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How to understand your impact in the brave new world of product design

If you design products, you have more power and influence than you realize. This is a call for awareness and change in a time when Everything is Design.
How to understand your impact in the brave new world of product design

It’s time to change a lot of the dialog we have in the design industry. It’s time for us to start thinking about the impact our designs have on the world. We’ve spent far too long thinking about how cool something is. Meanwhile, the products we’ve made have changed how elections work, shifted the workforce in multiple industries, raised depression to an all-time high, created safe spaces for hate and vitriol, and have had a significant impact on our natural environment.

All this, and yet I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve had exceedingly few conversations with designers in which we try to understand our impact on the world.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve had exceedingly few conversations with designers in which we try to understand our impact on the world.

For me, the impact of design started to become clear a few years ago when I was introduced to a six-layer framework for how a healthy society functions, by futurist Stewart Brand. It’s helped me understand the context of the work I’m doing in product design and even how different types of design can have different types of impact. I'll first explain Brand’s framework, called Pace Layering, and then we'll look at how it applies to design. 

Brand proposes that there are six layers to society that can be laid out in concentric circles spinning in orbit around each other:

1. Fashion 

2. Commerce 

3. Infrastructure 

4. Governance 

5. Culture

6. Nature

The outside levels spin the fastest and therefore gain the most attention — they're easy to talk about and understand. Fashion moves fast and changes often. Fashion grabs your attention, but for most people does not provide a huge depth of meaning. Note that Fashion is also always referencing itself. As you move further down to more central circles, they become harder to put words to and take much longer to affect, but provide a great deal of impact on other levels above them. 

All six layers operate at different paces, which is a good thing. If Governance were to change at the same speed as Fashion, you can imagine the rapidly changing laws would not have a positive effect. 

On a purely philosophical level, the Pace Layering framework helps me understand why I really enjoy things like Fashion, but have a deep connection with Nature that often transcends words and deeply affects me. 

How to apply Pace Layering to design

Now that we understand the core framework, let’s apply it to design — in this case, product design; although, I think it could be applied to other disciplines. The goal of applying Pace Layering to design isn’t to provide concrete answers as much as to give you a new way to understand the impact of the work you’re doing. 

I’ve mapped some design disciplines to the same framework, expanding it to nine levels: 

1. Designing visuals 

2. Designing interactions

3. Designing flows 

4. Designing whole features or sections of a product

5. Designing apps/products

6. Designing teams 

7. Designing businesses

8. Designing society 

9. Designing nature

These layers follow a similar dynamic as Brand’s Pace Layers. Visuals and Interaction are on the outer layers — they spin quickly, change often, and grab a lot of attention. For me, this explains why design community platforms like Dribbble are so popular. Dribbble highlights visual and interaction design, but also explains why so many designers dialog about how many of those designs don’t solve real problems. It also explains why many designers stop using Dribbble as they grow in their careers — their work becomes more complicated and harder to communicate in something so reduced as a quick visual. 

Design on the middle layers is much more complicated and less trendy. When done well, it is established, researched, and full of nuance. While it may be easy to change the colors or illustrations in an app, changing a whole flow, or even rearchitecting an entire app will take substantially longer. And likewise, while Visuals may have some emotional impact, a new feature in an app may cause a much deeper effect in a person’s life. In my experience, these middle layers are better communicated with something like a good case study. A case study allows us to explain the rationale behind the decisions, the hard work it took to implement them, and the impact of those decisions. 

As we move to the deepest layers, things move even more slowly. Here, the conversations are definitely not as trendy, but their impact can be huge. If you are working on building a team, it may take a year or two. If you are building financial tools that give more access to low-income populations, you may have to wait decades to see your work come to fruition. It simply may not be possible for them to move any faster, and yet the depth of their impact is inarguable. 

Conversely, you can use this framework to understand why certain digital platforms have been at the center of controversy. The leading ride-sharing apps used product design to change transportation on a large scale across the globe. These companies move much faster than local governments, and the tension between those layers is palpable. Likewise, some social networks have used product design to collect information and distribute media in a way that has many governments scrambling. Airbnb has used product design to change how people travel. And the change has happened so quickly that it has disrupted what it means to be a local, all around the world. 

You can argue about what companies that create products should or shouldn’t be doing, but you can’t argue that they haven’t had an outsized impact on our global society —  at a record pace. The impact we have as product designers on those outer layers has never been bigger. 

Everything is design

I’ve intentionally used the term “designing” in all of these levels. Our design community often focuses on defining design as craft, and can have a very limited definition of what those terms mean. That obsession with craft keeps pushing designers toward easy-to-talk-about disciplines that sit on the outer rings and in the process negates disciplines in the inner rings. In fact, I’ve seen many designers refer to some of these transitions as “not designing anymore.” What this means for our careers is a whole other article. But suffice it to say, because product design now has more impact than ever before, we also have a huge new world of job opportunities — jobs that require a much larger level of responsibility. 

I have a huge place in my designer heart for a well-crafted... anything. But honestly, I think we spend very little time thinking about the impact of that craft.

For my part, I understand the argument that maybe levels six–nine are “not designing anymore,” but until someone gives me a better definition, I’m going to continue pointing out that we use a lot of the same skills, even if we create different artifacts. Even more importantly, I feel like the more designers and design thinking we can incorporate into those deeper levels, the more impact we’ll have on our society. I’d hate to limit those career paths by telling designers that they aren’t a designer if they choose to work on gnarly societal-level design problems. 

Transitioning from craft to impact

There’s a funny thing that happens in many design careers. We start on the outer layers and find a lot of joy, and even identity in the craft of design. And we spend years building those skills. I have a huge place in my designer heart for a well-crafted… anything. But honestly, I think we spend very little time thinking about the impact of that craft. It can be craft for craft’s sake. 

But not to be overly negative, I see a lot of designers who continue to expand their craft and simultaneously build their muscle for impact. And then a strange thing happens. At some point, many of us are forced to let go of one of the outer layers in order to keep scaling our impact on the world — for no other reason than we are humans, and we only have so much capacity. We look at the deeper layers and they seem to provide a lot of meaning, but we’ve found our identity (and social affirmation) in the outer layers, and it’s just hard to let them go. 

In the past handful of years, we've begun creating products that are used by millions or even billions of people.

In my experience, I’ve seen the pain of this transition reflected in a lot of people’s career growth, mine included. I think we’re afraid to let go of things like visual design, so we don’t have the mental capacity to think about how to design for this type of impact. But when we let go — when we look to scale our impact in this way — we can start to see just how much power we have as designers. Digital products — specifically, the huge distribution opportunities that have arisen from the internet and app stores — have given us more scale than just about any projects in human history. In just the past handful of years, we've begun creating products that are used by millions or even billions of people. Our ability to affect huge-scale change is something we can no longer ignore. 

Moving into these more central rings comes with huge responsibility and requires an even larger skillset. It requires new tools and new ways to talk about our projects. We are forced into much more abstract conversations that have much wider but perhaps less direct impact. 

Do I go wide or deep? 

This decision to go wide or deep is another one of our great conundrums in design. And it is one of the biggest areas of choice that we have. I really don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here, and I definitely wouldn’t value one decision over the other. 

Some designers will choose to spend most of their time in one of the rings. That may be on the outside or on the inside, but they are specializing in a specific discipline (for example, typography, systems design, design ethics, etc). Others will choose to grow into multiple rings, and will likely become specialized in connecting multiple disciplines. We often call these generalists. They have a wide purview, but simply don’t have the time to be exceptionally deep in any one area (eg., product design, design management, CEO, etc.).

The tools for different layers

As we move from layer to layer, our tools likely need to change. On the outer layers, our tools may be Sketch, Principle, Adobe XD, or even dev tools like XCode. As we move to the middle layers, we may start using more tools to communicate how all our designs fit together like InVision and Figma, design systems, a slide deck, and even the *gasp* meeting. We can use Abstract to pull our organization together to work more effectively. And as we move into the inner layers, we may use a lot of those same tools, but we probably shift toward using more things like analytics tools, and head count planning sheets, and even learning how to use board meetings to accomplish design tasks. 

Similar to tools, we also have to change the people we work with as we move to deeper and deeper layers. In the outer layers, we're probably working directly with other designers who “get the craft” and maybe a few others. But as we move deeper and deeper, the number of different people we work with generally increases greatly (see earlier comment about our limited capacity), and many of them are not designers. In order to have great impact, we must work with a wide variety of disciplines, many of which don’t understand design at all. Because of this, the ability to understand and represent the value of design to a wide group of people becomes an invaluable tool. 

Our social responsibility

Lastly, if we understand that we, as product designers, have a massive potential impact on this world, we must realize that we also have an exponentially larger responsibility than any other time in history. 

But what does that mean? It’s easy for us to look at another company, one that has done something we think harms our society, and scream from the rooftops that they’ve got it all wrong. But that’s simply not helpful. 

In my experience, most (but not all) of the companies that we think are doing something harmful have really well-intentioned employees. But I’d argue that they are perhaps working at one layer without realizing that their work is having impact at a different layer. First, we need to be honest with ourselves about the actual impact our designs have on the world. Second, we may need to change how we work.

4 ways to take more responsibility in design

1. Research how people use your product and how it affects their lives.
Many products have unintended consequences. Look at outside metrics that affect your company — like happiness or screen addiction. Don’t become overwhelmed by how daunting the task may sound. Start by listening. Really listen to people — not just what you want to hear.

If you don’t have a lot of resources for research, lean on the research that already exists. For example, one of my new projects has a social component. I don’t need to talk to 400 people to deeply understand what seeing "like" counts does to people’s emotional state. Lots of research has been done on this topic. I read it, and made adjustments accordingly.

2. If your product can sway people’s opinion, be honest with yourself about that.
Figure out what role your company has in forming public opinion. This issue is fraught with challenges and you better have good answers. If you can’t take on that responsibility, work on something else. Sometimes there’s simply not a good universal answer for how to regulate something (just look at the controversy regarding political ads on social media and the different approaches that Twitter and Facebook have taken). If there’s no good answer, then maybe don’t get into that topic. Sometimes safer is better for our society. Understanding the impact of your work should come before action. 

3. If your platform allows strangers to talk to each other, understand what could go wrong.
Get feedback from people who have experienced hate and discrimination and consider limiting channels for vitriol (comments, DMs, etc.), even if it hurts engagement numbers. 

4. Think about whether your product impacts the environment.
Does your product consume a lot of energy? If it asks people to do things in the real world, consider how they interact with their environment. Ask what would happen if your product became wildly successful. An example here may be understanding that your food delivery app has real emissions consequences for our world, so being efficient with routes, or even delivering on bikes, could make a large impact. The larger the organization you work for, the more impact your work will have on the environment. 

The impact we have as designers is expanding to include much more than how things make people feel.

Where do we go from here?

The impact we have as designers is expanding to include much more than how things make people feel. In this world where our products are used by millions, the problems we are tasked with solving are rarely simple. I hope we can have a broader understanding of how big the design world is, how various design disciplines connect to each other, and what their impact is.

Ultimately, we have way more power than we realize and I’d love for us to think about the type and depth of impact we have on this world. I hope this framework highlights that we actually have a lot more flexibility in the type of work we do and the type of impact we have.