Toxic Traits that Need Addressing in any Design Team
By recognising & addressing these characteristics, we can develop healthier workplaces, and produce better designs together.
A note before we start: When I started this essay, I didn’t know how much energy it would take me to write it. It’s felt like I’ve been dragging myself through the mud for the last couple of months. But I got here eventually: the finish line, and I’m proud of that. Although I’m not 100% sure I hit the marks either, and it’s a long one, I hope you enjoy reading it either way. Maybe, if we’re both lucky, you even gain some insights for your life.
“Half of a designer’s job involves soft skills.” I’m not sure who said that, but it’s so far proven to me to be true. Early in my career, I was naïve enough to believe Design is only about craft, the hard skills. Design practised in silo is far behind many of us. In its most basic form, a good design is the results of effective collaboration between the designer(s) and their client (or stakeholders) via a continuous feedback loop. A designer’s job, besides picking colours and kerning letters, is to facilitate the design through an iterative process. Simply put, if we’re only focused on our craft, we’re only doing half of the job required of us.
Tech is still the equivalent of a young teenager in the grand scheme of things, despite what some tech enthusiasts may tell you. And Design within a Tech context is only a toddler. As Tech grows, we’ve becoming more and more reliant on surveys and numbers to show us how our work is performing, how we’re performing, sometimes we forget to look at ourselves and the work we do in holistically, not just financially but ethically and socially, or how the way we conduct our Design practices is affecting our lives and others’. I’ve written before about how growing as a person can help you grow your Design career. Today, I’d like to talk about some toxic traits which may manifest in your Design team, and the practices we can employ to improve the situation.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly tried to do everything myself in the early years of my career. And because I tried to do everything myself, I experienced burn-outs more times than my then-fragile mental health should’ve allowed. When I wanted things done “correctly” (whatever that means), I had to do it myself. The mentality was flawed and evidently dangerous. By letting myself be more collaborative with my peers, I slowly got out of this bad habit of mine. I ask for help more often these days, making fewer assumptions and asking for help when I need it.
In my experience, I’m not an exception in any way. Individualism is not uncommon in the Design industry. The mainstream public still believe the superstar-designer myth, which in turn affects how we see ourselves as professional designers. For instance, Jony Ive didn’t single-handedly create Apple’s most iconic designs. I know firsthand Apple’s Design teams to be massive, spanning across many disciplines. Although I never met him, I see Jony as a great Design leader, and there’s no doubt he will come down in history as one of the most prominent Design figures; but no, he did not do it all alone. Even if we, the designers doing the workday in and day out, know Design can’t be done in silo, many still internalise individualism (including myself). Our stubbornness for it is even more evident when we fly solo.
By learning the difference between owning the work we do and isolating ourselves from our peers (within Design & beyond), we can learn how to let go, to delegate, to better collaborate, and, therefore, to develop productive and healthy work practices. While flat structure promises autonomy, overvaluing those who can get things done on their own without needing supervision or guidance can lead to a lack of accountability developed within the team’s culture. Moreover, more junior members may feel like they’re being neglected with no assistance or long-term career development.
The flat structure should instead be about transparency and open communication, focusing on a shared mission and how everyone is working toward them; i.e. holding people accountable as a group rather than as individuals. Meanwhile, make sure that credit is given to all those who participate in each project, not just the leaders or most public person. When building a new team, leaders ought to intentionally develop a culture where people bring problems to the group. One tangible tactic is not only using staff meetings as a place to report activities, but also a place to solve problems taken place within the organisation.
* “Focus, passion and meticulousness are admirable creative traits, but do we need to recognise when to stop?”* The increasing pressure put on the modern designer is acutely felt across the board. The competition is stiff. And despite the talks about embracing failures in Tech, there is an unspoken thrive for perfectionism among designers; as if perfection does exist. We want to create the perfect grid, choose the perfect typography, the perfect colour palette. And of course, we can’t forget to perfect every pixel.
On the other hand, we know perfectionism is terrible for the Design process. Design has never been an exact science (and it never will be). As designers, we often stumble into the so-called “perfect” design amidst the 51st iteration, or the 108th, or the 1420th. Sometimes, we are unsure about a design until a time has passed. Perfectionism simply distracts us. It makes us question every design decision we make and plagues us with anxiety.
Perfectionism also makes it harder for us to learn from our mistakes for fear of criticism. In the meantime, we pretend our admirations for those who (are perceived to) have reached perfection doesn’t exist. We all do it at various points of our careers (If you’ve never done it & you believe you won’t ever do it, please DM me. I’ll have whatever you’re having). We perform perfectionism not only because we care about the works we produce, but also because we all have been taught to strive for perfection not just by our own community but our society at large.
“Valuing little details over the wider picture. Prioritising your own perspective over another’s. Nitpicking. Judging. Being overly critical or aggressive. More important than perfectionism is the ability to recognise when to chase an ideal and when to let it go.”
— Cassie McDaniel, Senior Product Design Manager at Webflow
There’s No Only One Right Way (Either/Or Thinking)
Great products are often created with a clear vision, hard work, collaboration, with time, and in many cases, a lot of luck. We can easily recognise when a designer’s perfectionism being projected onto the shared work environment during a Design feedback session. Although feedback is an integral part of the n individual Design process, feedback sessions can quickly become about what went wrong, while the main problems and other perspectives are ignored if we aren’t careful. Since the meaning of perfection varies between individuals when one’s perfectionism is not mitigated, one’s frustration grows, explicit and confirmation biases have more space to creep in.
More alarmingly, when leadership promotes the Either/Or Thinking, i.e. “things are either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us”, it’s more difficult for everyone to understand the problem we’re trying to solve, and its potential solutions. Even worse yet, we waste time necessary for ideas to converge, for us to pay better attention to the problems at hand, to ship better products and to learn from our mistakes. It’s a red flag when an individual or a group continue(s) to push for the same idea over and over out of a belief.
Practically speaking, there are many ways to solve a problem. While no solution is perfect (especially early in the UX process), each solution is one step closer to genuinely solving the problem at hand. Aesthetics speaking, there are many ways of conveying a message, and different groups of people have different visual tastes. The only way to know the impact of the work is to ship and evaluate its performance in real contexts. There are only what works and what doesn’t. And what works today may not work in the future. The Design process ought to accommodate this very fluid nature of innovative work, not the other way around.
Defensiveness & Fear of Open Conflict
Speaking of feedback, designers are often told not to get defensive when they’re at the receiving end of feedback; because constructive feedback can help us improve the work, we do by shining lights on our blind spots. On the contrary, not many of us get taught how not to get defensive being feedback givers. Design is a team sport, and we need our teammates to watch our backs, not competing with us to see who has the better ideas. Problems start to snowball when our leaders get defensive. Slowly but surely, more energy is spent to protect the power structure, then an oppressive environment quietly manifests. By working on our personal defensiveness and understanding its close relationship with fear, we can start getting more courageous, embracing challenging ideas and keeping on encouraging each other through all ebbs and flows of the creative process.
It’s certainly natural for us to get defensive out of instincts. And because being defensive makes us look bad, we cope by avoiding conflicts, both at home and work, or we lash out. Conflicts can be difficult to navigate, even though they aren’t inherently bad. At its best, conflicts (for example, during a brainstorming session) can lead to deeply-nuanced conversations and potentially better solutions. Moreover, healthy conflicts can nurture not just new ideas but also relationships between people. In saying that, conflicts need to be monitored and examined on a case-by-case basis. Sadly, those who raise issues which potentially create conflicts are often scapegoated, accused of rudeness, blamed and shamed. Instead, organisations should focus on what’s really causing the problems to solve them effectively. The role of leadership during conflicts is to see through those conflicts while coaching everyone involved to do the same.
“It is also our responsibility to consume information that challenges what we believe, to regularly check both the assumptions and the privileges that shape the products we build every day, and to meet our users where they are.”
— Hareem Mannan, Product Design Manager at Segment
Objectivity & Right to Comfort
Defensiveness is just one example of how emotions can have negative impacts on our work. Design is still seen by many as a subjective profession due to Design’s relationship with its older brother, Art. Being unclear about the presence of emotions in a work environment only makes everything worse. The symptoms can range from invalidating people who show emotions, to leaders being impatient with any thinking which doesn’t seem logical to them. Such belief also affects women (and other marginalised groups) more than men in the workplace. In reality, leaders are also human beings. To realise everybody has different world views — which affect the way we understand and react to circumstances; is to expand our own inner world views.
Another caveat with valuing logic over emotions is the belief that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort since they believe their emotions don’t affect the decision-making process. One prime example is when the acts of unfairness against White people are equated with systemic racism, which targets People of Colour daily. However, discomfort is at the root of growth. By welcoming discomforts, such as deepening political analysis of social equality and oppression, we gain a better understanding of how we experience the world compared to others less fortunate than us, and how social issues affect interpersonal dynamics.
Power Hoarding & Paternalism
We all would like to believe we’re good people with good intentions, and we’ll never become power-hungry. The truth is much harder to accept. Because we are flawed human beings; sometimes, we operate without being aware of what’s brewing in our psyches. Frequently, we succumb to our fears (e.g. fear of open conflict). At times, we embody the scarcity mindset. Some of us hold onto power out of the fears of losing the privileges that come with it. Others believe in having the best interests at heart, assuming that those wanting change are ill-informed, emotional, rude, or inexperienced. Only do we feel threatened when someone suggests changes — as if the critique is about us, a glaring light shone on our inadequacy.
It’s not uncommon for those in power to think it’s not required of them to understand the point of views or experiences of those on behalf of whom they are making decisions. Decisions can be unclear to those without power and how those decisions get made, although they are often who feel the (negative) impacts the most. For someone in a position with power, these are ignorant and irresponsible behaviours.
By merely discussing what good leadership looks like upfront, along with the level of responsibilities and authority of each team member, we can start being more honest about how those decisions will affect people (design decisions or otherwise). Meanwhile, by continually reviewing and improving the working process, leaders can coach their teams to understand the roles of a good leader (which is to develop the power and skills of others). Either we like it or not, change is inevitable, and challenges to leadership can be healthy and productive.
“This self-righteousness that comes with being a Design Thinker consequently privileges the designer above anyone else. The result is a profession of narcissists deepening class stratification by standardising Design Thinking jargon as a metric for gatekeeping and producing an artificial need that clients ought to hire for.”
— Darin Buzon, New York-based Product Designer
Sense of Urgency
Deadline. Some people loath this two-syllable word. I personally believe deadline is a necessary evil, but it needs to be used with extreme care. Even the term ‘dead-line’ also creates a sense of urgency, something definite and inflexible. Although deadlines can assist plans, keeping teams aligned and motivated, they ought to be thought out at the crossroad of scope, budget, and other factors that could affect team members socially and personally. Too often, deadlines are set without the consideration of how social dynamics play out in a group; and at the individual level, with what’s happening in the world around us. We all need to adjust our mentality, knowing that at times, things may take longer than anyone expects, and that’s okay.
Whatever Design methodology we use, timeframes need to be discussed thoroughly before kickstarting any project — along with what can and can’t be achieved in such timeframes; while allowing a certain level of flexibility throughout the entire process. Generally speaking, a project can last forever as long as budgets allow, but regular introspections, being clear about how to measure impacts, are essential for the team’s collective growth. We can then look at the learnings to improve in the next cycle. Rinse, learn, repeat. Alas, there’s no deadline or formula for innovations.
A continued sense of urgency can also prevent organisations from taking time to be inclusive and to think long-term. One direct aftermath of a sense of urgency is the sacrificing interests of minority groups to win victories for the default community. Even though we can’t avoid a sense of urgency 100% of the time, the leadership team can learn how to be realistic with workloads and team members’ capabilities (instead of team members’ perception of how long things may take them) and develop frameworks where right decisions are made during time-pressuring circumstances.
Worship of the Written Word
The world is changing fast, thanks to COVID-19. The more popular working from home becomes, the more employers will value writing skills. Even though documenting decisions has always been important, it doesn’t mean other forms of communication are any less valuable. The mentality “if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist” doesn’t take into account how information may otherwise be shared or emotional and social nuances. For example, the ability to build alliances with those who are essential to the organisation’s mission may be looked over. Furthermore, people with conditions such as dyslexia will be at a disadvantage when it comes to writing well.
However, no one likes Zoom meetings either. By taking the time to analyse how people inside and outside our teams gain and share information, we can figure out what kind of information needs to be written down. We can even come up with alternative ways to document that are most suitable. For instance, as technology progresses, there is a lesser need for overly-complicated handoff design handoffs, which are replaced by a better collaboration workflow within popular design apps in recent years. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, of course. Each team and organisation need to figure out what kind of balance works for them.
Progress is Bigger, More & Quantity Over Quality
Roughly 50 years ago, Dieter Rams, the legendary German Designer, defined Good Design as honest, long-lasting & environmentally-friendly (among other things). The current state of Design, physically and virtually, is seemingly more about moving fast, adding more features, and much less about making good stuff. As designers got “the seat” at the table, Design has lost some of its magic. The line between Business and Design is getting blurrier and blurrier. In most cases, a design is not deemed successful unless it produces a positive financial outcome. When business metrics and economic growth are the end-all, be-alls, we forget to ask if the problem is worth solving or not, and if it is, what it may socially and ethically costs us.
In the latest revision of his book, The Design of Everyday Things (aka the book “every UX Designer should read”) Don Norman dedicated many pages talking about “featuritis” — a temptation to add more and more features into products in every release. This tendency creates an increasing complexity for the product, its ecosystem and the business itself. The product(s) eventually become bloated, more challenging for the business to maintain while steepening the learning curve for new customers. Even though customers typically desire new features, more quantity doesn’t make a product better. A better strategy is to strengthen already powerful areas to ultimately increase the values of the product. Then focus all marketing and advertisements to point out those strong points, which in turn, helps the product stand out from the trend-following mindless herd.
“[Design Thinking] provides a playbook for how to find problems and steps for how to develop solutions, but it doesn’t guide the outcomes for those solutions.”
— Jesse Weaver, Director of Entrepreneurial Design at CMCI Studio
Now since we’re at the end of the list, I have a confession to make: I wrote these criteria based on the characteristics of White Supremacy Culture, defined by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in “Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups” (2001). When I mention “White Supremacy”, most of my White peers, including those who identify themselves as left-wing and progressive, feel stung. I can sympathise because it is a painful and challenging thing to accept. As homo sapiens, we have a distaste for negative feelings. I myself had fallen into most of these traps before, and I continue to unlearn them, how painful it may be.
In his essay, Darin Buzon boldly stated: “Design Thinking is a rebrand for White Supremacy”. According to Darin, most Design executive positions are still occupied by men, even though they only take up 36% of the industry. He also argues that Design Thinking mirrors the destructive patterns seen in the Age of Modernism. Both are the byproducts of White Supremacy capitalism, using concepts like “innovation” and “empathy” to justify their unlimited financial growth as human progress. Design has always been political because as designers, the products we build can help or harm people who use them. Design is not Art, aesthetical products for us to appreciate and enjoy.
As designers continue to build this virtual world we all share, let’s ask ourselves: how are we using the creative gifts that we’ve all been given? Are we simply erasing and consolidation ideas to preserve the status quo? In recent years, although some organisations, startups and otherwise, have started to pay more attention and made an attempts to create a space where social issues are addressed, the boundaries need to be continuously examined and redefined.
“Technology changes rapidly, but people and culture change slowly. Change is, therefore, simultaneously rapid and slow. It can take months to go from invention to product, but then decades — sometimes many decades — for the product to get accepted.”
— Don Norman
2020 — a year packed full of, for lack of better words, “unprecedented events”, which seem to happen daily; has shown us how deep White Supremacy Culture’s roots have taken in our society. Historically speaking, White Supremacy started as the ideology driving the European colonial and U.S. imperial projects, dated at least back to the 17th-century. Organisations, with or without a White majority or leadership, around the globe, have since adopted the Culture in the name of good business. **Unfortunately, no one, not you or me, is immune to its damaging effects.
White Supremacy Characteristics are damaging because they are seen as “norms” and “standards” around the globe and because they promote White Supremacy Thinking. It promotes competition and urgency, at the sacrifice of quality. As Design becomes more data-driven, we ought to ask ourselves which metrics & numbers we’re tracking. And for what purposes? Is it to actually improve the quality of products or we’re merely deepening our pockets? Maybe we should re-think Design Thinking altogether. And maybe then, just maybe, we can actually design the world for the better.
“This is a hard time to be a designer [...] If you are afraid to fight, this might not be the right time for you to be a designer. If you are afraid to do the job ethically, this might not be the right time for you to be a designer. If you are afraid to speak truth to power, this might not be the right time for you to be a designer. If you are afraid to be judged by the impact of your work, this might not be the right time to be a designer. If you are afraid to stand up for the ones who need you the most, this might not be the right time to be a designer.”
— Mike Monteiro