Dear Designer

Dear Designer: The Road Back

What we need to do to get this industry back on track

Mike Monteiro
Dec 11, 2019 · 13 min read
Illustration: Eugenia Mello

Hey Mike,

Will you please just write something positive before this year is out?

— My editor

The promise of the internet was that it was going to give voice to the voiceless, visibility to the invisible, and power to the powerless. That’s what originally excited me about it. And I’m guessing that’s what originally excited a ton of people about it. It was supposed to be an engine of equality and democracy. Suddenly, everyone could tell their story. Suddenly, everyone could sing their song. Suddenly, that one weird kid in Trondheim, Norway, could find another weird kid just like them in Bakersfield, California, and they could talk and know they weren’t alone. Suddenly, we didn’t need anybody’s permission to publish. We put our stories and songs and messages and artwork where the world could find them. For a while it was beautiful, it was messy, and it was punk as fuck. We all rolled up our sleeves and helped to build it.

And then suddenly, we broke it.

Consider this my contribution to the 2009/2019 meme. This was the web in 2009: Social was taking off, Shaq was tweeting free game tickets, we were sharing jokes, finding old friends we hadn’t talked to since grade school, and making new ones. There was optimism in the air. Money was free-flowing. (Tech) jobs were free-flowing. We were excited that collecting all this data on people would lead to amazing insights about something. (We just weren’t sure what.) And we thought we’d just helped elect the United States’ first internet president.

This is the web in 2019: toxic anger, hate, actual motherfucking Nazis(!), stolen data, gender reveal parties, monstrously large corporations behaving monstrously badly, and the United States’ first actual internet president — willfully allowed to rise to power because the web is ruled by engagement and run by idiots who wrapped themselves in free speech, while not understanding what it meant. Fascists may have rolled into town, but they rolled in on roads built by libertarians.

And meanwhile, we also broke the planet.

So, is there a road back? After all, I aim to make my editor happy. She has asked for something positive, and I am aiming to deliver. Do we have a shot? We may. We may, on the most optimistic of days, have the smallest sliver of a shot. If we aim correctly, and blot out all the anxiety and despair surrounding us, we may even be able to see it. A small glimmer of hope, thin as a thread, is there.

I was recently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, which posits the same question about climate change. Do we have a chance? (I encourage you to read it.) His answer is much the same; we have a definite maybe. But only, only, if we start right now, agree on the right action to take, and don’t hesitate. And honestly, that doesn’t sound like a good chance. We’ve only rarely been able to do any of those things. And all three combined seems impossible. In We Are the Weather, Safran Foer tells a story of a woman in a car accident who manages to lift the car to save her child trapped under it. She exhibits superhuman strength simply because not saving the child is impossible to consider. When failure becomes impossible, success, no matter how unlikely, becomes the only possibility.

We don’t have much of a chance here, but not succeeding is impossible to consider. So we have to consider what success might look like, as it’s the only option left. So grab that small sliver of a shot and hang on with all the strength you don’t realize you have yet. Because you do have it. It won’t be easy. You won’t like it. But holy shit, if it works?

Suddenly, we’ve fixed it.

Take responsibility

The world was broken on our watch. Nonnegotiable. Because we don’t have time to negotiate the point. We were given the responsibility to use our labor and our expertise to make the world a better place, and we failed. We have, in fact, made it worse. You are forever responsible for the work your labor produces. And if you’re not okay with that, I implore you to stop producing work.

On December 3, ProPublica published a story about the ongoing work McKinsey Consulting has been doing for ICE. It included recommendations that, apparently, were insane enough to make people who keep babies in cages uncomfortable:

…the money-saving recommendations the consultants came up with made some career ICE staff uncomfortable. They proposed cuts in spending on food for migrants, as well as on medical care…

A few days later, McKinsey published a rebuttal that basically said the story wasn’t true. I’ve worked with ProPublica. They’re passionately committed to the truth. They wouldn’t have published a word of that story if they weren’t absolutely certain of it. And McKinsey reacted the way organizations like McKinsey react. Deny everything and wait for the next news cycle. It’s a good strategy. The next news cycle will inevitably contain news of another company doing something even worse. Probably Facebook.

But here’s the thing: Every employee at McKinsey who worked on this knows they worked on it. Every employee at McKinsey is complicit in this lie. And every employee at McKinsey has an opportunity to stand up and say, “No. We’re lying. We did this.”

If we need to get back on track, we need to take responsibility for our work. Take your shot, McKinsey employees.

Build whole teams

For the last 10 years, we’ve been focused on making teams leaner and getting them to work faster. Projects were carved into tasks, and tasks were carved into stories, and everyone got really, really good at making their little part of the whole while having no idea what the whole was, or how the whole affected society. Because the real goal here was to get this shit out the door and get to our VC-mandated exit event before everyone realized there was no business model, path to profitability, or actual service here.

In her excellent book, Broadband, Claire L. Evans tells the story of the venerable Grace Hopper working at the Harvard Computation Lab during World War II, tasked by the Navy to figure out a complex partial differential equation. As Evans tells us, Hopper had absolutely no idea what the equation was for; to her, it was just an interesting mathematical challenge.

The partial differential equation turned out to be a mathematical model for the central implosion of the atomic bomb. Grace never knew, until the bombs fell on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, precisely what she had helped to calculate.

Would Hopper still have solved the equation had she known what it was being used for? We’ll never know. That choice was taken from her. And she deserved the opportunity to make that choice. Just as we all deserve the opportunity to research and understand the possible ramifications of our work.

Will being circumspect slow us down? Absolutely. But with apologies to the venerable Grace Hopper, that’s not a bug. That’s a feature.

Understand your power

This job isn’t about helping Nike sell shoes. It’s about making sure everyone has shoes.

This job isn’t about creating bullhorns for fascists and others who’d use their power to denigrate others. It’s about smashing the fascists’ bullhorns.

This job isn’t about building tools that hand our data to the corporations of Silicon Valley. It’s about building tools to keep that data from them.

This job isn’t about creating shareholder value. It’s about creating human value.

The job isn’t about making rich white men richer at the expense of everyone else. It’s about making sure everyone earns an equal share for their labor.

But how will we pay our rent, you ask? Tech workers are some of the highest-paid workers on the planet. You’re not Jean Valjean. You’re not a loaf of bread away from your family dying of hunger. Your Peloton subscription is not worth putting a child in a cage. Your argument is invalid.

For too long, we’ve treated the job as if we were servants. We did what we were told. We followed orders. We didn’t ask questions. We may have rolled our eyes once in a while when something didn’t seem right, but we did it anyway. We behaved as if we had no say and no agency in how the job was done. We lost control of our labor, our hands, and finally our minds.

Yes, design is political. Because design is labor, and your labor is political. Where you choose to expend your labor is a political act. Whom you choose to expend it for is a political act. Whom we omit from those solutions is a political act. Finally, how we choose to leverage our collective power is the biggest political act we can take. If we choose to work collectively, we have a ton of power. If we continue to behave like servants, we’re not just letting ourselves down, we’re letting down everyone whose lives we swore to improve.

We’re late to the party. The world is working exactly as we designed it to work, and that’s the problem. We’re here because we’ve abdicated our responsibility. We’re here because we forgot how much strength we have when we act together.

It’s time to remember who we are. It is time to unionize.

Respect your true community

Twitter employees love posting pictures of events at the workplace, and they seem to have a lot of events. Those photos are usually accompanied with the hashtag #lovewhereyouwork, which I’m sure is something the company encourages. Both the events and the hashtag are meant to inspire a sense of workplace community, as well as show the world how happy all the employees are. (Stay away, union organizers, you shall find no purchase here!) Same with the free meals, the offsites, the kombucha on tap, the homey surroundings, the on-site perks, etc. Love where you work. And try to forget that we’re using your labor to line our shareholders’ pockets while destroying society.

Obviously this isn’t limited to Twitter. Tech companies are known for their sprawling luxurious campuses with lots of perks. People need community. We’re herd animals. We like to surround ourselves with others, and preferably others with whom we share common interests, causes, and backgrounds. (This isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes we define our communities by skin color and who it excludes.) But communities tend to look out for each other and circle the wagons when the community is in trouble.

Tech companies have hijacked the notion of community, and they’ve done this by design. Most tech workers are first and foremost members of their company community. The company looks out for them, and they protect the company’s interest.

Facebook was even nice enough to build a chatbot for their employees to help them deal with their families’ difficult questions about the company during the Thanksgiving holidays. The only other organization that I can think of that reaches that level of “family management” is Scientology.

Stop loving where you work. Love where you live. And don’t live at work.

It’s not made by great men

The first barbershop opened to the public in 296 B.C. I know this because I googled it. I googled it because I was looking for a metaphor. Specifically, I was looking for a metaphor about people who were good at what they did and then decided that being good at that one thing meant they must be good at everything else. Barbershops immediately came to mind because, as some of you may know from trivia night, for a time you could get dental work done at the barbershop. As well as some surgery. Turns out the reason for this is amazingly idiotic. Barbers already had the tools and they already had you in the chair. As long as you’re getting a haircut and a shave we might as well get that impacted molar and do a little leech work.

It’s also a good metaphor to use when talking about the tech industry because much like the tech industry, barbershops have historically been the purview of men and were places where you could find a lot of porn.

Mark Zuckerberg is good at coding. At least I think he is; the last thing I know he coded was a website for rating co-eds, which turned into Facebook. I’m sure Jack Dorsey is probably good at something, too. But both these fools are terrible at interpersonal relationships, which makes it appalling that they’re both in charge of platforms that rely on understanding how human beings relate to each other. They’ve both proven that’s not in their wheelhouse. And just like none of us would let our barbers do our dental work, or let our pets do our tax work, it’s time to understand that the challenge of the web is no longer technical. And that being good at the technical stuff doesn’t automatically make you a savant in socioeconomic policy. The web is about people and how they interact with each other. The web is about power dynamics. The web is about society and its discontents.

The next wave of people running the web needs to understand human relationships more than anything else.

Get out from under venture capital

I’m writing this in a café in San Francisco. There are at least three adjacent tables having conversations about funding. I’m not eavesdropping. The conversations are meant to be heard. They’re a social mating call. Look at me, I’m a founder, I’m raising capital. Look at me, I’m an angel investor, finding the next Uber, but for cats. Look at me, I’m a freelance writer, desperately trying to write something positive for my editor. It was at this same café where I once heard a young guy complaining to another young guy that he was worried he’d turn 30 before he made his first million.

This isn’t normal. This isn’t sustainable. And, more importantly, this isn’t good.

For generation upon generation, people built and ran businesses. Trying to make more than they spent. Trying to increase that number a little bit year after year. All the while attempting to adapt to customers’ ever-changing needs and desires. Multiply that with a whole lot of luck, and divide it by a whole lot of racist and sexist bullshit about who could get business loans and leases. But in a nutshell, that’s how we built businesses. And the entire goal was to make sure the generation that was coming up after you got a chance to do a little bit better than you did. Rinse and repeat. But you built things a step at a time, with the steady stubbornness and surefootedness of a good working mule.

Now suddenly, we have Sand Hill Road.

But the internet was a whole new industry, and it was exciting. And exciting things grow quickly. The money showed up fast. Suddenly, every boy in a hoodie had the next potential great idea, and if you could get a good grip on his (always “his”) shorthairs early and right by the base, you stood a chance to get 10 times richer. So the investments came fast and easy. And suddenly these cuddled little runts were managing millions of dollars and thousands of people and hundreds of problems—with absolutely no idea how.

In the world of venture capital, this doesn’t really matter, though. As long as we push the hog into the slaughter chute before the inspector realizes it’s riddled with worms, we still get paid for the meat.

Adam Neumann, formerly of WeWork, broke his company, broke his workforce, and was given $1.7 billion dollars to walk away.

Travis Kalanick, formerly of Uber, a company responsible for 3,045 sexual assaults, nine murders, and 58 people killed in crashes in the last year alone, was allowed to walk away with almost $3 billion.

Jack Dorsey, who built a $4-billion fortune by enabling President Donald Trump and the alt-right to use his platform for spreading abuse and hatred, now intends to spend the 2020 election yogababbling, fasting, and downward dog-whistling in Africa.

And Zuckerberg turned a website for rating the hotness of college women into an engine for destroying democracy and our privacy and a $74-billion bank account.

And, lo, we cannot completely put this at these idiots’ feet. As Professor Scott Galloway recently said in an article in Business Insider:

…if you tell a thirty- or forty-something person, who regularly wears black turtlenecks, that they are Steve Jobs, they are inclined to believe you.

The venture capitalists who raised these sick hogs did even better financially. And in the end, none of these services exist as anything but a means to make their investors richer. All of them are a stain on society. And that’s okay because in the end, the only thing any of those companies were actually expected to do was to make their investors rich.

Again, Galloway says:

It’s not Mr. Dorsey’s plans to move to Africa that constrain stakeholder value, but his plans to move back. Mr. Dorsey demonstrates a lack of self-awareness, indifference, and yogababble that have hamstrung stakeholder value.

Suddenly, guillotines.

No matter how great your idea is, once you take venture money, your goal changes from developing that idea to making sure your investors get their payday. I want to see you develop your ideas. And I want to see you develop ideas that are good enough to survive in the world, as well as improve that world.

Maybe you didn’t make your first million before you turned 30, but that wasn’t why you showed up, was it? And if it was, let me show you the door.

The promise of the internet was that it was going to give voice to the voiceless, visibility to the invisible, and power to the powerless. That’s what originally excited me about it. That’s what I hope excited you about it, too. And I hope that some of that excitement is still there. But as we’ve learned, hope, by itself, is worthless. We need a plan, and we need it soon.

We don’t really have time to argue about it. The things we can still save are very much worth saving. It would be unthinkable not to save them. It will be hard. It will be close to impossible. But we can’t fail. When failure becomes impossible, success, no matter how unlikely, becomes the only possibility.

We wanted to change the world. We have just enough time to take one shot. Let’s make it count.

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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