The Invisible Designer: How Can Personal Motivations Affect Design?

In which I face up to the fact that I just want people to like me, that dream sequences aren’t always enlightening, and that my own personal motivations might be an OK thing after all.

Nick Usborne, a web writer I greatly respect, once said, �You know what I really want? I just want people to like me�.

I was floored. I couldn�t believe what I had just heard. This man had just shared his deepest, darkest secret with a whole room of conference attendees he did not know. Why on earth would he do a thing like that? He�s got courage, I thought, a boatload of courage.

On second thought, I realize that I want the exact same thing. I�d never admit it publicly, of course, but when I design and write content for this site I ask myself questions like: Will people like what I have to say? Will they even notice? Will they think I�m just trying to drum up hits for my day job? Am I even making sense?

I am just like Nick. I think most people are. We want people to like what we do and we want to earn respect from our peers. We want validation (poor word choice?) for the work we do. Isn�t that right? Isn�t this part of what motivates us?

Ok, I�ll speak for myself. But I�m a bit suspicious of anyone who claims otherwise.

So this is my dilemma: are these self-serving motivations affecting the web sites I design? If so, is that OK? Can I still create good designs that way, or if they aren�t affecting my design, what then? Why do I bother having these motivations? What good are they?

Simply put, I have a sinking feeling that my own motivations have negatively affected the sites I have built. I keenly remember instances where I fought with other stakeholders about what to do when, and have either gotten my way or have been inwardly upset at giving in. I have held resentment in my heart for people I have worked with, and I have poisoned relationships because I no longer cared about the outcome.

One site in particular, which I worked on while I was freelancing a few years back, was the epitome of this. I ended up caring little for how the site ended up because the client contact I was working with thought they knew everything: they didn�t allow for any other opinions other than their own. At some point I simply gave up and convinced myself that I would not fight with them any longer. I would give them what they wanted even if it was contrary to my own judgment.

My ego has gotten me nowhere. Instead, to help fight it off (though it gathers every day), I try to explore how to design based on user needs instead of focusing on the clash of client needs and personal needs. Where I once needed to make a navigation bar with vague, one word labels and a kick-ass javascript dropdown, I now make a list of long blue text links written with clarity. Where I once had a flash intro for the home page, I now have a site map.

I often imagine writing a story called �The Invisible Designer� and seeing if Zeldman over at Alistapart would publish it. It could serve as a constant reminder of how I relentlessly battle my own motivations in favor of the users�. It could sit up alongside a similar imaginary sequence written by the aforementioned Mr. Usborne:
A Fairy, a Low-Fat Bagel, and a Sack of Hammers. That would be neat.

The Invisible Designer would go like this:

A web designer woke up one day and started to work on a new site. They worked day and night, for weeks on end. They went through each step of the design methodically, with the greatest care. At some point during the design, however, they began to get the feeling that they were becoming invisible. They couldn�t see themselves in their designs anymore. Their patented design feel was gone, their logos and buttons looked off: nowhere could you tell that they had any involvement in the design at all! Were they losing their skill? What was wrong? Had they woken up in a Kafka book?

Instead of their own design, what they created was something totally organic and new, based on things they could never have dreamed of before the start of the project. They had added a whole bunch of novel pieces, but had ripped out even more. They ended up with a whole lot less features than they had originally envisioned.

The great interface widget they had cleverly designed months before was redesigned in the first round of user testing. All their links were rewritten in the second round. And the users didn�t seem to care one bit about how much time and effort had been put into these design elements. In fact, people seemed to care mostly about their own lives: all they wanted was access to information that would help them make their lives better, and that was about it. Talk about boring. The people who used the site obviously did not notice or appreciate the finer elements of great design!

The new design satisfied the users� every need. They were all as happy as a clam at high tide, and didn�t once ask who designed the site. Travesty! The designer had become invisible.

Of course, I�d never have the time to write out all of that. (I�m very busy these days)

Oh wait�hmmm�.

That story would really help me, you see. With that little story I would be able to sidestep the issues that affect my design and me so much. I would be able to give up caring what people thought about my design, as if my design were something that people judged me on.

I would be that invisible designer, becoming a conduit between the user and client needs. I would be a 12 lane highway, a Firewire 800 pipeline where the user would become one with the design, able to use it without thinking. They would reach a higher plane of usage (if you will), where their tasks become the design, with no extraneous elements whatever. The client would benefit from this, too, and their financial and marketing needs would be fulfilled.

No more personal, ego-driven motivations. No more concerns about people liking what I�ve done, liking my web site, or liking anything about me. No more self-centered ravings concerning the right way to do things, the wrong way to do things, or what good design is (while implicitly assuming that my own is good). No doubt even Nick Usborne would be impressed by this absolutely brilliant idea!


It�s not that easy, of course. I can�t simply ignore my own motivations. I�ve tried, and though the idea provided me with good procrastination material, I don�t think it�s possible to become the sort of invisible designer I�ve described. Why would we even want to do this: to deny a deep-seated, first-order motivation? It�s not very realistic, and it�s not very human.

However, our motivations should not get in the way of designing for people. Instead of either ignoring or being blinded by our own motivations, we should use them as a lens to see into the world of design: to magnify and focus on design problems, not solely as a muse to get us what we want or need.

By taking this middle road, our own deep-seated motivations (including the desire to be liked) can actually help us improve design:

    Our motivations can help us understand others.

    If we have such secretive and powerful motivations, do other people have them, too? Do they have similar ones? If so, how can we leverage that in the design? If a person �just wants to be liked�, how does that affect the way we design for them? If we can produce an environment where these questions are the rule and not the exception, good design will flourish. I�m sure of it. Asking pertinent questions is as big a part of good design as anything else.

    Similarly, how can we use knowledge of our own motivations to improve our interactions with other designers or members of our team? What if we knew the motivations of all the people on a project? Would we do anything different?

    Our motivations make us care.

    Without our motivations we wouldn�t care. This is obvious, but I daresay that we need to remind ourselves once in a while what we�re really after. It�s not just the money, is it? Or is it?

    Even with the power of money, sometimes we care about doing a great job for no other reason than the job itself. Doing good for goodness sake is a strong motivation! (Doing something so that others like us is also a strong motivation, too. Maybe even stronger)

    Our motivations are what we do.

    Our motivations color what we do like white on rice. People who enjoy beautiful things tend to make things they think are beautiful. People who enjoy usable things tend to make things they think are usable. People who work for the money tend to do those things that guarantee they will continue to get the money. We can only go so far as our motivations take us.

Just as we must work within the constraints of the professional environment, so we must work within the constraints Nature has put upon us. Just as we must observe the idiosyncrasies of users, so we must observe the idiosyncrasies within ourselves. Just as we must accept all that we fear in others, so we must accept all that we fear in ourselves.

Just like Nick.

Published: July 10th, 2004