The end of the pretentious designer

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September 16, 2014
The end of the pretentious designer.

There's a problem in the design world. It's not a problem of the magnitude of wage inequality, discrimination in the workplace, or child labor, but it's a problem nonetheless.

It's the epidemic of pretentious designers. Some are just a little bit pretentious, and do so in a hipster sort of ironic way. And others seem to take themselves entirely seriously, and are apparently unaware of their pretentious nature.

In either case, it's time for this to end. That's right, I'm calling for an end of the pretentious designer.

This isn't cancer research

Let's get one thing out of the way right off the bat. For 99% of web designers, the things we create aren't going to change the world. At least not directly.

On its most basic level, our job is to make pretty things that are useful. Sure, sometimes those useful things can make a huge impact. But we're not curing cancer here.

Even if you work for a non-profit and they're working on curing cancer, your design isn't doing that. It's still just a website.

Now, that's not to say that good web design isn't important at all, or that it can't affect change. Of course it can. But at the end of the day, we're still just pushing pixels around on a screen.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but it's going to be the case for 99% of designers.

Contributing to the problem

While there are a lot of things that contribute to the pretension problem in design, one of the biggest factors is the language we've started to use surrounding our jobs and our work.

Ten years ago, a web designer was a web designer. Maybe you were a UI or UX designer, but most likely, you were a web designer. Someone managing a team might have been an art director, creative director, or project manager, but these were all accurate job titles that reflected what the person actually did.

Now, we have titles like these:

  • Digital Marketing Magician
  • Social Media Badass
  • Brand Warrior
  • Digital Overlord
  • Mobile Sensei
  • Chief Visionary Officer
  • Digital Prophet
  • Dream Alchemist
  • Happiness Heroes
  • Innovation Sherpa
  • Genius

Also commonly found are Gurus, Jedis, Evangelists, and the like.

You're not a magician, you’re likely not a badass, warrior, overlord, sensei, prophet, alchemist, sherpa, or hero. You might be a genius, but it's more than a little pretentious to use that as your job title.

A magician is a person with magical powers. A warrior is a soldier or fighter (or a yoga pose). An overlord is a ruler or feudal lord. A sensei is a teacher (generally in martial arts). A prophet proclaims the will of God. An alchemist transmutes base metals into gold. A sherpa is a mountaineer who's only going to be found in the Himalayas. A guru is a spiritual leader or teacher. A Jedi can use the force. And an evangelist is looking to convert others to Christianity. In all likelihood, you are none of these in your role as a designer (or in other roles in your life).

This is a sherpa. You are not a sherpa.

You're a designer. You might be an art director, design director, creative director, UI designer, UX designer, information architect, mobile designer or designer/developer. But you are not a magician, warrior, badass, overlord, sensei, prophet, alchemist, guru, sherpa, Jedi, evangelist, or hero. In fact, you're not even a ninja or rockstar, either.

Part of this also has to do with the level of expertise that a lot of those using these titles have. If your biggest web design project to date was for your cousin's band and they paid you in waived cover charges and free domestic beer, then you're not a guru. Sorry to break it to you.

On the other hand, if you're someone like Jeffrey Zeldman, Adelle Charles, or Jakob Nielsen, and you want to call yourself a guru, then who am I to tell you not to? Although you might notice that none of those people use wacky job titles (they use Founder & Chairman, Visual Designer, and Principal and User Advocate, respectively).

Why it's bad

The issue with pretentious designers is that they can alienate others. Design is already looked at in many circles as an uncomplicated position, and one that almost anyone can do.

By creating titles that basically sound like jokes, we're reinforcing that view. But beyond that, it makes us sound arrogant and alienates people.

Alienates clients

Clients are looking for a web designer. They're not looking for a guru, or a sensei, or a warrior, or an overlord. They just want a designer. Preferably one who isn't going to make them feel stupid if they don't understand the difference between rhythm and hierarchy or they if they need it explained why a red and black color scheme might not be the best idea for a daycare website.

Alienates the public

Beyond just your clients, the public at large already has an often dim view of designers. It's not always taken seriously. We're looked at as pixel pushers, or a bunch of computer nerds living in our parents' basements.

Cutesy, artificial-sounding job titles do not improve our public image. "Design director" is a title that elicits at least a bit of respect. "Dream Alchemist" does not. And doesn't even really say what it is that you might do.

Alienates other designers

While some designers have jumped on the bandwagon, not everyone has. You can make those who choose to use standard job titles and describe their work in accessible language feel like you're looking down on them or won't take them seriously.

Beyond the job titles

But beyond the job titles, a lot of designers come across as pretentious in all of their language. It's using pretentious, hard-to-understand terms in your portfolio, correspondence, contracts, and other work that will make it hard for potential clients to relate to you.

Is it really worth appealing to the tiny percentage of people who respond positively to a pretentious image at the expense of the majority who don't?

An 8-step program to stop!

Pretentiousness can be like an addiction. So here are some steps to help you stop. Originally this was going to be a 12-step program, but it's not that complicated, so forcing 12 steps in itself seemed very pretentious.

1. Admit you're pretentious

The first step in overcoming your pretentious designer tendencies is to identify them and admit to them.

2. Look to those who inspire you

Take a good look at the designers you admire and look up to. You'll probably find that most of the best designers out there don't use pretentious titles, but instead use titles that accurately describe what they do. Even those who do use fun titles generally do so in a very tongue-in-cheek way and do so in limited quantities.

Take your cues from those who have already gained the success you hope to achieve.

3. Use a title that describes what you actually do

If you're a web designer, call yourself a web designer. If you're an art director, call yourself an art director. The same goes for creative directors, project managers, design directors, and every other design-related position out there.

4. Rewrite your copy

Think about how you'd write the copy on your website if your grandmother was reading it. Or someone whose idea of high-tech is their flip phone. In any case, the goal here is to write copy that's accessible and user-friendly.

5. Apologize for being pretentious

While this one isn't necessarily something you have to do, realizing that you may have pissed people off or annoyed them is a positive step.

6. Keep tabs on your pretension

Just because you've banished pretentiousness from your life for now doesn't mean it won't creep back in. So make sure you remain ever-vigilant against it.

7. Educate others

When someone on your design team is proposing using titles like "sherpa" or "guru", educate them. Tell them why it might not be the best idea for anything beyond internal use.

8. Laugh about it

Above all, be willing to laugh at this kind of thing. Again, people, this isn't curing cancer. If you really want to use titles like "Jedi", go for it. Realize that you may alienate some people, and try to keep in mind just how ridiculous it's going to sound to some, but if it makes you happy and you're willing to risk it, then do it.

Featured image by Ryan McGuire, Gratisography.

Cameron Chapman

Cameron Chapman is a freelance writer and designer from New England. You can visit her site or follow her on Twitter.

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