Have you seen Ratatouille? If you haven't, here's a quick play by play: our main character Remy lives in France and is gifted with the ability to cook, but the catch is, well…he's a rat; and not like a snitch, but rather more like a full on, four legged, tail toting, rodent. He ends up befriending a clumsy young fellow down on his luck who (as in any solid Disney film) was orphaned too young in some terribly tragic way. With Remy's sensational cooking skills and his buddy Linguine's ability to appear human, they team up to satisfy both of their dreams of working at an esteemed French restaurant. Of course there is also the invisible figment of Remy's imagination, the ghost of Chef Gusto - the recently deceased original head chef and prodigy of the restaurant they work in - to guide Remi through his self doubt. The chef's famous tagline is "anyone can cook" and there it is. The crux of the movie. This single line is the catalyst for all the drama in the film.
I was captivated by this movie. In fact, it's still one of my favorites. I am not sure if it is because of the romance of cooking movies, an underdog (or in this case, an underrat) achieving his dreams, the friendship between two unlikely characters, a badass female character, or the fact that a rat who can't talk with his human friend has full on complex conversations with his imaginary ghost chef 🤷🏾♀️. Maybe it actually is because in so many ways, design and cooking are so alike.
As a designer, you are constantly making and serving people, hoping they will enjoy and appreciate your vulnerability and thoughtfulness. You wait to see what they will say. There are always critics, some who know nothing but have strong opinions, and others who are incredibly experienced and find your blind spots with ease. Many people respond to design and cooking subjectively but there is an objective scaffolding behind the scenes that creates the illusion it is simple, obvious... maybe even...easy?
But of course neither are. The fundamentals of cooking and design share the same combination of ingredients, all that are diametrically opposed to one another: the ability to follow directions and freeform experimentation, critical thinking and rote memorization of techniques, meticulous perfection and the bravery to make endless mistakes; but the main thing is, one's ability to patiently observe and adjust. Some of it can be taught but most of it comes from experience and for the lucky few, sheer unbridled talent.
For a long time becoming a designer was a long hustle. It rarely paid well, it included blood, sweat, and mostly tears. Endless nights, harsh critiques, mistakes, more harsh critiques, more mistakes, until finally it becomes a practice resulting in tiny wins that ladder up to bigger wins that eventually define you as a designer. Only a select few knew what design was, had the ambition, passion, patience, and grit to get there and when they finally did, they were extraordinary. Of course there’s so much privilege mixed into this saucepan as well. At least, that’s what I thought.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what it takes to be a designer. Does it still involve this same path of brute force and uphill hustle? Maybe for some…but it doesn’t seem to be a shared experience for all.
The digital age and the pandemic have deeply changed the landscape of design. It used to be that there were designated practices in design - industrial design, architecture, furniture, graphic, product, etc. These separate studies of physical objects, spaces, and experiences, all take formations and manipulations of intangibles and make them tangible. Grinding the imagination into something, in every sense of the word, real.
Yet with this new evolution of design, the digital spectrum has exploded unlike ever before, a space that has evolved so quickly we require expertise in subject matters in things we haven’t even invented yet. Those who have been critical problem solvers, thinkers, makers and doers in the design spaces before are now being challenged to expand past the planes they work in, and integrate into the multiverse and solve for an entirely new space time continuum.
The thing is, I believe they are uniquely prepared because their skills transfer over. Their ability to think in unusual ways, their instinct to question the ambiguous, their calloused practices that can fluctuate with mediums and materials, this allows them to have the ability to navigate gracefully to this new type of design.
We also need new and more designers to fill these spaces. We need new and more hands and minds. This became even more evident during the pandemic. While many of us were quarantined, the disparity in access became wildly evident but so did the possibilities of what we could do with technology. Working from home, creating better, smarter, safer, digital products that could be created, tested, and launched quickly was a real possibility. It also led to a vast majority of people reconsidering their lives and where and what they wanted to do for a living. While traditional job schedules and practices were abruptly halted and forever changed, the digital design space became paramount. The time and access to computers and wifi for some folks opened up the chance to take bootcamps and consider jobs in technology and working from home. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of perks to this. Being employed by big companies, with very good salaries all while working from home during a global pandemic, sounds like a good deal right? But it’s not that simple. This romantic idea of becoming a designer overnight or in a few weeks via bootcamp alone does a disservice to everyone.
Bootcamps are a quickish (sometimes expensive) way to get a certification but they don’t necessarily prepare you for much. Sure you learn the basics and the buzzwords. You have a portfolio and they promise you can join any big company, but the truth is, just as much as tools don’t make you a chef, softwares and techniques don’t make you a designer. Bootcamps sell themselves on opening up a gatekept industry to everyone, but in reality they are still very expensive, limited in their execution, and are not a guarantee. It cannot be compared to a 4 year degree, and simply not because of length in time, but because of the breadth of learning and attention to nuance and critical thinking, which seems obvious but when it comes to jobs, many try to equate these experiences as one. These bootcamps sell the idea that lived experience and multidisciplinary skills make you a great fit but not all do. Being a veterinarian does not prepare you to do journey maps, being a librarian doesn’t qualify you to create personas or archetypes, and my favorite one I saw recently, being a stripper doesn’t make you an expert in user-centered design. But what does then? Especially when these industries need designers too? Wouldn't having a pharmacist turned designer be immensely beneficial when redesigning a healthcare site or app that needs a subject matter expert on medication? Wouldn't it be excellent having a teacher on board for an ed tech project? So how do we determine who is qualified and capable of tackling this leap other than by trying? Especially when most of what you learn as a designer is on the job? And don’t we need every level? The local chain restaurant line chef and the animated rat chef at Michelin star restaurants?
This is where I really struggle. What makes you a designer? In the industry there are invisible boundaries everywhere. We tote ourselves on being experts but who deemed us one? We rarely have more than a few weeks of introduction into the subjects we give advice and do design work on. We say we know because we talk to subject matter experts briefly but our designs can many times get eviscerated in user testing. We say we know because we have years of experience but there’s so much bad design and speed dictates everything. We say we know because we are doing discursive, divergent thinking and idea generating but we are constantly just looking at what others in the industry are doing and copying them. Who is the leader in this circle of patting each other on the back of shitty design? We then cloak all of this in the false ideology of empathy. The secret ingredient, the cure, the solution to all our problems. Empathy. We chalk up everything to it but what does it even mean?
To me, empathy isn’t an emotion that gets bottled up and sprinkled onto design. It has to be ethically, tactically, and objectively baked into the process. Empathy means not only speaking with experts but truly working with them, the people who are facing the problems, and with the problem itself. It means, as a designer, you are the funnel, a tool in-itself to bring all these different parties and perspectives together neatly. It’s about knowing what edges to sand and which to sharpen. It’s about being the waiter just as much as it is being the chef.
The more I spend time in the industry, the more I realize my continuous existential crises about being a designer revolves around the fact that being a designer means being tugged in opposite directions simultaneously without an overarching standard or rule book to abide by. Many of us come to this field hoping to help others, design a better world, but very much have to work for big companies that aren’t always doing what’s best for anyone, all to pay our hefty student loans. We have to sit with this idea of wanting to do good but also constantly having to quickly, quickly, and more quickly turn in more work that many times sacrifices good decisions and creativity due to speed. It might alter ethical decisions because we live in capitalism and want to keep our jobs. We don’t always have a choice, and we have to come to the realization that we can’t design ourselves out of this chaotic world we have created. We focus on the microcosm of choices that hopefully work together. Being a designer means being both a critical thinker and problem solver, as well as a technically savvy whiz kid. You have to be smart, succinct, sophisticated in your thinking while also being equally fast, hi-fi, and flashy in your execution to communicate the work internally and to clients. Those ridiculous job postings that say you have to be “a unicorn” might be toting this idea in a cute sassy way, but they aren’t always wrong when it comes to sometimes needing to be pure fucking magic in your work. For me, this is incredibly difficult. I am not great at being creative on cue, staying focused for the amount of time it takes to do the thinking and the execution, and always coming up with brilliant new ideas. I need inspiration to strike, and while I am practicing to force it, it can be chaotic. I think design is hard and can be frustrating. It’s not always romantic, filled with fun and post-it notes. Sometimes it’s dirty and complex, and you have to make difficult decisions. I love to focus on the systems thinking rather than spend time to meticulously polishing hi-fi prototypes. As I grow in this industry, I am learning to equally strengthen both muscles so I don’t end up like Popeye, but it’s not easy.
Which brings me back to Ratatouille...
I recently watched the film again and when Chef Gusto explains that it’s not about the fact that anyone can cook but rather that “a cook can come from anywhere” it made me realize it’s not only that, a designer can come from anywhere, but wherever you do come from is barely the starting point. Just like Chef Gusto, even if you are a prodigy, you need practice, you need a team, and you need everyone to be good at different things. It’s not about being the unicorn, it’s about being confident enough to say, I don’t know. So much about being a modern day designer, especially those who work in tech, is about being young, fast, and constantly being promoted to the next title and position of power to make more and more money. But to me, this is where we are sacrificing real design. This is where we have to remember that not only is the design process contingent on iteration but so is the practice of design. We have to be willing to slow down, be thoughtful, be bold, and be courageous to be original. We have to remember somehow that design started with being committed to craftsmanship and experience. We have to ask who these best practices are serving. We have to remove the seesaw of being crippled by self-doubt and overburdened by ego to focus on the process and outcome, not the person and the trajectory of their career. We must find patience. We don’t want to burn the main dish, but we are dangerously close to doing so.
So what does it take to be a designer? Well, of course, it takes an underrat, friendship between unlikely characters, many badass female characters, and full on complex conversations with imaginary friends to manage your self doubt. 😉