Welcoming the Self-Taught Designer

Khoi Vinh has vinh vocal for some time about the lack of a true design criticism discipline, in the way that there are literary critics or the peer review process and such. He claims we’re partly to blame, because of how we horse-trade each other for jobs (and we can’t bring ourselves to bad-mouth the work of someone we might want to work for someday). Sadly, this reluctance contributes to our field’s perceived irrelevance beyond ourselves.

If it sounds shocking to consider that not everyone believes that design is so important (I mean, we’re Creatives. Like God. The Creator!) he offers some sobering data about that.

As an industry, we just don’t have the guts to say what we think about our work. We have some legendary publications out there. Design Observer, one of my favorites, will do it, but usually it’s the, “Wouldn’t it be great if they had a designer?” kind of stuff. Even A List Apart—obviously one I’m fond of—doesn’t do it.

That’s when Vinh gets our attention, I think. As a designer, I’m familiar with not having a substantive say in the work. It happens. Even as a “Senior” designer. It feels nice to know there are people whose jobs are to get Design a seat at the table. But to argue that this is a hole I’ve dug for myself—that my desire to make my discipline get the appreciation it deserves might be making me (and the rest of us) isolationists—is interesting. Almost as though we went from not wanting to be a part of this internet thing and to having a victim attitude about feeling left out.

Khoi Vinh has lived through some of what I think were very important iterations in the field of design. He worked before and after the dotcom crash, Web 2.0 (the Windows ME of our craft), the arrival of the walled gardens, to this interesting place we are now where we’re many of us are making comfortable money working in-house for large tech behemoths, but are working in a way that is making us miss agency life and the old days where “Webmasters, we did everything.”

His solution is not to go and share the Joy of Making with the outside world—just making sure they’re clear that we’re the real thing, not them—and all of this will figure itself out. Nope, his solution is more radical. He thinks we should be more like engineers. Where we like to think of ourselves as the empathetic and open-minded bunch, engineers, relatively-speaking, have an open borders policy on who they let in. And given the issues that the engineering world in the tech industry has, this is a sobering comparison.

Which brings me to my own radical belief (which shouldn’t be, in 2019). AIGA releases an annual Census and of course in the last few years it muses about how we might do better in terms of diversity and inclusion. Get more people to go to design school, help them break into the industry, get them promoted, get them into leadership roles. Get them to come, and get them to stay.

I think it’s part and parcel of Vinh’s solution to the problem (and consequence of) having no design criticism:

We need to finally welcome the self-taught designer.

I know we do this better in the web community. It’s how I got in, for example. We let people work for us at tech companies, we buy their logos on the internet. That’s not what I’m talking about and I don’t think that’s what Khoi Vinh’s referring to either. We’re referring to the Design Establishment, the same folks that quibbled twenty years ago about whether designing for the browser was real design or a schmuck’s side hustle. The same Establishment that has finally let people like Vinh (and myself) in. Through the back door, perhaps, but we’re in. We’re Real Designers. And now we’re kind of doing the same thing to people on the outside, on the valid claim that our work has grave, real (not futurist clickbait) consequences.

But as long as we let this cycle continue, not only are we being jerks, but we’re helping bring about our own irrelevance? Certainly that can make us look up from our innies and outies for a moment, can’t it?

/ Cover photo is “Tijuana Border,” by Barbara Zandoval

By Desiree Zamora Garcia

I like to eat, think, and take things apart.