Design is not magic

This was orginially posted on Medium on Nov 7, 2015; you can read it there if you like, but I'm not to keen to use their platform anymore.

The developer messages me. "The back end is done," he declares. "All that’s left is for you to work your design magic. *smile emoji*"

I inadvertently begin to fume. Why? He’s trying to pay me a compliment; what I do is "magic" to them! Well, beside the fact that I’ve already applied my skills weeks ago to actually design this piece of functionality just implemented, and how it fits into the rest of the experience, I'm now being told that my job is not perceived as something that requires skill, talent, or constant practice. It's just magic! Press a few magic buttons, wave your Design Wand™, and poof! The software/website/application is done. No heavy lifting needed!

It takes herculean effort to bite my tongue as I respond to the developer. "If it’s so easy and magical to you," I want to retort, "then why don’t you just do it yourself?"

(Heck, this applies to anything asked of a designer: "I made this PowerPoint/brochure/flyer/poster/drawing of my cat, can you just make it look a bit better??" But let’s focus on design as a part of a larger team or organization.)

Of course, lashing out would accomplish nothing but spark animosity between team members that should be happily collaborating and iterating ideas together. Naturally, my teammate is not trying to disparage me personally. But, when someone refers to my work as "magic," what I hear is an unwillingness to accept my skills and expertise as something that takes time, study, practice, and dedication. Why is there this misunderstanding, this mistrust, this fear of accepting design as a necessity, not a luxurious, "magical" service sometimes splurged upon?

Frankly, I'm tired of defending design decisions 3, 4, 5 times, because of a general misunderstanding of how and why I arrived at that decision. Design is logical, it is something that can be understood and explained. It's not some nebulous, subjective process that someone outside of the field has no hope of ever grasping.

The "design is magic" myth is pervasive for a reason. It's difficult to shrug off, because somewhere deep down, it’s soothing to think of our practice as “magic” — who doesn’t want that on their resumé?! Even job postings are titled “UX magician,” this-or-that “guru”, or some kind of “ninja” — there’s a tendency to assign supernatural archetypes to the role of the designer. On the surface, it certainly sounds nice. But go any deeper than that, and it’s an empty phrase that encourages ignorance.

Consider this a formal request to everyone who works with a designer: we are not magicians. We are practitioners of a skill you do not have, solving problems that may not ever occur to you.

Old ways of thinking and dated processes are difficult to change. But time and time again, we see case studies across industries of organizations achieving greater successes because of changes in their workflow include design thinking. We know that design is good for business.

When we advocate for design thinking, it does not only mean the technical implementation, "making it look pretty". That is the last step in a long process. Design thinking means that someone with a mind for both the conceptual experience of the whole end product and the skills or knowledge of technical implementation was involved from the start. Designers can be visionaries in the literal sense: someone who can see, literally visualize, the business goal in relation to the end product, and determine if they will meet. Nothing ever just comes together. Rest assured that someone, somewhere, designed it beforehand and guided the process. What is "magic" to you is a combination of applied skills and thinking you may have missed.

The challenge is to upend the current understanding of what designers do. And, most importantly, that design is not "magic." It is a deliberate, planned, researched, and educated solution to a specific problem or problems.

In the end, having to constantly rationalize a design presence at an organization is a reflection of culture. Changing it starts with designers, as we are our first and most well-informed advocates. But we can’t do it on our own. This is a two-way street.

If you are a designer, let's go back to that developer at the beginning of the article. If you ever receive a message like that, use it as a learning opportunity. While we must be careful not to appear self-aggrandizing, it's important to advocate for design in the modern workplace. Again, you can’t do it alone — that’s why you need your team members on your side. Show them how you contribute and how you can both work better together.

More importantly, if you're not a designer, get it in your head that design is not magic. Perpetuating the "design is magic" myth harms every member of a product team, including you. You don’t have to be a designer to understand that design practitioners have every bit of drive, skill, and talent as anyone else.