On a recent afternoon I visited Dribbble, a popular community and portfolio website used by designers to share and discuss their work. On Dribbble, you can skim through designs for sophisticated banking apps, marketing websites for yet-to-ship startups, and designs for crypto mobile apps to buy and sell NFTs — the latest craze in the startup world. Browsing the portfolios on Dribbble offers an anthropological view of the experience of many designers today. Surveying this work not only reveals the popular style of the day, but also a flywheel of psychological mechanisms that, for many designers, has taken the rich and complex practice of design and flattened it to a performative, stylistic practice, ultimately changing both what it feels like to be a designer and reducing designers’ impact on the world.
One of the most salient characteristics of the work on Dribbble, Behance, and in the world of startups more generally, is the eerie similarity of the design work from one designer to the next. The primary technique used by designers in these spaces is to simply remix the dominant patterns and trends created by popular tech companies, ensuring their work appears as stylistically sophisticated and elegant as the work they’re emulating, regardless of what kind of product they’re designing and for whom. A podcast app and a banking app and a meditation app seem one and the same, similar styles and elements creating a few generic interfaces. Designers who successfully emulate popular design work receive the kind of positive affirmation so many of us have come to crave on the web through our exposure to social media: likes, views, Retweets, comments, and other digital affirmations. It’s the design equivalent of staging a glamorous-looking photo in a fake private jet and posting it on Instagram.
I call this performative design. Performative design ultimately reduces the practice of design from a wide range of creative, psychological, communication, and problem-solving skills to a narrow practice focused on the reproduction of popular styles and interfaces for the sake of feeling like and being perceived as a skilled designer. The success of performative design isn’t measured by its usefulness or utility in the world — a more traditional method for evaluating the quality of a design — or the meaning the work brings to its users’ lives, but rather how closely their work mimics what is considered “good design.” According to this new measure of success, instead of creating a product “as trusted as Airbnb” or “as educational as Duolingo,” a design is successful when it “looks like something Apple would make.” It is, after all, much easier to mimic successful work than it is to create something new and measure its usefulness in people’s lives.
Performative design ultimately reduces the practice of design from a wide range of creative, psychological, communication, and problem-solving skills to a narrow practice focused on the reproduction of popular styles and interfaces for the sake of feeling like and being perceived as a skilled designer.
The flywheel that motivates performative design can be seen clearly when we look at both a designer’s work and the emotional experience behind it. The flywheel starts when designers create work and share it online in order to quench their craving to be seen and applauded as skilled designers. This is the same kind of craving that is woven into so many of our online experiences today, and is also inherent in the fact that, in the internet age, our work as designers is now seen and evaluated on the web. Second, by reducing “good design” to a narrow collection of styles and interface trends — think Swiss grids, lots of white space, airy illustrations, and polished icons — designers can more easily replicate “good design” and, as a result, more easily create an image of themselves online that represents what they believe a talented designer’s work looks like. Third, designers who participate in performative design avoid criticism in order to maintain the shared belief that the stylistic trends they follow are the definition of “good design.” The trap inherent in this flywheel is convincing designers that they’re seeing themselves as skilled, successful designers when they replicate the most popular trends of the day, when in reality these designers are simply being applauded for performing as the designers whose work they are emulating.
When I started my last startup, the success I pictured for myself was tied more to the image of me walking out on stage at a conference to raucous applause than it was about designing something truly useful or impactful. I didn’t do a single user testing session before launching that startup, for example, because in reality I wasn’t focused on creating something useful. Not coincidentally, my designs mimicked the work that was considered “good design” at the time. I wanted to believe that if I created work that looked like “good design,” I would inherit the exceptional qualities of the designers I was emulating. It’s clear to me now that I was mostly motivated to duplicate other’s work because of fear of failure and the desire to be accepted. This is an uncomfortable thing for me to admit. I believed, as Anna Weiner put in her memoir, Uncanny Valley, that it was “safer, then, to join a group that told itself, and the world, that it was superior: a hedge against uncertainty, isolation, insecurity.” Designers may create duplicative, performative work for economic reasons, of course: creating a designer persona online can be an effective and sometimes necessary way to get work and survive in an age of economic turmoil. Performative design’s systemic impact, though, is primarily reducing designers’ ability to have meaningful positive impact through their work and diminishes the emotional and social experience possible in other forms of design.
The popularity of sites like Dribbble, Behance, and others; and the uniformity of design in so many startups is evidence that performative design has a significant influence on the culture of design and the experience of being a designer. I couldn’t find a single comment on Dribbble, for example, that amounted to anything other than a proverbial “thumbs up.” How is it that there are so many comments in a creative community and none have even the slightest edge of criticism, constructive, or otherwise? The elimination of critique, I believe, stems from designers’ fear that their identity as a “good designer” is at risk when critique is present. Joining a community that has implicitly agreed to eliminate critique provides a safe haven for performative design and, in turn, accelerates the adoption of performative design.
To be a designer practicing performative design, then, is most often to focus more on developing the persona and visual output of a skilled designer than on creating products or services that have a positive impact on their customers or the designer themself.
To be a designer practicing performative design, then, is most often to focus more on developing the persona and visual output of a skilled designer than on creating products or services that have a positive impact on their customers or the designer themself. This approach to design has consequences beyond the individual designer and even the design community, and impacts the broader culture we live in. ”When we think of ‘good design’ or ‘good products,’” write Courtney Heldreth and Tabitha Yong in their essay, Racial Equity in Everyday Products, “we often simply replicate the tastes of those we consider ‘experts’ in the industry (which are canonically Western-centric and homogenous), and the cultural inputs we’ve been given. Design especially has dealt with issues of creative savior complex rather than actually aligning our talents with vulnerable communities’ needs and increasing their power.” In other words, creating work that perpetuates dominant trends in order to receive positive affirmation from like-minded designers, regardless of any real world impact, can ultimately have a negative impact on culture and society.
Two recently-developed financial tools offer a clear contrast between performative and non-performative design, and illustrate Norman’s point. The Robinhood trading app, on one hand, is a perfect example of performative design’s success when measured by its execution of “good design.” As the folks at Robinhood claim, their goal was to create “a product so simple and elegant that it would revolutionize an entire industry.” The designers at Robinhood have indeed created a product that includes all the hallmarks of “good design,” including beautiful illustrations and a quirky onboarding flow, but, crucially, they’ve done little to understand the psychology of people who are trying to manage and invest their money in uncertain times. To the contrary, as noted in the New York Times, “at least part of Robinhood’s success appears to have been built on a Silicon Valley playbook of behavioral nudges and push notifications, which has drawn inexperienced investors into the riskiest trading.” It’s clear that the design team at Robinhood wasn’t focused on the non-professional investors who were of course surprised by their trading losses, or the people who have become addicted to trading cryptocurrencies on their app. They were instead interested in using “good design” to get non-professional investors to buy risky stocks more and more often.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, on the other hand, set out to understand the psychology of potential home buyers and designed a three-page “Know Before You Owe” form to help potential home buyers understand the financial risks of buying a home, easily compare competing mortgage products, and avoid falling prey to predatory mortgage products. The simple black-and-white paper document they designed didn’t include a single elegant illustration and looks incredibly boring, yet it succeeded in helping many consumers understand the total cost and risks associated with a mortgage and significantly reduced the number of people losing their houses to risky mortgages in the US. Designers on Dribbble and in the startup world, unfortunately, only sees one of these as a success. This echoes a lesson Don Norman articulated in his classic book Design for Everyday Things. Early in his career, Norman was asked to help find the root cause of the meltdown of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island. Norman concluded the design of the power plant’s control room was at fault because, although appeared functional, or even elegant, it was simply too complex for its operators to use safely. “The moral was simple: we were designing things for people, so we needed to both understand technology and people,” Norman wrote. “Today, I realize that design presents a fascinating interplay of technology and psychology, that the designers must understand both.”
A career spent pursuing these various kinds of success not only shapes a designer’s approach to design, but also what it feels like to be a designer.
For the designers at Robinhood and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, it must have also felt different to design their respective products. Designing an app that risks the financial and psychological wellbeing of its customers in order to create something that designers can call “simple and elegant” is a very different experience of design than working to understand the psychology involved in home buying and improve people’s ability to avoid life-altering financial losses. A career spent pursuing these various kinds of success not only shapes a designer’s approach to design, but also what it feels like to be a designer.
What does it mean when the practice of design has become intertwined with the most self-centered and harmful dynamics of the social web? For many, it means a reluctance to engage in the psychological and emotional aspects of design that are necessary for design to function as a tool for substantive impact. Despite how exciting and affirming it can feel to practice performative design, or how useful it might be in terms of building an audience online, it ultimately renders a designer’s work static and inert, unable to reach the people that design can, at its best, engage with deeply. In other words, when design becomes performance, “good design” isn’t really design at all.