Why Designers Don’t Want to Think When They Read

UX Collective’s Polar Bear Mascot

Designers Fabricio Teixeira and Caio Braga are the publishers of UX Collective, which they claim is the “largest Medium publication about design and UX” with some 200,000 readers. It’s a terrific resource for all kinds of articles about design practice. A few weeks ago, they published a major essay asking whether designers have become shamelessly expert at self-promotion.

This lengthy, thoughtful screed was inspired in part by an article that I wrote earlier this year for Fast Company called “Design Discourse Is in a State of Arrested Development,” the gist of which was to say that what gets written, read, discussed and lectured with regard to design is, on the whole, very shallow. I argued that that superficiality points to a systemic failure in design: an unwillingness to “ask tough questions,” and an inability to push the craft forward in the interest of both its practitioners and of its audience.

As publishers and key participants in the world of design discourse, Teixeira and Braga admit that they have played a part in perpetuating this environment. They write:

Last year, we published and shared 4,302 articles and links with the community — through Medium, our newsletter, our chatbot, our yearly trends report, Today, Journey, and many other channels.

That’s a lot of links.

Most of them 5-minute Medium articles.

Not as thorough as we would like them to be.

Not deep at all.

Not as honest as our industry deserves.

Give them credit though for “being the change they want to see in the world,” as their essay uses my article as a jumping off point to look much more deeply at the problem than I was able to.

In an extensive exploration of the subject, Teixeira and Braga examined every link they found on major online design forums (e.g., DesignerNews, WebDesignerNews, StackExchange UX, and Reddit UserExperience, Sidebar, Product Weekly, UX Curator, and UX Collective itself) for a month. “Every link shared between 12 Feb and 11 Mar 2018,” they say, “was put under the microscope, through the lenses of independence, honesty, breadth, and depth.”

They then plotted each article’s on a spectrum with “tactical” articles on one side (with templates, kits and tutorials at the extreme) and “strategic” articles on the other (with discussions of ethics, responsibility and impact). While acknowledging the subjective nature of the exercise, the results are nevertheless eye-opening: as seen in the chart below, the vast majority of the links fall on the “don’t make me think” end of the spectrum.

Analysis of Various Design Articles by UX Collective

It’s clear that the currency of design discourse is really concerned with the “how” of design, not the “why” of it. As Teixeira and Braga write:

While designers tend to be skeptical of magic formulas—we’re decidedly suspicious of self-help gurus, magic diets, or miraculous career advice—we have a surprisingly high tolerance for formulaic solutions when it comes to design.

That’s a pointed criticism but, from my perspective, it’s also quite accurate. Rather than leaving that conclusion on its own, though, the essay tries to come to grips with, appropriately, why this is. Consistent with the habits of good designers, Teixeira and Braga undertake a bit of “user research” to understand how design content gets consumed, and who actually generates it. They even dig into one of the key paradoxes of an art form that is examined almost solely by its own practitioners: its highest functioning leaders usually can’t spare the time to write about their own perspectives.

The whole article is full of valuable insights like this but it’s worth reading for another reason alone: it shines a light forward for design discourse by first recognizing its deficiencies and then by modeling a way forward. Read it in full at essays.uxdesign.cc.