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Does anyone else feel guilty for being a product designer?

8 months ago from

So, a bit of background: I don't think I'd actually call myself a product designer because I've yet to design a product that has been shipped—but it's what I'm working towards (I'm currently a student).

My question isn't meant to direct guilt towards you, or try to make you feel guilty, but sometimes I feel as if I'm only working towards a goal of making the rich richer and not actually improving the lives of others. I suppose that websites and mobile technology each has their own place that may benefit the public—but I often become grossed out at the idea of contributing to Silicon Valley and the tech-world, a place that has been responsible for forced evictions of families that have resided in the Bay Area for generations.

I'm sorry if this comes off as rude or accusatory, I don't intend it to be. Like I said, I'm a student, and I love the act of designing for digital, but the baggage of that sometimes weighs on my shoulders, and I often consider other paths I could or should take.

How do you guys feel?

38 comments

  • Aaron Wears Many HatsAaron Wears Many Hats, 8 months ago

    Just remember. Technology - and technology companies - exists outside of Silicon Valley too. You don't have to work for SV companies. I have built a solid career developing software for companies well outside of the US-corporate sphere.

    I mean, at the end of the day, virtually all of human existence is totally pointless as on a universal timescale anything we could possibly ever achieve is just a blip on the overall radar and will extinguish into nothingness even faster than it appeared... But if you focus on the hopelessness of it all, you miss the beauty that unfolds in front of you.

    104 points
    • Dennis EusebioDennis Eusebio, 8 months ago

      Best comment ever on DN

      7 points
    • Wesley HainesWesley Haines, 8 months ago

      We are all just strings.

      1 point
    • James Young, 8 months ago

      I agree with Aaron. SV is the worst, I did my time there in the 90's and I can only imagine it's gotten worse.

      I make a good living working from home choosing which projects I want to work on. I tend towards medical applications and applications that are specific to high cognitive load users (traders, oil riggers and first responders). I see results and I know I have made life easier for some and hopefully, my designs have in some small way helped a person in distress.

      Don't get hung up on titles especially in UX, they change seasonally. I think I've had 5 or 6 over the last 23 years. I don't use product designer, it's misleading and conforming.

      Think about places like Chicago, Miami, Houston, Dallas, NYC, UX is in high demand in each of those cities you'll learn grow and find a place that isn't all about the next click funnel.

      4 points
    • Mike StevensonMike Stevenson, 8 months ago

      I want to turn this quote into a wallpaper and read it every day.

      2 points
  • Thomas Michael SemmlerThomas Michael Semmler, 8 months ago

    ...making the rich richer and not actually improving the lives of others

    You are and everyone is. This is not exclusive to working in tech or design. It is how capitalism works. Unless you get paid in direct relation to what you have provided in value for the company, you will always just make the rich richer.

    Also understand, that this "I want a work to improve the lives of others" is also a narrative that you have absorbed. In our grid of values it may align as a more noble goal, but the actual truth of it all is that whatever you do will rely on the exploitation of other beings and you are also being exploited.

    This sounds very grim, but try not to attach any value to what I am saying. I teach meditation and mindfulness and one very helpful thing you learn is to detach your ego from the narratives you tell yourself, the mind-chatter that is almost like white noise in your mind. You might not even consciously realise that you are doing that, but we all do.

    If you want to live a good life you learn to detach from values that you have absorbed from other people and you find your own values. You become egoistic, meaning you ask how you personally feel about this / think about something first - you think about yourself first and then you decide how you act. The world would be a better place if we would truly start to think about ourselves first, because nobody is truly doing it. Putting yourself first means understanding what you are thinking and acknowledging all parts of yourself.

    You can only share what you have cultivated. If you can't love yourself, you cannot love somebody else. If you want to improve the lives of others, you have to improve your own life first. You cannot give what you don't have.

    You can start working at a company with different values but ultimately, those companies were also just made to make one person or a small group of people richer. Those might not be bad people just because they want to be rich. Realise that money is also aligned in your value system somewhere. What does it really matter, if you make other people rich? It does not add or remove something from your life, yet there is a part in your mind that tells you that it is bad - and this part is coming from the outside not from your inside.

    As designers we are somewhat paid to mainfest human approval in something mostly visual - either approval from the people we design something for, or the people who pay us to design something. But all of this is related to finding out what will be liked what will be approved. So we are already equipped with a mind that is primed for absorbing narratives. You need to detach from that, otherwise your life will be always be directed by others.

    28 points
  • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, 8 months ago

    I think it’s a good question. It’s not rude, and the discussion is an important one.

    I don‘t feel guilty, because I do my best to ensure the things I work on are ethical. I realise I am very fortunate to be in a position where I can do that. I want the world to be a better place, and giving people the tools to help make that happen is important, even if my contribution is minor. Leaving the industry wouldn’t help that cause.

    21 points
    • Cameron Getty, 8 months ago

      Thanks for the reply, Marc. I think that's the best and perhaps only way to view it, to be honest. I've set a pretty strict goal for myself to try to only contribute to projects and/or organizations that mean a lot to me or that are striving to make the world a better place for everyone.

      I think you put it best when you said, "Leaving the industry wouldn’t help that cause," because it's so true.

      0 points
      • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, 8 months ago

        If you have very specific concerns, it would be great to know what those are. I definitely have some of my own, and I try to consistently act with them in mind.

        0 points
  • Steve O'ConnorSteve O'Connor, 8 months ago

    This is a question that everyone working in digital and tech should ask themselves on a regular basis. Who am I helping? It's a good question to keep you on the right track. As has been said, there are plenty of places and opportunities to do the work you enjoy and make a positive change, big or small. Seek them out, be vocal, stay the course.

    I wish I'd thought this when I was still a student!

    4 points
  • Stefano Vitagliano, 8 months ago

    You can try to find a more ethical company to work for. Or do some work for free for no-profit and humanitarian organisations that always need design work but are often without money to invest. You'll gain a real world experience which is more valuable than any dribble exercise.

    3 points
  • Bevan StephensBevan Stephens, 8 months ago

    There are so many companies in the world (outside of the small bubble of silicone valley) that may need a digital solution to the problem they are solving.

    Just make sure you choose to work for one that has chosen a meaningful and responsible problem that aligns with your values.

    Nearly all of the ux and product people I have met in my time in the industry have been well meaning and passionate about making impact for good, not for capitalism.

    2 points
  • Sara Andrew, 7 months ago

    You choose who you work for.

    2 points
    • Darren Treat, 7 months ago

      This is sadly very arguable. Who you work for also chooses you and your ideal choices will probably not give you an offer back or may not be hiring, your worst choice may be your only offer. Then do you choose eating and experience that may help you later or working for a company that you disagree with?

      I had to do this in 2012, while fresh out of college I took a job at Staples. Politically I wasn't where I was today but I still aggressively did not support the (at the time) Political candidate, Mitt Romney. Mitt was a founder of the capital firm Bain capital and while he was no longer on the staples board, he was in fact still a holder of equity in the firm's investments. This meant that the company increasing in value and making a profit increased the anti-gay marriage, anti-choice presidential candidate's ROI. To this end he even held press conferences in Staples stores. Meanwhile the company was outsourcing more and more of my job as a tech to Indian-based firms. This was the only company that called me back at the time and I had student loans due. Sadly morality is locked to opportunity, few remember that making moral choices in who you work for is a luxury to most.

      Remember however, you can make daily choices to improve the world. In my case I would do my best to help make people's lives better beyond the requirements of the job I had. In some cases it possibly meant going against policies that existed for profit rather than actually helping customers in which case I had to pick and choose my battles, at the end of the day it matters.

      3 points
  • Emir BukvaEmir Bukva, 7 months ago

    These are good questions for us all to be asking ourselves. A few thoughts that help me feel better when reflecting on my own work:

    • Knowing that companies with social causes exist. I work at a company that helps people in quitting smoking, walking more, and improving their well-being. The fact that it's a commercial business with a profit motive like all business doesn’t lessen the positive social impact its operations are having. There may be fewer of such companies around compared to companies with neutral or negative social and environmental impact but they do exist.
    • Learning that B-crops are becoming a thing. It’s a certification that evaluates "company’s operations and business model impact [on] workers, community, environment, and customers." Further along the lines of the notion that profit motive needs not be in direct conflict with positive social and environmental impact. There’s even job boards for B-corp-only jobs.
    • While I consider my company’s impact to be net positive, I do make apps and enjoy that work immensely. I’m aware that our products benefit those who can afford a smartphone or an computer with internet connection which still leaves out many folks who arguably could use help the most. I do my best to keep myself exposed to these issues in my local community and help where I can. Many folks for whom keeping up with what local governance is doing about issues isn’t enough choose to engage by becoming public employees, working directly in government, or working at non-profits. Of course, these are all individual choices. It’s unreasonable and counterproductive to expect everyone to be a teacher or a doctor. But we can all be engaged citizens, doing our civic duties, starting with our own communities.

    The industry would benefit for having a self-reflective individual like yourself around. Cheers!

    2 points
  • Nathan LeeNathan Lee, 7 months ago

    I've had LOTS of existential crises since a lot of why I became a designer was being influenced by social good, service design, and figures like Milton Glaser or Tibor Kalman. I can see a bit more of a thread in terms of what work has interested me and what impact it has had – overall there's a lot of great opportunity to create things that benefit people. Tradeoffs always exist and there will always be a tension of making money to keep a business profitable/viable and balancing how you create for your audience and hopefully leave a positive mark on society. As a person born and raised in Silicon Valley, I've seen a LOT of change and had a lot of anxiety about where my place in society is both as someone in a relatively healthy social class and gentrifier.

    I will say, do not discount working in enterprise. As a general whole there's a lot of developer experiences and technologies that enable to do a lot more with what their efforts. For better and for worse, working in B2B means you're creating function and utility as opposed to viral stickiness or social vanity. You'll focus less on ad revenue or click conversions and focus more on utility and tools. For me this has been a pretty good place where I feel like my skills can be applied and the audience/effect is much more directly scoped. Your experience my differ though, there's tradeoffs of working in this area as well.

    The world is changing rapidly and we can only try as best we can with what we have to make things better. Plastics are clogging our oceans, our clothing is destroying the environment, we waste almost half the food we produce and transit in America still relies largely on gasoline. You can make the best decisions with the circumstances in front of you, keep yourself conscious of where you can have an effect both with your work but also in your day to day life, and hopefully make some effect of making this world a little better bit by bit.

    2 points
  • Cristian MoiseiCristian Moisei, 8 months ago

    Product design could actually be incredibly useful for helping those who need it most. Our approach is focused on understanding people’s needs and problems and creating solutions right? This serves the underrepresented and ignored best.

    As others said, you don’t have to work for dodgy SV types, there are plenty of companies looking to improve healthcare (at least in the UK where I live), make finance more accessible for everyone, improve our politics, make education easier, more efficient and cheaper.

    It’s your choice who you work for.

    The skills you have will also be useful if you want to build your own products and help solve some of the products you see.

    Having said that, I know how you feel. I don’t think the problem is unique to product designers, a singificant percentage of us are working for companies that make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

    1 point
  • Dexter W, 8 months ago

    The fact that you are asking this makes you exceptional. I tend to find the strive for ethics a kind of design pursuit. Once Silicon Valley found out design makes money, it was weaponized. Things like dark patterns and "getting users hooked" are almost sinister, and in my opinion not really design at all.

    You may or may not be involved in these practices. But it doesn't matter, because you won't stay at that job and you can always take your design skills elsewhere if you don't believe in them.

    1 point
  • John PJohn P, 8 months ago

    These feelings will evaporate when you leave school, have to pay rent and when you see how much of your money disappears into taxes before it even hits your account.

    Figure out how to survive and become sustainable > Then focus on getting paid for what you love > Then if you ever manage earn enough to no longer worry about money then maybe you can take up philanthropy.

    1 point
    • matt michelsonmatt michelson, 8 months ago

      This is a false choice. You can care about the world, your community, and the people living in it while still making ends meet. The idea that we all must become pure selfish rational actors in order to meekly survive is one of the reasons capital has been able to perpetuate itself and concentrate wealth over generations, by pitting working folks against one another. OP's feelings are legitimate and widely shared by many working in this field, and we'd do better to support and encourage ourselves to do more than settle for meager self-preservation when we're smart, empathetic, and capable of great things.

      2 points
      • John PJohn P, 8 months ago

        This idealism will be stamped out of you if you ever lose your job and have <2 months rent left in your bank account.

        Look at your bank account, look at your rent, count how many days you have before you're literally homeless if income stops that second. Look up what safety nets are available as a homeless individual in your country, (Spoiler alert: If you're a man it's zero).

        All these loud voices in the industry shouting at you to care more about your actions and that you have privilege are earning six figures at Google, Airbnb, Uber and the like.

        OP's feelings are legitimate and widely shared by many working in this field,

        Honestly makes me feel sick that some self-righteous individuals try and make others feel bad for their achievements.

        1 point
        • matt michelsonmatt michelson, 8 months ago

          I'm sorry if I gave the impression that I was trying to make other people feel bad for their achievements. I think the impulse to want to help your community is venerable, and to have these doubts about ethically operating in this economic system is natural and encouraging. I'm not denigrating survival; it's hard enough as it is. But if you have the luxury of time to spend thinking about how you can be helping people, you have the time to help people, even if it's only in small personal ways to start. I'm not suggesting that product design is the way to do this, but rather that product designers tend to have developed a strong sense of empathy, intelligence, and awareness of how systems work that can be used in a lot of ways big and small to enrich our communities and our neighborhoods.

          You likely won't find this sort of satisfaction in your work no matter who you're working for, but that's okay — we get plenty of opportunities to volunteer our time and talent, whether we have the time and resources to do so immediately or need to get situated first.

          3 points
        • Rowan Rosenthal, 8 months ago

          Wanting to use your skills and knowledge to produce ethical work isn't "idealistic." It's something we should try to strive for, to whatever extent is feasible in our own lives. Sustaining your own well-being and keeping this in mind aren't mutually exclusive

          This isn't a matter of making people feel bad. It's fine if you don't view your work this way. If you feel bad, that's a projection on your end

          (Also, not sure what the comment about being homeless / being a man is coming from? Homelessness is drastically more dangerous if you're a woman or a part of any marginalized group)

          5 points
  • Jennifer Nguyen, 8 months ago

    First, I want to commend you for really thinking about what it is you do and why you're doing it (so early on in your career). I'm still kinda early on in my career and it's something I think about a lot. The ethics of technology, Silicon Valley, data privacy, artificial intelligence, etc.

    Sure, a huge part of it is choosing the right company but unless you're in non-profit, you're still part of the capitalistic mindset which is what I believe is making you feel guilty.

    For me, what makes me feel guilty as a designer is whether I'm making society more lazy. Our job is to make things easier for people but there may come a point where we turn into Wall-E. No one gets out of their chair and we have machines do everything for us. Should everything be easier? It's clear that technology has a lot of consequences:

    "Unfortunately, what's best for capturing our attention isn't best for our well-being:

    • Snapchat turns conversations into streaks, redefining how our children measure friendship.
    • Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self worth.
    • Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities.
    • YouTube autoplays the next video within seconds, even if it eats into our sleep. These are not neutral products.

    They are part of a system designed to addict us."(http://humanetech.com/problem/)

    Here are some other articles along those sentiments: https://www.fastcompany.com/90161166/this-design-generation-has-failedhttps://www.wired.com/story/our-minds-have-been-hijacked-by-our-phones-tristan-harris-wants-to-rescue-them/

    With that said, even though there are a lot of things "wrong", I think we have a duty as designers to be the gatekeepers. That's what keeps me going, knowing that I am putting the humanity back into technology. Without people like us, technology will go down a dark path.

    1 point
  • Travis Arnold, 8 months ago

    Not rude at all, I love that you are talking about this :). Don't get discouraged though! There seems to be a ton of opportunities in the digital space. This was more on the development side, but I was really inspired by this story recently. Design gigs for good is another one I really like.

    It's awesome that you can reflect on this so early in your career! I didn't until more recently. Whether you work for a company that you respect ethically or start your own venture, I think by staying true to your ethos you'll be fulfilled in your work and help lift up others in whatever way you can.

    1 point
  • Ryan Hicks, 8 months ago

    I don't have time to address the question at hand, but I do feel like (if you haven't read it already) you'd really enjoy this book.

    Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B078VW3VM7/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_ep_dp_ZnNSBbRPJ0K2K

    1 point
  • Kemie GuaidaKemie Guaida, 8 months ago

    It's important that you feel comfortable with what you do., and that you feel it's meaningful. You can find meaning many ways, though. I, for example, am satisfied knowing I'm making my users lives better. Even if I'm not curing cancer, I'm solving real everyday problems.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that you can find meaning outside of work too, by volunteering for a cause you believe in, participating in a project, or, why not, donating money!

    1 point
  • Paul ArmstrongPaul Armstrong, 8 months ago

    I've been in the design industry for about 25 years now. Through all of that time the fundamental conceit of the job — no matter what new title is used, information architecture, UI designer, graphic designer, pixelpusher — design is (overall) a commercial endeavor; it's making things for the purpose of commerce. Obviously design can and should be used to propel ideas (posters, websites, etc, etc); but overall, a career is made in the commercial part of design.

    One has to decide if there is any corporation or product that ultimately, in today's iteration of "free market" economics, doesn't just make the rich get richer. One also has to consider what is "good" and what is "beneficial"— what qualifies as good? Does working for a hospital or a health care provider qualify? Does working for a nonprofit? Or working for marketplace that creates income for others qualify? Given enough time, you'll be hard pressed to find many organizations, products, entities, apps, markets, etc, that don't eventually succumb to greed. That's just my observation.

    1 point
  • barry saundersbarry saunders, 8 months ago

    It's a totally fair question.

    There is an enormous amount of software product design that doesn't cross into Silicon Valley / tech startup world. I've spent years designing video streaming and entertainment systems, farm management tools, cooking apps, tools for health diagnosis, workflow management and cinema booking apps. There is a lot of great, well-paid work outside of Silicon Valley that you can feel proud of.

    0 points
  • Cameron Getty, 8 months ago

    I would just like to thank everyone for their incredible insights. I still hope I didn't sound too accusatory towards anyone. I've got a lot to think about in the next few years about where I see myself ending up, and this has all been very helpful. Thanks for participating in the dialogue!

    0 points
  • Zsolt Kacso, 8 months ago

    No reason to feel guilty as long as you always make the choice that seems right to you. You can't ever do better than that.

    0 points
  • Personable Man, 7 months ago

    Our view of Product Design is heavily influenced by the case studies, Dribble portfolios and interviews we read/watch, and these are disproportionately skewed towards heavily commercial products. Like the top comment says, there is a world of digital products that exist outside of the overzealous SV "billion users or GTFO" culture.

    I suggest looking into nonprofits in your area, as many are only now starting to develop a digital strategy for raising money online. Many are looking to implement microsites, mini-games, e-commerce stores and other "out of the box" approaches towards philanthropy, and they need help from designers motivated to do good.

    0 points
  • Bree Chapin, 7 months ago

    On the one hand, it is important to question "what are we doing, anyway" often in order to make conscious decisions and actions. On the other hand, we all find ourselves in a specific capitalist paradigm—a game that has certain rules. Fortunately or unfortunately, in order to participate in a society, everyone (especially in societies with wealth and relative stability) has to play at least by some of the rules.

    Of course, this doesn't preclude one in participating in or lending their expertise to causes that seek to change or overthrow parts of the machine you find objectionable. Finding your niche where you can do what you feel is right and still practice your craft (and eat) is one of the most burning questions of modern post-industrial society.

    I hear "Bullsh*t Jobs" is a really interesting book, but I haven't read it yet.

    0 points
  • Chris KeithChris Keith, 8 months ago

    Silicon Valley is not a monolith.

    0 points
  • Scott ThomasScott Thomas, 8 months ago

    I oddly feel the same way towards using the UX title

    I have used the UX title for over 5 years. I never went to school for HCI, but I continually read books about the topic. It wasn't until 2 years ago I started to actually do anything UX related in my projects. I felt like a fraud because I don't think I deserved to use that title. It always left a sour taste in my mouth, but I knew I had to use it for my past company.

    Even today I still get squirmiest despite all the research, interviews, and usability tests I've done.

    0 points
  • Andu PotoracAndu Potorac, 7 months ago

    Wait, before you're a product designer, you're a user. A user of many products. More products than you design actually, and for sure a user of major products you'll never design for.

    So if you feel compelled to act, stop using any tech product that started in / got funded by / has ant stakeholders in the Bay Area.

    0 points