Designers, what are you fighting for?

A photo illustration of a cat swiping at the air.
©2023 Michael McWatters

If you’re fighting for design, you’re in the wrong place. Go where you’re valued. More specifically, go where design is valued. But if you’re fighting for your designs, congratulations! You’re in a place where you get to argue the merits of your work rather than the merits of your profession.

Maybe you think you shouldn’t have to defend your work. Maybe you think that having to fight for your ideas means you’re not valued. Maybe you think having your recommendations overruled occasionally is a sign of disrespect. That’s flawed thinking.

Ask any designer who’s worked in a place where design isn’t valued. They’d kill to have a conversation about their work rather than wondering why they were excluded from another strategy meeting. You don’t get a free pass on your work just because your title includes the word designer. Designing is just one step in the process. Defending your work, and arguing its merits—that’s a critical skill to hone and one that will define the arc of your career if you’re a strategic designer.

Professionals of every stripe have to prove the merits of their work, and they don’t always get their way. That’s just how interdisciplinary, cross-functional teams operate. Focus on winning the important fights. Be willing to let the rest go.

Hang on tightly, let go lightly.

If, however, the misunderstanding is systemic—if most of your time is spent fighting for your profession and not your work—it’s time to pack up and head for higher ground. If you don’t, you’ll spend your time fighting for basics like resources, budget, and time. Your professional existence will be a precarious and depressing one. Your portfolio, not to mention your skills, will grow stagnant. Having to convince peers, stakeholders, or clients that your work matters is exhausting. And, to be honest, mostly futile.

Many years ago, in my design consultancy days, our agency was hired by a company whose mid-level managers were worried they were headed in the wrong direction. At the time, our client’s site was ranked in the top ten domestic websites. Some on the client team, however, saw troubles ahead. We conducted extensive user and market research in partnership with another consultancy to avoid bias. (Our client wanted to be sure we weren’t just trying to research our way into a design gig.)

Our research showed that those internal fears were warranted; business was good, but there were cracks forming in the foundation. We presented our findings and recommendations to senior leadership. The primary response was no response. A few shrugs. One leader asked, “How do we know you’re not just finding problems so we’ll hire you to fix them?” Explaining that both our agencies came to the same independent conclusion didn’t convince him.

On the way to the airport, I asked our senior consultant if she was as bummed as I was. “Nope. We got paid. They’ll change direction when the iceberg is a few feet away, when it’s too late.” She continued, “It’s easy to shake things up when you’re struggling. It’s much harder when things are going well.” (To this day, I count this among the smartest business insights I’ve heard.)

At the time, however, her words failed to soften the blow of having our work dismissed so casually. I felt as if we were more invested in our client’s success than their senior leaders were. Now, of course, I know better. Those senior leaders were very invested in their success, much more than we were. This was, after all, their company, their careers, their fortunes, not ours.

To them, we were just a blip on the radar, another consultancy doing a song and dance in their boardroom. And we were, among other things, designers. Why would a bunch of designers know anything about business? As frustrating as it was to have our insights ignored out of hand, it was even more demoralizing to realize we were ignored simply because of who we were and the profession we represented.

I carried the frustration of that rejection with me for quite a while. I became cynical. I started to think most of my clients saw us just as that client had, as a bunch of designers, monkeys dancing for a treat. In fact, it’s fair to say a big part of why I burned out on agency life can be traced back to that experience. I’ve grown wiser since then. Not as wise as my colleague, but wise enough to know not to get overly invested in any client or company that can’t or won’t recognize the value of design. Or, more specifically, strategic design.

Oh, our client? They’re not ranked among the top ten domestic websites anymore. In fact, last I checked, they weren’t even in the top 10,000.

I’ve crafted a bit of a straw man in suggesting organizations either do or don’t value design. In fact, if a company has more than, say, 5 or 10 people, some of them will value design, some won’t, and some will be on the fence. Your job, then, is to prove your value to the skeptics. (I won’t go into how to do that; it’s been covered elsewhere — everywhere—ad nauseum. Google “ROI of design” if you need a starting point.)

But steel yourself. It’s not easy to convince people to change their minds, especially if those people think your primary value lies in your ability to arrange colors and shapes in pleasing ways. The trick is to try to figure out whether you’re going to spend any significant amount of time fighting for design rather than fighting for your designs.

You have limited time on this planet. If you’ve decided to spend a good chunk of that time as a designer, you probably did so because you believe in the “transformative power of design” (eek!). But the passion is real. You likely made tradeoffs to pursue a career in design. One of those tradeoffs, however, shouldn’t be having to justify your existence.

Fight for your work, not your profession. By doing the former, you’ll do the latter. And if you’re not getting to do the former, go someplace where you can.

I probably should have led with this, and I really shouldn’t have to say it, but just to cover my bases: when I’m talking about design, I’m talking about strategic design. Design that’s grounded in research, analysis, heuristics, intellectual rigor. In other words, design that’s worth fighting for because it’s valuable.

Designers, through intuition or experience, or some mix of the two, are often the best strategists you’ll meet. In the right setting, they’ll be recognized as such, and given the chance to do great things. In the worst, they’ll become miserable and cynical outcasts, wondering why no one takes them seriously.

And that’s certainly no way to live.

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