In search of design humility.

I read Khoi Vinh’s declaration of “the end of client services” with great interest. The need to create a product that can be nurtured and grown without compromise — to be the company, instead of working for it, as Khoi puts it — is something I think about a lot. I’ve also spent the last year gradually moving away from client services, and his post resonates for me.

And then I re-read it, thinking about the voice. It’s outward-looking. There’s obviously personal risk involved in any decision to create a start-up but this particular post (unlike his previous one) is positioned primarily as industry pronouncement (the big picture), supported by personal anecdote (what I’m doing supports/reflects the big picture).

  • “There were lots of reasons for this, but one of the main ones is that I think the design industry has undergone a significant and meaningful change, one that opens up opportunities that are not to be missed.”

This is appropriate for an audience interested in new industry perspectives, myself included. But I find myself wondering about the other “lots of reasons.” How could the story be reversed? What if this had been a personal declaration, rather than a professional one? As an inward-looking post, it might have been titled “the end of client services for me.Why is this right for me, right now? How am I shifting personally, as a designer today? A humbler voice. Less powerful? More accurate? Less traffic?

I don’t want to re-write Khoi’s inspiring post. I’m just genuinely curious about how others deal with personal growth and identity as entire industries shift around us. I’m questioning the celebratory stance and pronouncements (others have too), as I try to articulate my own journey as a designer. A journey filled with equal measures of excitement and doubt.

I know that we often dial down risk when constructing ourselves online. We externalize creative anxiety and spread it out over other forces (trends, the profession, the economy, other designers). We sense that something is changing in ourselves and search for external patterns to explain the new sensation. Maybe it’s a community-building technique we learn early on, to help us feel less alone when taking a risk. And it usually makes for a very good story (“it’s not just me, it’s everyone; jump aboard!”). Sometimes, there’s good reason to do this — it can create momentum.

But as designers we tend to shy away from vulnerability. Of course we do — it’s easy to detach from our own internal landscapes and cast a wide view. It’s safe, we’re good at it and our clients pay us to be “the outsider.” I just wish I could find more evidence of fear and uncertainty in the online design community. We all face decisions, every day, about who we are, what stance to take, how to define and re-define our work. I believe the rewards might be richer (the conversations more interesting, at least) if we expose ourselves in real-time to our peers as human beings who don’t always have the answers. Less “design industry,” more “design humility.”

I’ll try to do this as I widen my own investigation inward. Not at all easy for me.


  1. Loving the depth (and articulation) of your journey.

  2. David Carson declared the End of Print in 1995. Did he speak too soon?

    I think designers are known to have a sharp point of view, and that perhaps what is the case with Khoi Vinh’s blog post. As you said, it inspired you, and that is all that matters.

  3. Actually, the fact that it inspired me is not all that matters. I’m inspired every day, by many things. This was not a post about inspiration.

    I was trying to make a specific point about uncertainty and not always having the answers. I’m talking about the idea of vulnerability — a call for more humility and honesty in how we articulate our journey. I’m interested in how we designers position ourselves in relation to industry changes — personally and introspectively and in how we articulate our position publicly to our peers.

    Announcing the end of this or the death of that is usually a call for attention — a cheap way to make a point about one’s own position in relation to larger forces. In some ways print is dead and in many, many ways it isn’t — Carson’s statement didn’t/doesn’t do the situation justice.

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