July 12, 2023

Design Industry, More Industry Than Ever

Or why we tech elders feel a bit nostalgic

A recruiter recently asked me how much experience I have designing for mobile devices. I tried not to sound too pretentious, but I told him I watched Steve Jobs presenting the first iPhone and have worked for mobile screens usability since.

15 years ago, the design industry was wearing diapers. Human Computer Interaction (now UX) wasn’t yet considered a common profession. There wasn’t any school or master degree in digital product design. Online courses or tutorials weren’t a thing yet. YouTube was only starting and was mostly cats and funny compilations. The only way to learn this profession was to read books and share your thoughts with people reading those books.

The only way to learn this profession was to read books and share your thoughts with people reading those books

It took a huge effort to start working on something that wasn’t yet established. I’m not sure if I call ourselves brave or careless. The thing is, only those who reaaaally liked UX became digital product designers. Only people hungry to learn and share new knowledge became designers.

It was a pretty nice and collaborative niche. Imagine a field full of hungry brains with very different backgrounds, from IT to Journalism, trying to create new processes and define each part of usability adapted to digital interactions.

Watching the speakers at Cultured Meat Symposium I realized I’m missing that mental model diversity. Creating meat in a laboratory is a newborn field. It’s so recent, there’s no specialized degree yet. So only people who’re really interested in it, each from a different background–from genetic scientists to climate crisis analysts –, attended. It was eye-opening. In spite of the obvious differences, it was like a window to the past. A new profession, a bunch of people eager to share and collaborate. There was no rivalry.

And then there’s the design industry present being, more than ever, an industry.

Design industry

After years of having to sell the value of design to them, every big corporation now has in-house design teams. This need started fast, when every single service, product, and process became digital. The demand was so high they started inventing perks to get to hire the best on the field.

Word spread about this need for designers and engineers, and courses, bootcamps, and master’s degrees appeared like mushrooms. Some were better than others, but equally short (months) and many addressed to people changing careers from those getting less demand, like graphic designers, or journalists. New designers were mass-produced.

New designers were mass-produced.

It was the startup-blooming era. Investors were (are) demanding an insane amount of growth. And startups, trying to get this growth made huge plans that required hiring many people. This cycle was meant to be profitable only if the company was sold. Having your company sold was a combination of many things, but usually contacts, money, and luck did the trick. Most didn’t make it.

2020 was the peak of this scenario, with big companies hiring tech workers at the same rate as everyone else.

2022 came with a recession on the horizon. Everyone panicked and some took the opportunity to excuse layoffs and change their roadmaps.

How about new designers?

By this point, design education has been standardized. New designer roles are pretty specialized. And, I feel like sometimes they have been promised the moon, maybe based on their teacher’s or managers’ past experience, not only bootcamp marketing strategies.

Companies used to hire designers based on their experience and potential, which was very different between two people, and you could hire really complementary profiles.

I’ve never felt like I was special for being a designer, just lucky. Lucky because I got to be part of those inspiring first moments of many new technologies that helped our processes. Lucky because I was always surrounded by people who really enjoyed learning, especially about the field. But I’ve always been one gear of a bigger machinery, a happy gear.

Designers are like any other labor force

We designers are like any other labor force, and the industry isn’t hiding it behind a pingpong table or big promises anymore. The field is like every other one. And that’s ok. That’s how professions grow and become established industries.

Being like any other industry, with a standardized production line, means we become interchangeable gears, resources.

This field has worshiped at the altar of the technical for the better part of 60 years at the expense of understanding the social unethical. And we have seen the fruits of that prioritization”

Meredith Whittaker, Director of the Signal Foundation

Even if it’s not so obvious anymore, there’s still a lot to explore, to specialize in as a designer. E.g. working on the ethical implications of the products we launch.


In summary, if you have been working in this industry for a long time and you are feeling a bit nostalgic, you are not alone.