Designers tire of being gaslit. Stop before you lose them.
Whether or not you’ve watched the 1944 film Gaslight, many of us are familiar with the term ‘gaslighting’. It is the practice of convincing someone that their version of reality is imaginary. The aim is to manipulate people into questioning their own judgement in order to exert power over them. The result is that they question their ability to make decisions and conclude that everything they thought to be true about themselves and the world around them is a result of their own insanity. In essence, it’s a machiavellian form of abuse.
While there is growing awareness about how this practice is used to marginalise specific demographic groups by not believing that their concerns are real, it is rarely examined in relation to how gaslighting can impede creative practitioners like designers.
Design is both an art and a science. Designers gladly use evidence for many of their decisions by leveraging data and research methods, but there is also a cohesion of elements and ideas that determine whether or not a design works, something which can be difficult to rationally explain. This is the ‘art’ part. It relies on judgement from a trained eye. Design judgement is something that takes years to refine and is central to a designer’s sense of self. It is when this judgement is perpetually undermined by those that don’t have a design skillset that the wellbeing of designers is adversely impacted.
Here are some common examples how designers are gaslit in the workplace:
- Expecting designers to constantly justify the need for design, even though that is what they have been employed to do.
- Someone with no design experience or training positioning their opinion as equal or superior to a designer when judging a design.
- Telling designers that unless every single decision they make has data to back it up it cannot be justified or ‘real’. This is not how HCD is supposed to work.
- Discrediting designers as irrational people who make decisions based on random whims and moods.
- Expecting designers to train other practitioners in their complex skill set over a short period of time so that those people can have an equal influence over a design outcome.
An important part of the design process is critique and interrogation, which designers welcome and embrace. Although all team members should collaboratively discuss if intended goals are being met, design critique is best facilitated by senior and experienced designers – practitioners that have the gift of skill-based judgement and can help to fix real issues instead of mediating issues of personal taste. Design critique is also different to treating a designer’s skill and experience as a figment of their imagination, when those without a professional design skillset attempt to overrule those who have attained those skills.
Like all workers, designers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with working in environments that make them feel regularly undermined. Trust and autonomy are turning out to be the most significant considerations for employees this year and into 2022. So the question is, how are you going to implement a culture of constructive design critique vs destructive design gaslighting to attract and retain the best talent?