Outsiders

Designers set apart by their work

Paul Epp

I used to ask a fresh group of first year students to raise their hand if they considered themselves to be an outsider. Everyone would. Then I would suggest that they look around and realize that they were no longer outsiders, at least not within the environment of the classroom. If everyone is an outsider, then the new normal is ‘outsider’ and the description is no longer applicable. I also asked them to self-identify if they thought they were above average. Many (most) did, and I encouraged them to think that, but that’s another topic, however similar and problematic the math.

It’s usually not so comfortable to be an outsider. We all are social creatures, birds of a feather and all that. But the forces that foster inclusion often also foster exclusion. If you are different enough, you may end up on the outside, whether you want to be or not. This is natural and seems true of all animals.

Designers are a minority sub-species. They are odd enough to be often seen as not quite fitting in. They know that they don’t fully belong and then come to see themselves as outsiders. Of course, many others claim a similar status: the too tall and the too short, the extra-large and the diminutive, the shy and the manic and so on. It’s not that hard to feel either special or disadvantaged. In fact, the normal family (person) has been described as the one that you don’t know very well.

But studies support the student’s intuition. Creative people (like designers) usually have a high intelligence but that distinction doesn’t come without a cost.

There is often a higher correlation to a variety of disorders as well, of which depression and anxiety are just two. Attention deficiency is common as well. Introversion, a common designer state, is not a disorder, but it can seem like one in our extroverted culture. And intelligence often comes as a mixed package: high distinction is some areas means a diminishment in others.

Amy Chua, the infamous author of the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, went on to define the traits that characterize an orientation to accomplishment, defined by her as the Triple Package (and I paraphrase): arrogance, insecurity and discipline. That certainly fits designers. To be one at all requires a strong sense of superiority. We claim that our way of doing things is the best and we want our vision to prevail. And we actually believe that. If we didn’t we couldn’t keep doing what we do. And this is, ironically, coupled with a deep sense of insecurity. Designers are outsiders and that is, by definition, an anxious state. And then comes the discipline to keep working, even when others don’t believe in the value of what you are doing.

And a popular belief in the value of design is less than certain. Many non-designers will voice their appreciation of the creative efforts of others, but actually have only a nominal regard for the accomplishments of designers. This is often experienced as a reluctance to pay for design. However valuable it is, it’s not that valuable to them.

Perhaps there is an erroneous sense that what designers do is easy for them and therefore may be slightly unfair. And it can seem easy. A good designer’s mind will generate a seemingly effortless abundance of ideas: wheeling, twisting and performing a dizzying array of mental and creative gymnastics. But like all forms of accomplishment, these are only achieved once the time has been put in, the hours of hard work and frustration and self-doubt.

Designers typically don’t choose to be designers. Design chooses them. They design because it’s what they can do. They are typically not that well suited to other jobs. They don’t fit in elsewhere. Design was once described to me as a social offering, an expression of a desire by these outsiders to make friends.

Another question I used to ask my first-year students was why they had chosen to come to OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design). The typical answer was that they just wanted to make things. In some readings of Greek mythology, Prometheus is a god whose tragic efforts to improve human existence through technology are relentlessly punished. This makes it sound like the story of designers as outsiders is a very old one.

Paul Epp is a professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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