design lessons for 2021
Things are not ok. We are in the middle of a global pandemic that has taken the lives of more than a million people. Those of us who have been able to keep our jobs in the economic crisis have been working remotely, leaving us feeling isolated and struggling to remain productive while the world burns outside.
As if that wasn't enough, state violence against marginalized populations has escalated, while the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. Across the world, we are seeing the rise of authoritarian regimes fueled by the manipulation of truth and the dissemination of lies on social media.
In the six years we have been publishing this report, we have always challenged ourselves to discuss our industry beyond tactical visual trends or insular new technologies. In this edition, we decided to expand even further.
Not trends, but lessons. Lessons on how to make an impact beyond our products, how to collaborate beyond Zoom calls, how to organize ourselves beyond our bubbles, and how to improve our craft beyond artboards. Lessons from voices we still don’t hear as often in the design mainstream — but we should. Lessons that can help us all dive into 2021 a bit more prepared.
8 On December 31st, delete your backlog: whatever you need to focus on next won't be there.
In 2020 we have seen tech workers fired for organizing unions, designers laid off for reaching out to workers on the ground, and employees silenced at multiple levels by company leadership. Now that we are no longer meeting in the office as a team, it has become even more important to create new spaces to connect with our coworkers and to make sure our voices are heard.
“Many people assume that empathy is an inherent skill of all designers and, therefore, easy. This mythology is deeply problematic and detrimental to human-centered practice.” — Caitlin Chase
“Empathy is feeling what someone else is feeling. It is attempting to crawl into their minds and hearts and experience what they’re experiencing. This is impossible. We cannot feel what it is to be anyone but ourselves. (...) Compassion, unlike empathy, allows us to remain rational. It’s what allows us to act when someone gets injured in front of us. Compassion allows us to take action in the face of their pain; we trust their anger and pain without taking it on.” — Tatiana Mac
“This is a moment where everybody must make a choice. What are you willing to do differently to root out the white supremacy the technology sector perpetuates? Are you going to continue to uphold the status quo or are you going to move fast and break up the old way of doing things?” — Tiffani Ashley Bell
GPT-3 gave designers a scare. For a split second this year, we thought we had been replaced by a Figma plugin — one that utilized AI to auto-generate screens based on a text entry from the user. We quickly realized the threat wasn’t the AI itself, but our tendency as designers to focus on the repetitive part of the process.
This changes everything. 🤯With GPT-3, I built a Figma plugin to design for you.I call it "Designer" pic.twitter.com/OzW1sKNLEC
As more UI patterns becomes standardized, we need to change our focus. “The role of designers is changing, there is no doubt. It will become more about their ability to define the problem to solve; how should they solve it; consider the broad implications on society, people, and the environment; and to learn how to control the machines with their words.”— Ruth Kikin-Gil
“In the US, a widely-used healthcare algorithm falsely concludes that black patients are healthier than equally sick white patients. AI that is used to determine hiring decisions has been shown to amplify existing gender discrimination. (…) AI systems shape the information we see on social media feeds and can perpetuate disinformation when they are optimized to prioritize attention-grabbing content. The examples are endless.” — The Algorithmic Justice League, founded by Joy Buolamwini.
Image classification, text transcription, content moderation: behind every algorithm there is a massive workforce that is usually out of sight (and regulations). “When low-cost, politically fractured labor is contracted to infrastructure projects — such as training systems that rely on machine learning or AI — all of the political and social factors embedded in the gig labor platform contribute to the shape of the system being trained.” — Technically Responsible Knowledge, a project by Caroline Sinders
possibly we should stop saying “the algorithm” and start saying “the way people programmed the app”
A collage of dozens of Black names marked as misspelled by Microsoft Word’s built-in spell checker. 2016, Pluralism, Deborah Roberts. Serigraph on Paper.
Design is about prioritization: saying no and taking out what’s non-essential. Creating technology that's user-friendly and clear is more important than flexing one's design smarts.
Full app designs are now shared on the Figma community, research templates are shared on Notion, front-end code on Codepen, and illustrations are easily accessible and customizable through plugins like Blush. The trend of sharing and remixing reveals that the secret to better design lies in the wisdom of the collective, rather than the genius of the individual.
New York Times front page highlighting the 100,000 deaths in the US by COVID-19 on May, 2020. By December, the number passed the 250,000 mark.
We have been following the invisible COVID-19 virus through charts and data visualizations and, in some cases, numbers distorted to fit political agendas. When we have events at the scale of a global pandemic, data is at the center of the conversations. Designers have a responsibility to explain how to read the data they’re presenting. One data point (or data alone) can't be the only tool used to measure an issue.
Flatten the curve visualization. Lower peak graph simulates scenario with protective measures that don’t overload the healthcare system capacity compared to a high peak scenario without protective measures. Sam Whitney, CDC via Wired.
Data visualization can be a tool for prediction (and intervention) of the future. The much-discussed "flatten the curve" graphic which circulated in the early stages of the pandemic is a great example of how a visualization can communicate the risks of inaction. Data simulation can help us confront large-scale, complex issues like the economy, health, and climate change by modeling the likely outcomes of various courses of action.
Group thinking (sometimes disguised as “workshop” or “design thinking”) is a powerful tool for bringing stakeholders into the design process — but on its own it won’t lead to products with a strong point of view. Don't overcomplicate your process by turning everything into a committee decision. Sometimes you just need to design it.
Designers have been experiencing Zoom fatigue and calendar bloating, leaving them less time and energy to work on designing things. To make remote work more sustainable, we need to respect differences in people’s schedules, workflow, and availability by prioritizing asynchronous collaboration over Zoom calls.
Someone in your family forwards you a conspiracy theory message. The content is clearly misleading but presented in such a compelling way that it’s hard to ignore. You do some research and reply with an article from a reliable source which refutes the theory. It's a long, well-argued, in-depth piece and… It's behind a paywall.
Companies are (finally) starting to prioritize the task of making their services accessible to everyone. This means that accessibility consultancy is becoming a big business — ask the right questions before hiring accessibility experts.
Focus your portfolio on showing your craft, your polish, and how much you care about your work. When you get to the interview, you’ll have plenty of time to walk them through your case studies from top to bottom.
“Terrorism, war, hurricanes, and earthquakes create excessive, ultra-visual chaos: fireballs, rubble, water, wounds. The virus, meanwhile, cannot be seen, and the crisis it’s created has, in a horrifying way, tidied the world. Just as each added tally in the death count represents a subtraction from the human whole, the visceral and visual impact of the pandemic has been a mounting absence.”— Spencer Kornhaber
42 · Blog of the year: TAOI "Information structures have a critical influence on the effectiveness of digital products over time."
43 · Game UX highlight: Baba is You There’s this perception that we can’t change the rules of the game. We have more power than we think.
“Workers (now and in the future) will evaluate potential jobs not just according to the duties of the role, but also on the experiences, culture and care that the company provides to those who are a part of it. Now is the time for the real experience design. In an officeless world, the companies and experience designers who use creativity and compassion as they devise avenues for true connection are the ones who will be most likely to succeed, and their workers will experience more joy, wellbeing, and company loyalty as a result." — Kat Vellos
Part of the excitement of participating in a conference is the opportunity to network, a benefit which doesn’t translate well to remote events. On the bright side, when there’s no need to pay for stadium-like spaces and expensive lighting equipment, new, smaller organizers can create their own events. This offers opportunities for a more diverse group of presenters to share the spotlight.
A conference is a confined space with thousands of people. Imagine being there right now. Photo by Samuel Pereira.
The energy used to transfer data over the wire, to keep data centers and networks operating, and to power the user’s device all generates pollution (475 grams of CO2e per kWh, to be more precise). As digital designers, we don’t often think of the “waste” generated by our products, but even good web performance can map to lower energy usage. Start a conversation with your team on how to make your product greener.
Now a 70+ billion-dollar industry, facial coverings are here to stay. In addition to saving lives, masks have become a political and cultural statement, signifying one’s belief in science and concern for others’ wellbeing.
Different options of cloth face masks. Photo by Sarah Kobos via New York Times.
“If you benefit from a position of privilege, sometimes the goal is to not always step up, but to step back. In opportunities to take ownership of a design project, to accept a new leadership role, or to hire an incoming designer, whose voices are you uplifting? Consider your positionality in the spaces you occupy.” — Tiffany Wong
Diversity needs to be at the core of a company’s values, not just a hiring metric. When that’s the case, diversity goes beyond ethnicity and gender, and includes diversity of lived experiences, ability, and generations.
Guess what? Hiring a senior designer won't solve all the problems that have been piling up within your product. On the contrary, hiring junior designers can be a great strategy for elevating your design team. In 2021, we will need the fresh ideas, energy, and possibilities that only junior designers — regardless of age or background — can bring to the team.
And that’s ok. It’s ok to be a designer and be smart about product strategy. Or copy. Or coding. You don't need to change your career just because you are skilled in other areas. You don’t “unlearn” design when you learn other things — accumulating skill sets will only make you a better designer.
It’s a cycle. Designers fall in love with a particular design tool because it solves a specific need they have. Eager to scale fast, the company shifts their focus from product to marketing — investing in e-books, events, high-end video content, and swag. The product evolves to focus on the CTO rather than the designer. At some point, they become such a corporate behemoth that designers lose interest. Then a new, more focused tool emerges and wins the designer’s heart.
It might feel like your colleagues don't value your designs. Oh, well... They likely don’t. Not because you’re not a good designer, but because their job incentive is not "good design". If you want to make an impact at work, you have first to understand the priorities of your colleagues and then frame your work around their needs.
When a designer shares their career trajectory publicly, it’s been curated. When they speak about “what it’s like to work at Google”, that story has been vetted by Google’s PR team. When they post something on Linkedin, they focus only on what will make them look good. When there’s an audience, there’s a fantasy — and an agenda. While designers are becoming more comfortable talking publicly about their failures, the most honest design conversations are still happening when the camera recording is off.
Platforms like Medium, Substack, and other niche design-publishing sites are waning in popularity, while the personal blog is making a comeback. While networked publishing platforms are great for scale, design writers want their their stories look and feel more personal. Medium has launched new features that make profiles feel more like personal blogs and is seeing growth again, but platforms like Wordpress, Gatsby, Ghost, and Webflow are definitely on the rise.
It’s time you asked tough questions about the brands you support — researching their tax affairs, treatment of staff, negative impacts on local retailers, and how they may be contributing to social inequities worldwide. Consumers are rethinking their shopping behaviors and choosing to support local retailers with more ethical and sustainable business practices.
“This is your time. No one else has had a time like this before. You can come out of it older and wiser, or you could simply come out of it. Both are enough. You are enough. What matters most is you and what you need, right now, today.” — Jen Goertzen
Now that work environment and personal space are blending, it’s even more important to remember to focus on aspects of our lives beyond work. Viviane Castillo's series of articles on self-care for designers has some great insights on how we can make time for ourselves.
A former tech employee in a documentary about why social media is bad (social media is bad) pic.twitter.com/yeB3MbRLii
The Social Dilemma documentary is problematic. It erases voices that have been studying the impact of social networks for a long time and creates a false narrative of how we got here and how much agency we have. But it did bring the topic to the mainstream in a way none of us had.
Ava DuVernay and other creators have already given us examples of how we can talk about complex topics in a more accessible way when we give the right people the tools to tell the story. If the silver lining is that issues with social networks got some attention, the least we can do is to take this opportunity to expand the discussion further.
After 12,000+ article submissions received this year, "how-to" articles are still the most popular, but the ones that go deeper into “why” get the best repercussion from our readers. Popular doesn’t mean good.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hoping the bookcase will make him sound better.
Zoom calls are a good excuse to color-coordinate your bookcase.
Carlos Bolsonaro, son of the far-right Brazilian President, has a bookcase stock photo as background. Cheaper than buying books.