Good design doesn’t have to change the world

How designers can focus on individuals instead of systems to feel the impact of their work

November 30, 2022

It’s easy to fall into cynicism when trying to understand if a design is effective at tackling a problem. Take for example, a designer tweaking an app to help a patient assess their blood sugar. It can be easy to start to think about how this entire app is but a band-aid to a much larger problem. It’s easy to lose focus and give up if you start to believe the only solution is addressing the core issue. At least that’s how we feel at the studio.

Our studio of two set out to help good ideas become useful technologies for a better world. We wanted to tackle hairy problems that needed more attention. Our goal was to get clients in three sectors we deemed critical: education, health care, and sustainability. When our wish came true and we got clients in each sector, their realities came crashing down on us as well.

As people designing software and graphics, we aren’t exactly on the frontlines. A lot of the things we design as supposed solutions, are many layers removed from the bigger problem. Can we tell ourselves that this app is ending climate change? We’re sitting here figuring out corner radiuses on buttons while companies continue to dump tons of toxic waste into the water. This is a crippling thought that can make us doubt every decision we make.

Taking a step back, it becomes clearer that this is true of any industry. A reductionist lens makes it impossible to feel like any change is worth it. Why should a doctor treat a sick patient from a disease that’s incurable? It’ll just kill someone else. Why should teachers continue teaching existing curriculums? They’re ineffective and will continue to ruin generations.

Yet, this framing is focusing on the system and not on the individuals. Are education systems inefficient? Absolutely. But the children currently in school still need support. Teachers walking into classrooms every day need all the help they can get from anyone willing to give it—broken system or not. When a designer comes in with an idea to make inputting children’s names into a database a little easier, it isn’t pointless. That simple tweak might grant teachers an extra five minutes to rest between classes. That extra rest will translate into more energy invested in teaching their classes.

Technology is now far too advanced and our systems complex in ways that are unfathomable. Big sweeping changes are not only difficult to instigate, it’s not even a good idea to do so without a full grasp of the context.

We have a newfound appreciation for the difference between impacting systems vs individuals. Each person has a role to play in this massive experiment we call society. Some are out there grinding daily to make big moves to these intangible systems. Others, like us designers, assist the people who need help with a problem that impacts their day to day.

If our goal is to have an “impact”, it’s time we got clear about the definition of that word. Are we looking to overthrow legislation and lobby for nationwide change? Or are we seeking to directly help the people we talk to everyday in our user interviews? In the grand scheme of things, creating a new onboarding flow in a sustainable diet app might not end the climate crisis. But it might help an extra 1,000 people eat greener diets. And that counts for something.