Professionally, I can hardly imagine anything better than starting out in digital design in 2021: In concise courses and workshop sprints, one is introduced to the core aspects of user-centered thinking and design. The tools you work with provide libraries of frameworks, templates, and UX kits to jumpstart a project; social media and publishing platforms are full of insights and articles. It may take time, but no money, to acquire relevant knowledge with these resources to develop a first prototypes for one's own ideas. Friends and family are acquired on short notice for testing and feedback. And just like that, the MVP is ready to go.
After almost 30 years of struggling for recognition among decision-makers and young talent alike, digital design - in its respective contemporary names - has finally arrived at the center of companies. In addition to external factors such as the acceleration of technological developments due to the expansion of mobile networks in particular, and the resulting rapid increase in adaptation by end users, it required only one thing: simplicity.
Isn't that what we do best? Understanding complex relationships, recognizing dynamics and identifying the necessary levers that help us develop us to simple solutions.
The simple solution to the problem of frightening digital transformation is feel good design. We design physical and digital spaces, for example in the form of workshops and templates, that allow those unfamiliar with the subject to easily get up to speed. We create safe spaces to teach new methods and ways of working. And to get to know colleagues in a new way. We curate prompts and activities that give people in supposedly non-creative professions access to their own creativity and in turn create a sense of achievement. And all of this in a way that is easy to replicate.
Simply too easy.
But at the same time we raise a generation of immature young professionals and decision-makers.
"Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's intelligence without the guidance of another." to quote Immanuel Kant. It is both, a self-inflicted and an externally inflicted immaturity.
Because, of course, everyone has the opportunity to delve deeper into digital topics, methods and processes themselves. At the same time, however, we experience an opportunistic absolutism, reinforced by a promise of efficiency, that precisely this engagement is unnecessary "because the methods we are presenting to you here right now have been tried and tested hundreds of times."
Understanding what you are doing and why, critically examining how it works, what has been left out, and what other approaches are available are thus declared a waste of time. By the way, in full self-interest, since the immature client is the business model. And besides, the workshops and sprints are simply convenient.
Simply too convenient.
It is hard to argue rationally why they are not sufficient. Nobody wants to be a grinch and killjoy. And it's nice that even digitally-averse decision-makers are suddenly interested in our work. But in yearning for that good feeling, we unlearn the ability to withstand contradiction and complex interrelationships. This is probably one of the most important skills in the transformation we are already experiencing.
When we participate in feel-good events - a 5-minute exercise here, next 15, short chat at the coffee machine, then on to the next agenda item - we always only shape what was. Not what could be.
Those who are asked to sketch their ideal user without strategic insights will reproduce what they know: past stereotypes, majorities, and prejudices. Concealed by adding the stock photo of a Person of Color as a token of one's wokeness. Not out of malice, on the contrary, in affect. For those who have only a few minutes to immerse themselves in an issue can only find the information they're able to access quickly and superficially. There is no space nor time to dig into experiences, to reassure or understand. Only to react.
And so we are making strategic decisions as fast as we can think. Not as deeply as we can understand the problem. And in doing so, we as designers do not do justice to the overall societal challenges we're experiencing already.
Simply too short-sighted.
There are essentially two responses to the growing complexity of our globalizing world, our diverse society, the worsening climate crisis, and accelerating technological change: rational or emotional, realistic or populist.
In this respect, populist design could be understood as opportune and desired design. This is design that deals with topics that are currently being hyped, that serve one's own reputation, or that are considered innovative. Topics that can be solved "quite easily" and also provide a feel-good effect here.
Realistic design means that we increasingly act as systemic consultants, because in digital design, we discover which departments need to exchange ideas and how in order to achieve their common goals. The tasks we encounter can start very small as usability optimizations and grow into fragments of a holistic transformation process.
Feel-good simplicity no longer helps us here. On the contrary, it becomes an obstacle to realistic assessments of situations, efforts and approaches.
Instead, we need courage. The courage to name a complex situation as it is. The courage to think not only faster but also deeper. The courage not to always have an ad-hoc answer to everything. The courage to find individual answers to our questions. The courage to help our decision-makers to become responsible actors. The courage to use our own intellect.