Design ︎︎ 28 Apr 2017            

Design Twitter Outcast

I came across a Twitter thread that asked for people to name their top 5 most “valuable and important” women in design.

A friend had nominated me for this category. Now, MOST people would look at this, feel warm and fuzzy, say thanks, maybe nominate a few women that came to mind for them, be happy that women in design were being raised up, and go eat a sandwich. It takes a certain kind of person to look at the rest of the thread, the conversations being had, and the trends of people being nominated, and then to offer critique. That person is me. Did I mention this was all on Twitter?

Twitter, or “Design Twitter”, as it is both lovingly and disdainfully referred to amongst those who are aware of it, is notorious for people being categorized into camps of “Nice” and “Dick.” Typically, the person who takes issue with or critiques another tweet is the “Dick”, or at least runs the risk of being categorized as such. This is due to the fact that many conversations we engage in on the fiery “Design Twitter” happen with people we don’t know, either in real life or online. It also happens because tone is all but completely lost on a text and 140-character based platform. Put passionate topics, sensitivity — and sometimes, over sensitivity, lack of rapport or context, and tone miscommunication into a box: shake it up, and what do you have? A big fucking mess a lot of the time. But within this context, a trend has been established where many people are afraid of voicing their potentially dissenting views for fear that someone will take it personally, and they will be labeled the dreaded “Dick.” So this fear, in turn, silences many points of view from those who aren’t 1000% confident to take that perceived risk…which is many.

And it was me once. Not just on Twitter, but in the design community at large. The trend that I saw in those tweets, and that I tend to see in our industry as a whole, is putting designers up on a pedestal who’s “brand” is being “nice and accessible and makes nice and easily accessible” work. This may or may not mean that they are actually good designers, that they are actually good people, or that they are actually contributing anything that wouldn’t be missed if it disappeared tomorrow (i.e. “valuable and important to design”). This does not mean that people who build their brand on being nice or happy aren’t incredibly valid or amazing or important, either. Nice does not equal bad. But nice does not always equal good. And not nice does not always equal bad. But nice has implicitly been equated with good within many actions and structures that our industry engages in. And this makes me feel bad. And so I have to assume there are others that this resonates with as well. Have I lost you?

It is categorically easier for people to latch onto a person that lives in a “happy nice” world than it is for someone who is lit up by less accessible issues.

My point is that due to the structures of our industry, it is categorically easier for people to latch onto a person or body of work that lives in an accessibly “happy nice” world than it is for someone who is lit up by other, potentially less easily accessible issues, like say—wanting to feel loved and welcome as someone with a profession within the sex world alongside the design world. I’m just SAYING as an EXAMPLE. But it could be anything that isn’t totally happy and bright and easy to talk about. This, therefore, causes many more people with a “nice” brand to be more popular, which in turn, results in that brand being more widely represented in the industry that we all see in the Social Media Influencer, Speaking Engagement, and generally, Promoted Design World.

I’m 30. I spent 8 years in NYC working in agencies and now have been freelancing in LA for 2.5 years on both remote and in-house agency projects. The time in LA has given me a lot of space away from the main heartbeat hub that is NYC design and also time to figure out myself on a personal level. I struggled a lot, rebelling from the “boys’ club” mentality that happens in many industries, but definitely in ours, and definitely in NY. I rebelled against a lot. Eventually, I ended up in a place where my freelance career was established and people were asking me to speak at conferences, on podcasts, and write things. I felt that I was legitimately not a part of the design community that was put in front of me in terms of “mainstream design.” I swore it off. I said, “I’m not a part of this.” But here I was: looking at my invoices that proved I was succeeding in this endeavor, and I had people who were giving me spaces to speak to design audiences. So I had to take a step back and put two and two together to make…not some kind of sense of it…of me.

How was I going to use this feeling, my point of view, in a way that was solution-oriented and productive? Well, I figured that I should use the opportunity to create space for others who felt like me — like an outcast. Like a weirdo. Like someone who was too… I don’t know…too SOMETHING for this industry community.

I had to figure out where it went wrong. And I went back to the beginning of my career to figure out what was missing. What was making me so tangibly resistant? It wasn’t just a lack of seeing women in design in positions of leadership. I saw that. And there were women around me doing their thing. But I felt like, ideologically, I wasn’t represented. Or at least not that I was aware of. I saw a lot of “easy, nice, accessible” designers making “nice” design being put on a pedestal. They were giving talks about how the secret to design was being “nice” when I was struggling horribly to find value in myself as a member of the community. I didn’t feel nice. I felt disturbed. I felt emotional. I felt angry and resentful of my upbringing, my college education, and any number of issues that my therapist could tell you about. I had things to work out, and being nice in terms of my design mission (I obviously aim to be kind to humans on a general note) just did not compute.

I truly, deeply care about the work I put into the world.

So I was triggered when this thread on Twitter felt like a popularity contest that yet again put those people the “nice” designers in the forefront. I don’t feel accessible either in practice or, sometimes, in personality. But I truly, deeply care about the work I put into the world. And when push comes to shove, I no longer feel badly if I’m not accessible to anyone, let alone “Design Twitter.” But, conversely, I don’t feel not a part of it. And I am happy to engage in healthy debate, be in in 140-char or more. Because, here’s the thing, I will be fine. I am fine. I’ve worked really hard to be fine. And I’ll be over in my corner doing and making what fills me up with the people who resonate with it and want to be in that space for as long as my breath works. But what I think about in these moments is the younger me out there who is looking at social media or podcasts or going to conferences and may be feeling similarly to how I did at that time. These newer or less established creatives who see all these designers who’s brand is “nice” and to see how good it must feel to be validated by “Design Twitter” and think that that’s the way to do it. To think that that’s the mold they have to fit into in order to be successful. Or to not even realize that they’re doing things just because they see others doing it but then go home and not feel totally good or whole or accepted by the industry that is presenting itself on Twitter, Podcasts, or Conferences. It’s like when I was younger & I used to try on all these dismally low-cut pants in the Deb shop. They made my curvy hips have severe muffin top and I hated my body for it. It took me many moons to realize the problem wasn’t with my body, it was with the style being promoted at the time. But when you’re young, you don’t know any better. So you end up just feeling bad and thinking there’s something wrong with you.

I engage for that person. I hold space for that person. And I will continue to engage, even if “Design Twitter” deems me something other than “nice,” because if I can help just one other person feel good and right and worthy and perfect in their darker, less accessible thoughts or identities…be it in design or any other world, then it will be worth it. ︎︎

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©2017 Jillian Adel