Why We’re Thinking About Design All Wrong…

Abah Gift
8 min readMar 28, 2024

… and how we should think about it.

Almost two decades ago, in the bustling city of San Francisco — the technology headquarters of the world — an app called Burbn was launched. This app would later become Instagram and would transform the lives of over a billion people as we know it today.

Today, 2.4 billion people use Instagram monthly. That is about 30% of the world's population. But hey, that is not the reason why I am telling you this Instagram story.

The actual reason for this story is the interesting fact that came along with the creation of Instagram.

Another quick backstory, there was a designer called Aza Raskin — a brilliant guy — who just 4 years before the creation of Instagram had invented what we today know as the ‘infinite scroll’.

Stick with me. I am heading somewhere.

Infinite scroll is a design pattern that eliminates pagination from webpages such that new content is automatically loaded as the user scrolls down a page.

In simple terms, you never get to the end of the page. The more you scroll, the more new content load up. Essentially, a bottomless page — one without an end.

Think about your Instagram and Twitter feeds. You never run out of content because you almost always never get to the end of your feed.

Aza Raskin, inventor of infinite scroll

Today, almost all social media platforms, blogs and content sites have adopted this design pattern. This feature has been labelled as one of the biggest features that encourage people’s addiction to social media by providing them with no-stop cues. As a matter of fact, activists have coined the word doomscrolling to describe the phenomenon and there are interesting conversations around that.

But that isn’t the focus of this conversation either.

I told these stories to show the magnitude of influence and impact that design can have on humanity and the world at large.

We will see some more examples of such throughout this article.

So, here is how I choose to think about design and the role of designers.

Designers have tremendous influence on shaping the behavior of humans. This has always been true and is especially relevant now as we think about the technology landscape.

Presently, over half (54%) of the global population — some 4.3 billion people — own a smartphone.

Imagine the tremendous impact designing for such a scale could have. Pause and think about the magnitude of that for a moment. This is one lens through which we should think about design

I want to highlight 3 ways we can think about design.

1. Design for social change

When I think about designing for social change, I am often reminded of the history of New York. Take a look at the images below. The first image was New York City some 47 years ago and the second is what the city looks like today.

An image showing the before and after of NYC

In 1977, America was facing severe economic challenges. Industrialization was slow. Crime rates were through the roof and most people hated the city.

Designer, Milton Glaser, came up with the popular design for the I ♥NY logo that we now love and cherish today. The logo was part of a larger marketing campaign by the New York State Department of Commerce to boost tourism and lift spirits within the state. It became an instant hit, capturing the essence of New York’s energy and spirit. This changed people’s perception about the city and soon enough spirits were up and high.

Today, this logo generates 30 million dollars annually. A portion of this profit goes to the New York State Empire State Development which currently owns the trademark.

The logo and its designer (Milton)

Designing for social change is key as we have seen it play over and over again in the history of design.

When Obama was contesting for the presidency in 2008, design played an interesting role in his campaign when Shepard Fairey designed the iconic Hope poster. This poster became very popular and recognizable during the campaign. Some people say that the poster played some role in dissipating the rising racial undertone against Barack Obama as a then-presidential candidate.

While it is hard to tell whether this was true or not, one certain thing is that the design shifted attention to patriotism. The use of the colours red, white, and blue was indeed a symbolic nod to American patriotism. In addition, the emphasis on “hope” was significant in shaping the campaign’s narrative and messaging.

Bringing it home to Africa, the influence of design in shaping culture isn’t lost on us. From textiles and fashion to architecture to craft to philosophy.

The works of Christian Benimana (Rwanda), Francis Kere (Botswana) and Kunlé Adeyemi (Nigeria) are proof of the impact that design can have on society.

Unique and different African designs.

With technology now providing the ability for design to reach more people, design decisions are larger than just a few screens and prototypes. It can make or mar society. Designers need to take a moment to pause and see beyond the immediate results.

2. Design for Desire

In my opinion, quite a number of designers would work for some level of business impact. This means that you design because you want to get users to use your product or because you want to achieve a business objective by solving a problem.

For digital designs (web and mobile), I won’t bore you with things you probably already know — things like user experience, usability, functionality etc.

On the contrary, I want to challenge you to take the basic requirements of a designer a step further. It’s good to have functional products with great user experience and aesthetics. This is quickly becoming the most basic requirement for digital products, by the way.

But you know what is better? Mastering the elusive art of crafting irresistible products.

Niklas Scipio wrote about this beautifully in his article.

Credit — Niklas Scipio

More often than not, users/customers/consumers will have a market that is saturated with options. Creating desire is a good way to get some more market share no matter how little. Luxury brands get this. They really do.

Niklas did a fine job talking about designing for desire. Go here to read more.

Truth be told, there’s a potential ethical dilemma when designing for desire. It’s important to create products that are truly valuable and not solely rely on manipulation. Also, the level of desirability generated should match the utility that the product offers. In other words, avoid the trap of creating over-desirability for a product that lacks substance.

I always think about the moral and ethical responsibility of designers i.e. our place in the world. Who are we accountable to — is it the businesses and companies we work for or is it society (the world)?

Don’t look at me, I don’t have an answer for you.

3. Design for Inclusion

In recent years, accessibility and inclusion are words we have heard over and over again. They have now become a part of our daily parlance.

For digital products (web and mobile), we probably think that accessibility is about font sizes, proper contrast, and using the right images and colour palettes.

Beyond the digital, accessibility continues to remain a pain point for the differently-abled folks.

To be honest, there isn’t much I have to say about this. However, listening to this witty but frank TedTalk by Sinéad Burke showed how much gap we still need to fill in the world. There is work to be done.

Conclusively,

As designers, we wield an insane amount of power. It doesn’t feel like it, but we do. We really do. We need to recognize this reality and think about ways to leverage it — hopefully for good.

Over the past year, I have done a lot of soul-searching and reading. I have also had an awful lot of time to think.

Here is the result of my thinking:

Design can be a powerful tool or dangerous weapon depending on how you wield it.

Think about it. Every single thing in the world is designed — buildings, clothes, systems, government structures, roads, cities, products, consumer goods, school curriculums etc. The list is endless.

When you see the world through the lens of design, you realize how much of your life decisions are out of your hands. Rather they have been designed deliberately or unconsciously by someone else.

Design is a mindset; Design is a way of life; Design is an enormous privilege and a huge responsibility.

I want to implore you to think about how you can design for impact, for play, for utility, for trust, for desire and inclusion.

After all, it is the responsibility that you have chosen.

If it seems like a lot is going on in this article, it’s because a lot was going on in my head at the time I wrote this. The more I wrote, the more new thoughts sprung up.

About the Author

I design and manage digital products.

Within the past 3 years, I have skillfully leveraged the science and art of product design to build products that tackle some of Africa’s most pressing problems.

Currently, I am seeking opportunities to leverage my product skills and background in health to build solutions for the healthcare space.

There is so much work to be done in healthcare and we are yet to scratch the surface.

Catch me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

Bye now 💜

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Abah Gift

Digital Product Designer | Tech + Healthcare | Hobbyist Photographer | Aesthete