Illustration by Therrious Davis for this article.
Have you ever looked at a design, read an article or tweet from a designer, or seen an update to a popular product and thought to yourself: "I could have done so much better!” or "Why did they decide to do this?!”
I know I have.
Unfortunately this is a harmful way of approaching anything we deem as "low quality" out in the world, whether in a design critique, a forum, the news, or elsewhere.
Especially as designers—whose skillset should entail the ability to temporarily step outside and away from our own, limited perspectives—such limited thinking hurts our ability to be empathetic, impactful creators for those we serve.
What we tend to overlook when first responding to the work of others with critical aghast is the fact that in these situations there's more that has taken place behind the scenes than we're aware of. We simply don't have enough insight into just how much work and decision making took place to make an informed judgement about the thing we're looking at.
And yet we critically and openly make face-value judgements.
We rarely see the constraints, pushback, perspectives, and objectives others are working with. We can hardly know whether the work was even meant for someone like us, or if the audience is an entirely different group of people with different beliefs, ways of seeing things, or needs. Readily jumping to any conclusions without first considering these aspects means we're shutting off and rejecting work that may otherwise actually be "good” or even remarkable.
In this way: we're limiting what we can learn from the world around us.
I was reminded of this while reading Why Bad Things Happen to Good Decisions over on the Farnam Street blog:
When other people make decisions with bad outcomes, we tend to focus on the people behind the decision. We can't seem to shake the belief that good people make good decisions and bad people make bad decisions. It's easy to think that we would have made a better decision.
The article continues:
"When our decisions have bad outcomes we know the outcomes is not all there is to see. Our thoughts and intentions come into play. We can't see the thoughts and intentions of others—we only see their actions through a biased lens."
While the Farnham Street article is primarily about evaluating decisions—ours and those of others—the point is strikingly relevant to how we judge the work of others too.
We can't see the intentions behind work we deem as "bad” so we readily assume it's garbage. The inverse is often true as well: we assume a good designer we admire is only capable of producing good work, so we celebrate it even if it fails to meet the needs of those it was designed for.
Let me give you one recent example of how immediate judgement leads to short-sightedness in the world of design.
When Google announced they were releasing 53 gender fluid emoji, the announcement was shared to a prominent design group I'm part of on Facebook. There the comments ranged from "Why would they ever do this?” to "This is completely unnecessary and dumb!”
Something I noted while reading through the comments was that the vast majority (98% by my count) came from well-off, white males. Females and gender fluid designers simply didn't comment because the toxicity and criticism was already prevalent in the comment thread.
I asked the community there how many of them had considered that this announcement wasn't for them? I stated:
The cost of creating more emoji is minimal but the upside is potentially hundreds of thousands if not *millions* of people feeling included and better capable of expressing themselves how billions of others do… Why would you want to deliberately exclude people from this if you knew there was a way to solve it?
Emojis are great for expressing oneself, but if you find you couldn't express yourself effectively what would you do? Imagine using emoji where the only skin color available is that of a race you are not. Or that the only activity-based emoji are people who are disabled. How would you feel? What would you do? Would you feel better or worse in that hypothetical to hear the companies were working on more emoji to help people like yourself better express themself?”
Here is just a small example of my point, but it feels like a recurring scenario in the broader design industry. We're lightning quick to critically chastise something we feel is low quality, unnecessary, overly complex, or otherwise "dumb.” We do so without first analyzing the merits, objectives, and execution of the thing.
What we should be doing whenever we encounter something we disagree with or question is acknowledge that first response but then proactively dig deeper to step away from our lens of evaluation in order to get a clearer picture of what is actually sitting in front of us.
If we want to be better designers we must learn to see from perspectives that are not our own. This includes perspectives we may not readily be able to access or understand.