Why Design Is Bad For Designers (And How To Fix That)

If you’re like most talented designers, you have an eye for aesthetics. You understand beauty, design, and symmetry at an almost fundamental level. It’s not just a nice-to-have, it’s an essential component that shapes how you see the world.

That’s the problem.

Most of the people around you, the people you work with, don’t get it. They don’t have an eye for design. They don’t understand the principles of design.

Designers Are Often Punished For Their Talents

Many designers are abused, neglected and taken for granted. It’s not supposed to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way, but for many creatives, it is.

Designing Is Amazing, When You’re In Control

Most of the time, you’re not in control are you? Most of the time you’re asked to create something you know isn’t very good. How many times have you heard a variation of, “Make it pop?” But, it’s more than that.

As a designer, you have an eye for aesthetics. You’re unconsciously aware of form, structure and layout in a way that non-designers are not. If you’re like most designers, you see the elements of design everywhere. If you’re a talented designer you’re orderly, observant and intelligent. You see and understand far more details than you share. It’s the hallmark of a brilliant designer.

Here’s why this is a problem.

Designers Are Consistently Required To Create Ugly, Poorly Performing Work For Incompetent People

When I say ugly I’m not just talking about work that’s visually unappealing. I’m talking about work that creates confusion, stress or anxiety in users. Work that pushes users and your employer further away from the goals they’re trying to achieve.

Non-designers have this bad habit.

They seem to believe they’re capable designers, that their expertise in one area, like say accounting, marketing, or investing, is automatically transferable to design. “It’s just design” they tell themselves. How hard can it be?

Non-designers wrap their awful requests in comments like these:

“I know you need four days to do this but it’s an easy project. You’re a decent designer so this shouldn’t be too hard for you to get this done in the next half hour. I mean come on, you should be grateful you even have a job. There are plenty of designers who’d love to have the opportunities you have. Just be grateful for the work you have.”

Maybe you’ve heard something similar?

Here’s the thing. Gratitude isn’t a cure for dysfunction. It’s a necessary and natural part of success.

Why design == suffering

Does design really == suffering?

It doesn’t, at least not in a healthy environment.

Okay, what does a healthy environment look like? It’s one where designers are given the freedom and constraints they need to create new things, to dream up new ideas. This typically includes a few essential ingredients.

  • Clear boundaries to work within. The do’s and don’ts. Clear instructions on the amount and types of risks you can take with your design. When to take these risks, why you’d go about taking them and when you shouldn’t. Boundaries can also include design philosophies (e.g. minimalism, simplicity) and values.
  • Frameworks to follow. A clear rationale that outlines the design process you follow on your team. Policies and procedures that outline how you go about creating consistently great work. Tools and resources used by your team to produce that work. Styles, samples and libraries (e.g. Zurb’s Foundation) used as a reference point.
  • Guidance and corrective feedback. Both inexperienced and experienced designers will make mistakes. As designers, we may run into a scenario where we’re happy with something that isn’t up to standard. Other times we may focus our attention on details that don’t move everyone towards their desired goals.
  • Ongoing training and support. Personal and professional development that increases your abilities and develops skills with new tools. Support when you run into trouble or need help. Strategic and tactical content that teaches you the when, why, and how concepts in design.

At first glance these seem pretty obvious, don’t they?

But they’re really not.

What happens when these ingredients are missing? Work shifts from a supportive environment to an oppressive one.

Oppressive environments create and maintain suffering

Your workplace runs on motivation. The more “engaged” people are at work, the better they perform. That’s the problem. Research shows most people are “disengaged at work.” That’s basically a roundabout way of saying most people hate their jobs.

Not surprising, is it? Here’s why.

Most Workplaces Rely On A Poor Motivation Strategy; The Carrot Or The Stick

Do what your boss wants (even if it’s horrible, soul sucking and tedious) and you get to keep your job. You receive some kind of financial reward. Resist and you’re punished. You’re hammered with more terrible work, placed on a PIP, demoted, or fired.

This is how we’re “motivated” at work.

Not very motivating is it? In fact, it’s this kind of poor motivation that’s created an environment of disloyalty.

In Drive, Daniel Pink’s bestselling book on motivation, Pink shares the secret behind motivation. Motivation, as it turns out, is based on three specific ingredients.

  • Autonomy. Our desire and ability to be self directed, to control our work to a certain extent.
  • Mastery. The ability to improve our skills as designers, to gain control and supremacy over our craft.
  • Purpose. The desire to create meaningful work that serves a greater goal.

As designers, how many of us actually can say we have this at work? If the research I shared above is accurate, not many. The question then, is why. Here’s a few of the most common reasons.

  • Design by non-designer. The designer’s work is consistently critiqued by non-designers who consistently ask the designers to violate their training, conscience, abilities. Their work is belittled, diminished or invalidated.
  • Dysfunctional management. Managers and clients make unreasonable requests due to their lack of knowledge, a misunderstanding of the basics and/or poor management. It makes sense then that 50 percent of employees quit their job to get away from a horrible boss.
  • Conflict between creating and selling. Many designers and developers despise sales and marketing teams. It’s hard to create meaningful work or feel you’re serving a greater purpose when you’re asked to lie, deceive, or manipulate users.
  • Doing trivial work that doesn’t seem to matter much to users, employers or yourself.

(This isn’t a comprehensive list.)

As it stands, designers hate their jobs for a variety of reasons.

“There’s nothing you can do to fix this…”

This is just the way things are. It’s a common objection that—fortunately for designers—is completely untrue. There’s a lot designers can do to fix a miserable situation. Why do so many designers believe their situation is hopeless?


Many designers have been mistreated for so long, that they’ve simply accepted a lie. That this is normal, the way things are. But this isn’t the case everywhere. The good news, there is a way for designers to fix this problem. The bad news? Many designers will find a reason why the solution won’t work.

What’s the solution?

Creating results.

That’s it?! That’s the amazing solution I’ve been talking up all this time? It sounds like a complete waste of time, I know. While it sounds like generic and unhelpful advice there’s a whole lot more to this. When it comes to results there are two kinds:

  • Conventional results build trust and security. Being great at your job, going above and beyond, working well with others, etc. If you’re a designer whose work is excellent, you’re reliable and you’re someone your team knows they can count on.
  • Transformative results build trust and power. Results that make things better for your employer, the industry or users as a whole. It can be as simple as solving a unique problem for other designers, creating something helpful that others find valuable or creating something significant and meaningful.

Here’s why these results matter. Results give you more control. Remember earlier when I said, “designing is amazing, when you’re in control?” This is what I’m talking about. Giving those around you (your employer, clients, co-workers, users) what they want means they grow to depend on you.

When your employer depends on you they’re far more likely to give you the freedom and control you need to do amazing work. You know what conventional results, i.e. doing a good job at work, looks like. But what do transformative results look like?

Let’s look at three examples.


Jessica Hische, a letterer, illustrator and type designer saw a common problem in her industry. Designers were being abused. Clients promise designers more work if they’ll do the first design project for free. New designers fell for it. Hische ran into this problem herself and finally decided to do something about.

She created shouldiworkforfree.com.

It went viral. Her simple flowchart hit a designer sore spot. Her chart was covered on AdWeek, Fast Company, LifeHacker and other top 500 sites. The change was transformative. It cemented her status as an “expert.” It also gave her a tremendous amount of trust and power.

Clients came to her with a “you’re the expert, what should I do?” attitude.

Ruby on Rails

David Heinemeier Hanson, designer and developer at 37Signals, used the Ruby programming language to build Basecamp. David extracted Ruby on Rails from his work on Basecamp and released it as open source. Ruby on Rails would be used by companies like Hulu, Shopify, Twitch, AirBnB and SoundCloud.

More than 4,500 people have contributed code to Rails. David has created transformative change by simply sharing his work. He’s created something that impacts the lives of literally billions of users every day.


Gareth David had a simple idea. He wanted to create tutorials for the creative community. As an educreator, he creates in-depth, beautifully done tutorials and he shared them for free on YouTube. It’s something that lots of other people have done.

Gareth stands out because his quality is outstanding, his tutorials are comprehensive. He takes beginners, helps them progress to competent intermediate designers and builds them up to knowledgeable pros. He’s focused on giving to others and the comments on his videos show he’s making transformative change.

Here’s the thing with transformative change…

It doesn’t have to be difficult and it doesn’t have to be hard. The sky’s the limit. If you’re creating something valuable for other people, something that solves a problem in a unique way, it’s transformative. 

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Write a book
  • Contribute guest posts/content [Ed: to sites like ours!]
  • Start a podcast and/or be a podcast guest
  • Create flow charts and infographics
  • Create helpful code
  • Design free templates, fonts, icons, or asset packs
  • Post helpful explainer and tutorial videos on YouTube
  • Create regular research studies on design topics
  • Offer free/paid workshops at libraries, community colleges, universities
  • Create helpful partnerships, meetups, or events
  • Bring helpful deals, ideas, or applications to your employer

Can you see the secret behind these ideas? It’s value. If you’d like to regain control over your work you’ll need to know how to provide value.

This is the big secret we aren’t taught in school

The world is driven by value. The more valuable you are to those around you, the more influence, power and control you’ll have over your work as a designer. 

What about you? You’re running around doing everything for everyone else. What’s in it for you? What will you get out of it? It’s a legitimate question with a wonderful answer. 

It’s up to you.

Want to work from home? Earn a pay raise or the freedom to try new things? To work on amazing projects and receive preferential treatment? Provide so much value that your employer, your clients simply can’t afford to lose you? Then use the value formula to get what you need.

It goes like this:

  1. Create X dollars of value for your employer, co-workers and users.
  2. Capture Y percent of X.

That’s it.

It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

If you’re in a miserable place where you lack the autonomy, mastery or purpose you need, find a different job. Then, work on yourself. Can you fix a problem that gets you recognition in your industry? Get to work. Think you have the makings of a great teacher? Show us.

Is Designing Bad For Designers?

If you’re not exceptional it could be bad for you. Exceptional designers aren’t like everybody else. They’re not special. They’re not untouchable.

These designers are exceptional because they use the value formula.

Employers, clients – they fight to keep them. Users gravitate towards their work. They’re paid well – more than their co-workers. They have more control over their work and their environment, whether they’re freelance or employed.

This sounds like a myth, but it’s reality for many designers

You can have it too.

Being a designer doesn’t have to be painful. Your employers and co-workers don’t have to understand structure, aesthetics or usability the way you do. They just have to trust you. Trust, as we’ve seen, comes from value. The more value you create for those around you, the more freedom, control and power you receive.

Because designing is better when it’s focused on value.

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