We are still duds

Tech product design as a field feels like an intellectual desert these days. No discourse, no research, no dreams. It’s just eerily quiet. If I had started my career today, I most likely would have done something else.

In my youth, these were the writings that inspired me to get in the field

Maybe I’m just entering my old man yells at clouds phase, but nothing remotely as interesting has come out since 2017. We can lament the silliness of designer news, and the “should designers code” debate, but at least they were lurching towards something. Now we don’t even have that.

You could argue that product design is a practice, not a field of study, but graphic design, product managegement, engineer, and game design all have vibrant discourse, journals, research, etc. It’s hard to watch any GDC talk and not feel like we’re missing something!

And because I dislike just whining, here are some things I’d love to see:

Magazines: in the absence of journals, something like Increment or Offscreen that published long form pieces at a slower cadence focused on the practice of product and interaction design in tech.

Conferences: but organized around disseminating knowledge & research. Having our own GDC or Devcon would be amazing. But we can start much, much smaller.

Meetups: bring back WaffleJS: the perfect blend of serious and silly. We need regular in person meetings for low stakes demos & conversations that can be tricky to have on the Internet.

I’ll keep adding to this list as I think of more stuff, but maybe one deeper and more worrying theme is that we’re now fully in the era of designer duds that Mills Baker warned about circa 2014

If ours is primarily the practice of optimally stacking as many IC5s as possible while minimizing diminishing returns at scale through good management and design system investment, then maybe magazines and meetups are the wrong level to be operating at.

Instead, maybe what we need is for more cases of design-driven business moats.

And because strict UX moats don’t exist, we’ll need a class of designers who are able to reason about subjects far outside of what we currently understand to be “product design” – designers who understand enough about semi-conductors to invest in custom chips, see and invest in Wasm before anyone else, can explain the tradeoff between smart contract & mpc wallets for end users, are well-versed in fine tuning LLMs for practical use, and so on and so forth.

I mean, despite how much we love Figma as a community, how many of us can legitimately claim that we would have seen, understood, and believed in Wasm the way Dylan & Evan did way back in 2016? So I guess this is a long winded way of saying: maybe it does come back to discourse & research after all. We need to develop the kind of community that fosters more Dylans and Evans, so that we can finally put this Designer Duds thing to bed.

Oh and just in case it wasn’t clear, I say all of this from a place of great love and care for our practice, and yearn for us to be much more than we are today

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