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Designing with extreme prejudice

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It’s a controversial third rail topic most people acknowledge, but do their best to avoid talking about: classism dominates our lives.

Most people mistakenly believe class is simply about how much money you make. There’s actually two completely separate ingredients at play here.

  1. Economic class. The amount of money you bring in and how you spend that money.
  2. Social class. How respectable and educated you are, the family you come from and the rules (e.g. values, beliefs, morals, etc.) you follow.

Changing your economic class is easy. Just make more money and spend it on the right things.

Social class is much more difficult to change. That’s because it’s based almost entirely on culture.

The best designers work with this prejudice

Social class is a classic example of In-group favoritism. If you’re part of the group you’re accepted and welcomed as part of the group. As people, we have a tendency to favor our own groups over everyone else.

We look down on those who aren’t part of our groups, treating those who aren’t like us as outsiders.

Every group has its own set of rules which typically includes…

  • Values and beliefs
  • Interests
  • Imagery and presentation
  • Colors and designs
  • Social norms

This isn’t everything.

Each class or group has hundreds of rules with specific right and wrong answers for each. These details create a group or class identity. “If you’re one of us you’ll do what we do.”

Your designs should cater to these details

Wait a minute!

Why do we need prejudice in our designs? Why can’t we design something good that’s free from all bias?

Because “good” is subjective.

Don’t misunderstand; I’m not suggesting you should run out and do something unethical. I’m recommending that you work within the framework (e.g. values, expectations, etc.) established by the group you’re designing for.

Take these four sites for example:

Craigslist is an ugly site. But they serve 60 million people in the US alone, making 381 million dollars in 2015!

Hacker News isn’t beautiful but it’s a tight knit community, serving 200K to 300K users per day.

The Drudge Report is really ugly. Yet, they manage to generate 300K unique visits per day making its sole owner, Matt Drudge, more than a million dollars per year. It’s also one of the best designed sites on the internet according to Jason Fried.

4Chan is a passionate community of gamers. It’s a top 500 site with more than 98 million active users who are intensely loyal.

Did you see it?

The theme with these sites?

They’re collectively viewed as “ugly”. They reject modern design principles, make things more difficult for users and aren’t really intuitive to use. Yet these sites are all extremely popular.

So what rules are these communities following?

  • Form follows function
  • Utility > aesthetics
  • Knowledge > emotion
  • Pretty may be viewed as “selling out”

How do I know?

Digg.

Their readers were developers, designers, and techies. People who believe form should follow function. Somewhere along the line Digg lost sight of that.

They redesigned their site and changed their logo, losing 35 percent of their audience almost overnight. 

What about luxury car manufacturers?

Have you ever noticed that luxury products – cars, perfume, clothing, etc. Seem to use less words, but say more with their designs and marketing?

That’s no accident.

Presentation is an important upper class value.

They get their message across with imagery and presentation, using their design to speak directly to their customers – the less words used, the better.

What rules are these sites following?

  • Presentation > quality
  • Quality is assumed
  • History, the past impacts the future
  • They’re part of an elite/exclusive club

This makes sense when you realize the rich believe they’re better, smarter and more virtuous than everyone else. The designers who created these sites would probably disagree with that. 

They still worked within that prejudice to create something that serves their clients.

Here’s the part average designers miss

Average designers create designs based on their worldview and what they want. They focus on what feels good (to them), works best (for them), what looks good (to them). Often times they completely neglect the needs of the people they’re designing for.

Which almost always guarantees an unhappy client.

The best designers use their client’s prejudice to meet the wants and needs of everyone involved – clients, customers, partners, etc.

So how do you use classism in your designs?

First, start with your non-negotiable anchor points. Have a clear set of guidelines, know yourself. Follow your conscience.

Are you comfortable designing something, immoral or unethical? Are you comfortable creating something for someone with values and beliefs you find controversial, disgusting or extreme?

Where is your line? How will you handle it when others ask you to cross that line? Plan your course of action ahead of time.

Second, do your very best to understand those you’re designing for.

Every group believes other groups are inferior. The upper class looks down on the wealthy. Middle class workers resent upper and lower classes. Vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters resent each other.

Remember when I mentioned each group comes with its own set of rules? Take the time to learn those rules. Learn about their expectations regarding…

  • Values and beliefs
  • Interests
  • Imagery and presentation
  • Colors and designs
  • Social norms
  • Language, jargon and figures of speech

Learning about these details creates a design framework. Believe it or not, these limitations will improve your designs. But only if you’re aware of them.

Let’s say you’re designing for a group of developers. They believe form follows function, so using a beautiful cursive font like Wahhabi Script may not be a great idea.

Third, talk to people in each group.   

What does your client stand for? What do their customers expect? Take some time and interview them. Learn about their rules and expectations. Find ways to bridge any potential conflicts in your designs.

Finally, when you’re ready, design.

Create something that conforms to their worldview. Your job isn’t to change their minds, it’s to serve. Meet them where they are and you may get an opportunity to change hearts and minds.

Use force or coercion to get your way and rejection is virtually guaranteed. Average designers push for what they want. “I’m the expert!” they tell themselves. 

I don’t use classism in my designs and I do just fine

Ah, but you do.

It’s a foundational part of life. Standing for this excludes that. Brutalism can’t be Modernism, in the same way at the same time.

When you design, you make a choice.

Average designers are okay with mediocre results. The client’s happy so I’m happy.

Elite designers focus on outcomes. “My work changed the way customers looked at your business. My work changed an industry, product or service.”

Classism is the last socially acceptable prejudice

Each class or group has a list of rules with specific right and wrong answers for each. These details create a group or class identity. “If you’re one of us you’ll do what we do.” It’s certainly not ideal, but it is something we have to deal with as designers.

Want to become an elite, sought after designer?

Start with understanding and acceptance. Work to accept people as they are, respecting their boundaries, rules and expectations. Meet them where they are and you’ll find their prejudice stops mattering.

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