Good design is invisible. But so is design that harms.
Most designers would agree that good website design is invisible. What do we mean by this? Invisible design is design that works. When it goes unnoticed, it means “no complaints.” A phone that is designed to help you better communicate helps you complete a task without problems, making your life easier. It leaves you without questions and confusion. If a shirt designed to keep you warm, does just that, you probably won’t notice it because we expect the product to meet its promise. We often don’t think about the benefit — because it works.
It’s when something is not working we start to pay attention. A Slack outage. A phone where the user interface makes it hard to find the call button. A shirt that, despite its promise, doesn’t protect against the ice-cold wind. A designer’s goal and dream are to create frictionless experiences that just work.
But while invisibility is the dream, it is also a nightmare. You see, good design is invisible. But so is bad – harmful – design. Designers know that design is not just what something looks like, it’s how it works. And if you look at design through that lens, you’ll soon discover that everything is designed. From the building, we inhabit to the products we use, and the systems we participate in as a part of a larger societal structure. Many of these environments, products, and systems cause harm. The problem is that most of the time we don’t notice them because we’re not a part of the groups they hurt. Harmful systems and environments are often invisible to the majority.
After the death of George Floyd, The professional association for design’s (AIGA) Executive Director, Bennie F. Johnson posted a statement saying: “All systems are designed. Harmful systems must be redesigned.” His post was a direct reaction to the current structures that allow for systematic racism to continue in America. We often view issues like racism as a problem of “bad” individuals with skewed beliefs. But the problem is not just the people, but rather the design of a system established a long time ago, and enforced for decades. These systems that we’re all a part of, were set up to help some while hurting others.
All systems ARE designed. And many harmful systems are invisible to the people not experiencing the negative effects of the systems directly. White people like me living in the U.S., often struggle to see the systems in place because we’ve never been discriminated against or held back or harmed by them, so to us, they’re invisible.
The follow-up to the statement “good design is invisible” is “and bad design goes everywhere.” And if we switch the lens to examine the bad or harmful designs that are invisible, we find examples everywhere.
It’s not just systems that are harmful to different groups. Products and environments also play a big role in invisibly excluding certain groups of people. If we’re able-bodied, the lack of sidewalks and ramps probably goes unnoticed to us. And only when we break a leg, we’ll see the problems with the design of our cities.
And it is only when we’re held back because of our gender or race that we begin to notice.
Redesigning harmful systems
Marketing and design teach us that understanding the user is at the heart of good product design and effective communication. But if we want to do what Johnson said “redesign harmful systems” (and products and environments) we need to dig deeper. We must create WITH people not for them. As we redesign systems, the people previously closest to the pain must be closest to the power. As designers, we’re responsible for making sure our creations do not continue to cause harm.
Any time we’re a part of the majority, we must make a conscious effort to see the invisible, harmful problems for the minority.
What is good for the minority is also good for the majority
The other day I attended a webinar about disability and design. The talk featured eight panelists with different disabilities, and they all explained the challenges and opportunities in the field of design. They highlighted the fact that most people will at some point experience a disability in their lifetimes, and at any given moment, 20 percent of the world is experiencing a disability in some form. This shows the importance of making it a focus. But another thing they highlighted was the fact that it is good for the minority, and is also good for the majority. Making your product accessible for someone with low vision disability also helps people with 20/20 vision. Inaccessibility only enhances a poor user experience.
What’s good for the minority, is also good for the majority. A tool designed for arthritis will also be more comfortable for someone who is able-bodied. Ramps are easier options for folks who aren’t in need of walkers or wheelchairs. Revising your H1/H2 text to make it better for a speech reader also improves your SEO.
Design plays a big role in the creation of our current realities, and as designers, we have the power and privilege to imagine a world that works for everyone.
Where do we go from here?
When we know better, we do better. Taking a step back, and examining any unintended consequences of how we live our daily lives can hold us individually accountable to the greater good. Then take a good look at our work – learning from mistakes in the past, course-correcting current projects, and making a plan to do better in the future. Whether it’s how we vote, how we engage with broken systems, or how we’re designing a new website with a new lens of accessibility and inclusivity in mind, it’s our duty as designers to create a world that helps and doesn’t harm.
For more design tips, download our free guide, Designing for Good.