What happened to the magic?


What happened to the magic?

September 13, 2021
Illustration by
Illustration by Jack Bedford

Ten years ago there were a lot of articles about why design should get a ‘seat at the table’. Us designers have always felt like design is a serious endeavour and we wanted others to feel the same. We saw its power and importance but the ‘Chiefs’ weren’t yet taking note. Fast forward to today and it seems, we got our wish. CDOs and design-minded CPOs are now commonplace in many startups and tech companies. The quantification of design’s value has been measured and proven by some smart consulting folks. We won, rejoice! We designers got accepted as serious business people, taking charge of a serious function within the company. Our time has come and we’ve taken our seat at the table and are settling in to our new power and status. We always knew design was serious but now we’re serious too. But wait, it’s all starting to sound a bit... serious.

Design got heavy

Remember when we were fighting for the seat? That was a fun time too wasn’t it? Now we find ourselves with all of this importance and responsibility and it’s easy to feel the weight of it. Like a massive suitcase of business bureaucracy that we have to lug around with us. It drags us down, makes us feel heavy. It’s hard to have light thoughts when we feel so heavy. Yet light thoughts is what makes design so special.

Let’s run with the suitcase analogy for a moment. Imagine you’re thinking about where you want to go on holiday. Normally people ponder excitedly about all the possibilities (strategists at travel companies literally call this part of the process the ‘dreaming’ phase). Only this time you’re going to make the decision of where to go on holiday with the bags already packed, keys in hand, the taxi waiting on the curb with the meter running and your partner and kids sat inside. They’re all waiting impatiently, wondering where you’ll decide to take them. What was once a process of dreaming, suddenly feels like a heavy problem to solve. In this state of mind you’re not dreaming of possibilities but rather dealing with practicalities. That’s no way to plan a holiday.

In this new era of design-minded businesses, that’s kinda how designers start new design challenges. All that baggage, people relying on you and waiting for you, money trickling away as meter of opportunity runs. The business says, “This is no time for fun and frivolity, get to work and hit our goals”. No wonder then, that the job of design feels like a heads-down sprint to the finish line, rather than a potter around a garden of Eden.

The case for making space

There are many moments in the design process when the problems must be worked through and the heaviness dealt with and I’m totally here for those moments. But not enough attention is given to the lightness of dreaming, the questioning of what if?

As designers, this imbalance is our problem to solve. No one will give us permission to play and dream. After all, ‘playing around’ doesn’t directly create the measurable results that will tell us if we’re hitting our OKRs. We must quit waiting for permission and do what we know is right. Because if we fail to make time for play and dreaming in the process of design, we risk losing the magic we sold to the C suite when we demanded our seat at the very table we now sit. Design will continue to be a key driver of success for those that keep that magic, but if we allow ourselves to be crushed by the heaviness of responsibility we risk losing design’s power. Innovative design isn’t born of departments stuck in the doldrums of how things are today. It comes from the teams who are bold enough to take something further than anyone expected. We know this deep down but we hardly act like it.

Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect. —Raymond Joseph Teller.

New dreamers

A new generation are starting their design careers. They will have never known what it was like when we were fighting for recognition; probably best we don’t tell them how fun it was when much of our process went unnoticed. We played in hidden caves, made magic and returned with wondrous artefacts.

I’ve spent time with this new generation of designers both in playful under-grad programmes and in more serious, work-based agile teams. Between these two scenarios, education and work, I can see the marked contrast between what they are sold design could be and what it actually is today. This new generation of designers hold the same expectations as we did when we got into design. They too wish to dream of new possibilities, to leave their mark on this world by making it better by design. Except, now design is taken seriously, they’re not faced with broad problems to explore but instead, a brief to increase conversion rates in the next sprint.

The business asks for magic but won’t give the time. Time for play and dreaming must be made. And it should feel fun, but not in the bean bags and ping pong kinda way. Inviting fun into the process of design is less about this stuff and more about doing the work of design whilst we hold all that weight off to one side. Doing this effectively requires building a muscle for pushing aside constraints and problems and pulling them closer at the right moments. I call this ‘holding reality at arm’s length’. To do so recognises the existence of reality but accepts that it can wait whilst we play. Early in my career, I was lucky to be granted permission to do this; my seniors created that time for me. Today’s designers may have to fight for this.

Design as its whole self

We can’t go back and nor should we. We fought for design to be taken seriously and we got our wish. Design has finally shifted its perception from that of mere ornamentation to a key driver of business success. We should celebrate that but we should also ask ourselves whether we’ve lost anything as a result? Has the weight of responsibility changed us or are we strong enough to bear that weight whilst giving design the time and space it needs?

I hope this isn’t read as me lamenting of the past. This is about progressing design in way that remains true to what made design so special in the first place. We needn’t step back from the table in order to do that. Instead, we must secure our seat whilst allowing design to be its whole self, playful and then serious. Dreaming before reality. It’s the only way to make magic.