinary industrial design leader that goes under the pseudonym of “The Design Translator”. He muses about the art of design leadership and the business of strategic industrial design over at his website Design Sojourn. He often laments the lack of good soy mochas and Italian pizzas (with Rocket and shredded Parma ham) in Asia.

26 Comments

  • Raph says:

    Apart from being a depressing rant on how things never turn out how you expect them to.

    Your best point is at the end “I cannot understand why people do not talk about their failures.” The rest of the points through out the article are true of most industries. Just substitute design for your chosen profession or industry specific word.
    If Designers talked about their failures the profession itself might actually mature more.

    • julian says:

      all i can say is thank you, im a third year design student and it has been a crazy three years. This work is hard and sometimes painful, but when things go well its better than anything in the world. The stress gets to me sometimes but again a good day comes and i forget all the bad.
      it has always for been a passion to design and create, i have to do it.

      if its worth doing its not easy so never quiet, ever.

    • lpunkabout says:

      to be real fair to the industry i think its for the benefit of us designers to share out more the dark side.im a 2nd year architectural student and the level thats in demand isn’t one that i have seen before but that creates a whole new challenge that i guess is why we do this for, well at least on my part, but many are the tragedies we share during the long sleepless nights,stressfull lunch hours,etc but the beauty achieved is always worth it,at what cost? believing in the pursuit for perfection is what designers have in common,thus the ways in which we pursue leaves a train we need to see and correct!plan-design-play!i love this shit!!

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  • Silvia says:

    Hello Brian,
    Thanks for this post you wrote, it came perfectly for me today, and you are probably the right person to tell us, new designers who just graduated (or are still studying for it) why it´s so hard to be a designer!!
    Sometimes (and recently, many times) I see myself thinking if I chose the right profession. I LOVED the Product Design course I took at my College, I can spend the whole day researching about design and new ideas, I like being creative (well, sometimes I can’t, designers have to be thinking all the time and inspire themselves with little things), and I also love designing (or “inventing”) new products. So, how come I can´t concentrate at my work in my job and I see myself suffering to do it, especially to be sitting in the front of the computer for my entire working period? I know that if you are designing something that it’s not really interesting for you, it can make you pretty tired of it. But if this happens for everything you start doing? I am worried about it!!
    Well, thank you again for your concern with us!!
    Silvia

  • csven says:

    Some years back a few of us on Core had a thread which showed some of the dark side’s results; lots of embarrassing pictures. Woke a few people up from their design dreamland. Unfortunately there will still be a few who don’t get it.

  • Lots of truth there Brian, the key being failure and how you deal with it and learn from it. If your on the invention side of things you know failure as a old and trusted friend. Take phantom water as a example, months and months of failure, trying every damn thing I could think of to make it work then research some more and try again. Its said that in this life one of the few things you truly own is your failure, because successes are shared by many.

    To the people that say its too hard, bullshit, scratching out a living in a desert for your family is hard, running for your life is hard, working in a blood diamond mine is hard, ID is FUN. If your thinking that “oh I cant be creative on this” you just need to do a simple thing, go to where people who are using that type of product are and watch, then wander up to one and say “hi, I design this type of stuff, tell me what you like and don’t like about it”. This will give you a boost of creative juice and insight as well as giving you a emotional connection to the end user.

    Product design, its like a baby, so much fun to start but man oh man that pregnancy phase, delivery and raising them…lots of work. In the end, some day you will be out a wandering around and see somebody with one of your products and (if you have the stones) you can ask them “you happy with that?” Its a hell of a great feeling, I look forward to you all experiencing it from time to time.

    cheers
    zippy

  • jace says:

    As depressing as it sounds, i think the post is great. I look at some points and go HA, this sounds soo familar. I guess its all about going through all of the difficult times and eventually making your mark in design.

  • Carl says:

    9. you will have to actually make your designs.
    this will scare the 99% of ‘onscreen’ designers who think a sexy visual is good enough..!

  • Jeremiah says:

    Wow, and I thought my design course here in college was brutal. I need to step my game up and try to find ways around some of these points if it’s possible. And the 9th point from Carl is valid LOL 😛 I think of that when I look at concepts all the time. “They render them, but can they actually be produced?” But at the same time, we all gotta start somewhere :) Happy trails to all designers and designers to be :)

  • Lucas says:

    GUAUUU… It´s very hard to read the truth… I´m from Argentina and realized that it´s the same story all over the world… i think that it´s the sweet torture of be a designer!
    Than Your for Share OUR SWEET PAIN!

  • Phillip says:

    Many of these challenges aren’t unique to design. The songwriter who must make money as a hired musician. The math wiz who pays the bills as an accountant. Also, I have to say that the depths some of us experience about these issues comes from our own dark sides. There are times we should say no and wait for the next gig or times we should leave a position before we feel fully compromised.

    However, as others have stated, we need to talk about all of these things.

  • decaPODA says:

    Very interesting post…
    Well, talking about the points you mentioned there…It’s been only 2years I have been in the industry…but the way I used to look at design, has changed…
    You do not design for yourselves…Its for the consumer, for the target consumer group, for the target price/cost range, with clear-cut function which could be provided only in that limited price…you try doing anything new/innovative/creative/”wow effect” ..You providing headache to R&D…thus increasing the time frame… resulting more salaries goes in developing the product. Project going out of the budget…Thus a bad design for the company you working for…
    And as far as decision comes in the picture…Where do we get to make one 😛

  • Chris says:

    Great write-up… The 5-7 year mark is a good figure… it’s right around the time of burn out and where most people end up going back for a Masters in ID or something else entirely in a different field other then design.

    Hate is extreme, but right on… I think I’ve been asked on numerous occasions to work on design projects that were good for the company but just outside my ethical comfort zone or recommend something sub-par to a client because of other limitations outside of design specs, oh, btw the client is always right…

    I think it comes down to how far are you willing to compromise things in your life and career with respect to design… you definitely learn to pick your battles – whether it’s engineering dept one day over proper material thickness, financial the other over cost specs or human resources because they can’t seem to fire the dead beat engineer…

    I would like to clarify another point – you may think you are designing for the consumer… however, if you design for yourself, then you are an artist, if you design for someone else it’s not for the consumer, it’s for the client… you can only be an advocate for the consumer.

    When it comes down to it there is only an audience of one, that’s the person in charge of the signing the off on the final design and project and ultimately paying your bills – the client.

    Your product might eventually get some accolades from the consumer but more then likely your client is going to get all the credit.

    Cynical, harsh, GD truth…

  • Paul says:

    So true,

    My daily grind with design seem far away from the glossy renderings and award cerimonies that make up most of the content for design industry Blogs / Magazines / Shows ect.

    Good article and I’m glad you published it.

  • Rumi says:

    Great post. But the struggles you have highlighted are not unique to design.

    I have worked with a number of designers and I have seen their frustrations, heck some I might have caused.

    I find designers with better people-understanding do better than solo-artists who dont like to interact. You may agree or not but Design of things is a group-process, things have to work together to create a product or a service or an experience.

    zipplyflounder has a great point. Talk/live/Experience and Empathize with the people you are designing for- be it the client herself or the final consumer/user of the product and you shall see inspiration and beneficial conversations.

  • A little harsh interpretation, but some decent points.

    Aspirations are good. Expectations are not. You will never be satisfied with your work if you expect the best, or conversely, the worst. A bar set too high, will only frustrate you, and too low, won’t satisfy your need to be challenged. Take pride in the work you do, even if it is the simplest task.

    Schools train us to stand out, be individuals and make unique work. That works for school, but ultimately you will most likely be part of a team effort. Feel good about your part in the whole. Everyone makes a difference.

    Awards are really silly. Yes, the ego sometimes needs some stroking, but if you are satisfied with the work you do, that should be reward enough.

    I don’t want to just blow sunshine up everyone’s ass here. At the end of the day, you need to do what makes you feel good, what makes you smile. If not, move on to something else. Having a good attitude can change so many things for you. Constantly struggling to find the silver lining will only frustrate you.

  • Maria Clara Palma says:

    hello i think you are a good designer.

  • ryan says:

    SO true! well say!

  • anunturi says:

    To be honest I’m a designer, and sometimes I have to design things that I’ve never liked to do

  • Art Donovan says:

    Great article. Thank you.
    As a designer in New York City with 32 full-time years behind me, I really enjoyed hearing
    the nitty gritty reality of our sometime joyous profession.

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