4 min read

When will design learn?

Let's start this post off with a big, huge number: 458,219. That’s the estimated number of people in technology who have lost their jobs since 2022. And even more are sure to be let go as the year, an election year, trudges on. I don’t know what kind of odds you’ll get in Vegas, but placing a bet on more job losses in the future seems like a sure bet.

I know this. You know this. Well, I hope you know this, but I suspect that some folks out there don't.

Here’s what else I know, learned through conversations and observations through my vast network in design, connections in design leadership, and all of the folks I follow on LinkedIn and elsewhere—design practices have been decimated over the last two years. Programs that were once held up high on the pedestal of excellence by the InVision marketing program are now in tatters, a fraction of what they once were. Seats at the table have been moved back to the cubicle where whatever leaders are still employed spend half their day in Figma working on features. Design-led transformation is a thing of the past.

Very few, if any, programs have avoided the brutal destruction of design causing many folks to reconsider the profession, continue to apply for jobs over and over and over again hoping for the roulette wheel to hit, or scramble to add AI expertise to their resume with a bit of frontier authority. Design leaders are browsing around LinkedIn in shock and writing posts like “What happened to design”, “Why this happened to design”, and “What this means for the future of design.” Design apocalypse (let’s not forget our colleagues in other sectors of tech, we feel your pain) has come and it’s still going strong.

I know this. You should know this. But there are some design executives who either don’t know this or they are still hanging on, hoping for what I’m not sure, but it seems like a return to 2018. This is my quick hypothesis after scanning a brand new report called Strategic Behaviors & Mindsets of Design Executives by the Design Executive Council (the latest version of the Design Leadership Forum—RIP) and the design company still wearing their wedding dress, Figma.

From the introduction, “the white paper offers actionable references and insights for design and business leaders. It underscores the crucial role of design in strategic leadership and company effectiveness and demonstrates how design executives harmonize customer-centric approaches with competitive strategies to drive significant business value.”

It reads better if you go back and imagine the teacher’s voice from Charlie Brown. “Woh wuh wuh wuh wuh wuh wuh woh wuh.” Maybe we should have tried that tactic back in 2018. At least we would have gotten a few laughs.

Now, please keep in mind this report brand spanking new. It was published on May 24, 2024. You should check it out—it’s very chic and so serious. I mean we can’t have a design report looking bad of course but this publication takes polish to a new level with photography and art direction on par with a fashion magazine. Nothing screams significant business value like wearing black leather and looking pensive into the camera and dapper dressed designers laughing around the table at an exclusive dinner party in the city. Hey, if we all learned a thing or two from the television series Mad Men, this is how you win hearts and minds in big business. Oh, and a lot of cigarette smoking, but those photos appear to be missing.

Here’s the rub. At the very beginning the report states: “Our research found that in 2022, 5.3% of Fortune 1000 companies had a chief design executive, a 1.5% increase from 2021.” In other words, between the years 2021 and 2022, Fortune 1000 companies added 15 new chief design executives, from 35 to 50. The report doesn’t mention that during this time practically anyone could leave their design job at lunch and have a new one by dinner. Recruiters and hiring managers could not get enough designers and design leaders right up until they didn’t, and the pendulum began its long and harsh swing backward.

Strategic Behaviors & Mindsets of Design Executives is a giant slap across the face of design and design leadership. It completely ignores what has happened to the industry and the people at large in the last 24 months and still going. Almost a half-million people in technology (digital transformation) are out of work and while design is a minor percentage of that number, it’s still a lot of people who are not living their best life right now. I might cut the DXC and Figma some slack if the layoffs and decimation had just started in 2024, but we are years into a staggering reduction in design programs. There is nothing in this document that direcetly addresses the latest deprioritization of design. Instead the report's “insights” push themes that are now tired tropes from many days gone by.

I can’t shake the phrase “tone deaf” out of my head.

Look, we don’t need more of this shit. Frankly, we should have moved on from this jargon and these lofty goals long ago, around the time InVision started to tank and the marketing team layoffs began. There is no need or use case for clinging onto turns of phrase and “actionable insights” that rarely worked a few years ago, let alone today when designers and design leaders are scrambling just to get work done. And real work mind you, not strategic behaviors and mindsets mumbo jumbo.

Design doesn’t need the “seat at the table” right now, it needs more designers working at desks and leaders who focus on delivering good work.