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.