Dear Designer

Dear Designer: Hope Is Not Enough

We have to combine hope with a plan to make progress on solving our problems

Mike Monteiro
Nov 27, 2019 · 7 min read
Illustration: Eugenia Mello

Hey Mike,

We’ve been behaving so badly that I hope the government comes in and regulates us.

— Anonymous Facebook Employee

Dear Designer,

The first car I remember my father driving was a 1973 Plymouth Gran Fury. It was midnight blue. Big as a boat. You could easily fit four people across the back seat. It smelled like cigarettes. He bought it used. But he looked good in it, which is probably why he bought it. My father was a vain man. Is a vain man.

The car got terrible gas mileage, which hadn’t yet become a concern for most people. At least in a big-picture, fossil-fuel-emissions kind of way. We were still a little sore about losing the Vietnam War and needed something to remind us what it meant to be American. Large cars did the trick then. (Cybertrucks do it now.) The shitty gas mileage did matter in a small-picture way, though. My father was a construction worker in Philadelphia, where the ground freezes over in the winter. Construction stops. So do paychecks. And it took a lot of gas to fill that car’s tank.

I remember one particular winter morning. We’d been hit by a snowstorm a few days earlier and the streets were still covered with snow. The city of Philadelphia didn’t exactly rush to plow our neighborhood. He decided to drive us to school. We piled in the car. Got yelled at for not kicking the snow off our shoes before climbing in.

“We need to stop for gas.”

We pulled up to the pump at the AM/PM minimart and my dad pulled out his wallet. Five ones. Went through the change compartment and dug out a few quarters and some more odd change.

“Be right back.”

He came back in the car holding a lottery ticket and tucked it into a crack in the dashboard foam that he used for important paperwork, and we drove off to school.

“Hopefully we hit the numbers tonight.”

My father lived on hope.

He never had a 401k. Never saved. Spent most of his life without insurance of any sort. Never planned much. But he had a lot of hope in outside forces. My father’s life story was full of magical realism, where utility bill money showed up at the last minute, a loan could always be gotten, my mother could always find another reason to forgive him, and someone else would show up to take care of shit he was responsible for.

(Let me take a minute here to celebrate the eldest children of immigrants who might be reading this. The ones who learned how to file income tax extensions at the age of five. The ones who were pulled out of school to do translation work at the social security office. I see you.)

Hope is believing other people will act in our behalf. Hope is a reliance on deus ex machina. Hope is keeping us from dealing with our own shit. That’s not hope, that’s responsibility deferred.

So yes, you can hope that the government comes in at some point and regulates your job. And to be clear, they should. And they will. Eventually. But waiting for them to solve the problem is responsibility deferred.

Ultimately, hope is giving ourselves permission to do nothing.

Regulation, if done right, will take years. We don’t have years to sort out our mess. Additionally, the current administration is using regulation as a threat. Mark Zuckerberg has had two secret meetings with Donald Trump (that we know of) where regulation is being used as a stick to keep Facebook from vetting political ads. Facebook’s decision to not fact-check political ads came after that first secret meeting. We don’t know the aftermath of the second meeting yet, but we know they were joined by Peter Thiel, the CEO of Palantir, the company that builds immigrant-tracking databases for ICE.

So yes, regulation is the answer. Eventually. But asking for it now is like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

Live without hope

I grew up in the 1980s with the fear of nuclear war hanging over my head. Today’s kids are growing up in a world that’s becoming hostile to human life. Both of these threats were caused by humans. We had nuclear attack drills in school. Today, children have to endure active shooter drills. Both drills are just as effective.

Hope isn’t going to solve our problems. But not giving a fuck just might.

As angry punk teens, my generation dealt with the anxiety of nuclear annihilation by deciding we were already dead. We exiled ourselves from society. We focused our anger into music, zines, comics, getting high, and watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. There was power in living without hope. There was power in turning fear of something we had no control over into anger that we could vent at will.

You can either hope you don’t get in trouble, or not give a fuck if you get in trouble. Hope isn’t going to solve our problems. But not giving a fuck just might.

Your individuality is exhausting

The reasons we hope someone else is coming to solve our problems are worth going into.

For one, the problems seem insurmountable. Take Facebook, for example: No one has ever built a social network that connects 2.5 billion people before. Much less a social network that profits off the data harvested from those 2.5 billion people. Much less a social network that is happy to profit from deceiving 2.5 billion people. It’s uncharted fuckery. And finding yourself inside that situation has to be daunting. And isolating.

There’s a reason they call you individual contributors. It’s to make you feel alone. Except you’re not alone. You’re part of a giant workforce. And you also didn’t find yourself there; you actively chose to work there. Which brings with it a set of ethical responsibilities. If you’re hoping someone else solves your problem, it means you’re aware the problem exists. And as the person hired to build the machine, it’s on you to correct the machine’s actions when it goes off the rails.

Look around at the people working with you. They all chose to work where they’re working. Everyone there made a decision to take that job. And when you take a job, you have to do it right. The odds that you’re the only person who’s hoping for change are pretty slim. Start talking to each other. Communicate. Work together. You are not individual contributors. You’re a workforce. And a united workforce can accomplish things individuals cannot.

Secondly, the repercussions are real. If you take a stand against a company, they have a million ways to fire you. That’s real. And as much as I don’t want you to lose your job, I’m not willing to sign off on you doing it wrong so that you don’t lose it. If you’re willing to lie to people so you don’t get fired, you don’t deserve that job, and you certainly shouldn’t be anywhere near a machine that can do that much damage.

I’ve seen too many instances of designers at big companies complaining about being unfairly maligned and shamed for “just doing their jobs.” Apparently when you face consequences for deceiving people, it hurts your feelings. If you’re a designer, the work can’t be about your feelings, and frankly, your feelings are exhausting. As is the imposter syndrome that drives you to look for validation. You earned the job the day you were hired. You earned the paycheck, but you also earned the responsibility that comes with it. Now do it.

You don’t work for the people who sign your checks. You work for the people who use the products of your labor. If I were to put my hope in one thing, it’s that you understand the importance of this. Your job is to look out for the people your work is affecting. That is a responsibility we cannot defer.

When you take action, you earn hope.

The good hope

I started this essay with a story about my father, and I didn’t paint him in the best light. My relationship with my father is complicated, but it’s been considerably smoothed over by both time and therapy. For all the questionable decisions he made in his life (and I’ve made plenty of my own), this is the same man who got on a plane with my mom, two infants, and $200 in his pocket because he hoped the United States would be a better place to raise those infants. But that was hope combined with a plan and a lack of fear to act. It took the combination of all three. Hope by itself would’ve meant doing nothing. It’s the difference between hoping for the best, and hoping our plan works. So I can vouch that at least once, my father coupled hope with a plan. And I’m grateful to him for that.

When 22,000 Google employees staged a walkout, it gave me hope. When Microsoft workers successfully protested their company’s ICE contract, it gave me hope. Hope is earned by action. When you stand up against bad practices in your workplace, you earn hope. When you act to organize your workplace, you earn hope. When you’re willing to risk your own comfort for the dignity of others, you earn hope. When you take action, you earn hope.

But hoping that people who are clearly benefiting from the broken state of the world will change their behavior is lost hope. Hoping that enough crumbs will fall from billionaires’ tables is lost hope. Hoping that others will do what we don’t have the courage, resolve, and confidence to do is lost hope. More importantly, it’s responsibility deferred. This is the job we signed up to do.

We need a plan. Then we need to act. Then hope is earned. Until then, it’s just keeping us from acting.

If you have a question, email me, and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know the answer anyway).

Modus

Helping designers thrive.

Mike Monteiro

Written by

English is my second language. You were my first.

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Mike Monteiro

Written by

English is my second language. You were my first.

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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