Not-not-design: Confessions of a Terrible Designer

I’m a terrible designer. I’m an amateur with Adobe Creative Suite, I know almost nothing about color theory or typography, and I don’t—in fact, I can’t—make your website or software interface “pretty,” a role often rightly understood as the designer’s. I’d guess that at least three-quarters of my work isn’t even meaningfully visual; I spend most of the day reading and writing, talking and listening.

The problem is, I’m a senior designer at a well-respected healthcare software firm.

My boss likes to call what we do “‘Big-D’ design,'” a term architect Larry Barrow seems to have coined. That means we don’t just (“just”) crank out detailed designs and styleguides, but we also tackle all the research, analysis, and communication that leads up to that final step. It’s a nod to the importance of the thinking behind the final design deliverables—also leading to the concept “design thinking,” popularized at IDEO and Stanford’s

I like the idea of elevating design’s reputation among non-designers into Big-D territory, but the mere addition of a capital letter doesn’t communicate how much worse I am at the lowercase version than my colleagues. So, I’ve also taken to explaining that my work is “not-not-design,” a less intuitive term, but a productive one in that it allows me to tell a good story:

In one of the interviews for the job I have now, I was feeling skeptical that I could or should end up in a design position. As I showed one of my wireframes, I wanted everyone in the room to understand that such barebones presentations are as high as I climb on Fidelity Mountain. I said something to that effect, and the design group’s second-in-command said, “But that’s not not design.”

And she was right, that’s not not design. If design is the process of learning about users and business needs and working towards concepts and eventually some visual deliverable, then I’m doing at least three-quarters of that work. What I do is (not-not-)design if anything is.

So why do I have such a hangup? Why do I feel it’s awkward to be introduced around our enormous parent organization as “the designer on the project?” Why do I need to rally behind a term like “not-not-design” in the first place?

My own problem probably starts with web marketing agencies, where I spent my professionally formative years, and where, until recently, design and user experience (UX) didn’t often overlap as disciplines. UXers worked on strategy and architecture; designers tackled the visuals and brought the interactivity one step closer to its eventual life in code. In the best cases, the two might collaborate some as they worked. Sometimes there’d even be a developer at the table.

The UX field does also have a well-documented terminological problem (OK, one more), which is that even those of us inside it don’t often feel certain what it means to call ourselves UX designers, architects, or strategists. It’s easier for some firms, like my current employer, to sidestep that question by just calling everybody “designer,” and to explain the depth of that term later. It’s just that between the moment when somebody sees my business card and the moment when they learn what I do (and do not), I feel a little bit like a liar—and perhaps a little bit undervalued, too.

Misunderstanding the role of the designer—ignoring not-not-design, in other words—is bad for everybody. If I were a designer at an agency like the ones in my past, I’d want very badly to get to spend as much time as the UXers do talking to users and stakeholders and poring over secondary research before I even started thinking about layout and type. If I were a UXer at one of those places, I’d want to feel like I had a strong influence on the final visual representation of the product, even if I lacked the skills to help create that representation directly. (In other words, I’ve found a pretty good fit in my current employer.)

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no value in identifying and articulating the differences among these many roles. There is and ought to be a community of people talking productively about how to do better work in the areas that will probably always elude me. Likewise, I like talking and learning about things that may never interest some of those people.

All I’m saying is, despite my protestations in the job interview, I do belong on something called “a design team,” because not-not-design is design, too.

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