We designers, wanting to do what's right but afraid to make trouble, will keep sitting, maybe just a little more nervously, our fingers on our control panels, waiting for permission.
At Kern and Burn, we’re big fans of digestible bits of inspiration.Yesterday, we mentioned Josh Brewer’s 52 Weeks of UX, short weekly lessons on designing the user experience. Today, we focus on another one of our favorite bite-sized collections of design wisdom—Michael Bierut‘s book Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design. One of our favorite essays is “Waiting for Permission.” It was originally written in the early ’90s, and revised for the book’s publication in 2007. We now return to it through the lens of Kern and Burn.
Bierut begins by writing nostalgically. He looks back to the early ’80s, when budgets were big, brochures had hard covers, and clients gave designers the green light to produce work that was over the top. But things changed. Bierut writes, “Designers now seem to want more than ever to create work that’s appropriate, that’s relevant, that challenges the client’s brief, that’s aimed at more than the next design competition.”
Despite the social and cultural consciousness of designers, Beirut argues that many designers fail to claim their careers and too often find themselves bowing to the desires of their clients. Designers do this because they need the paycheck, or as the essay points out—in its summary of an early ’60s psychological experiment by Yale University’s Stanley Milgram—they are afraid to claim equal hierarchy over a project, and reach a true partnership with their clients. Bierut says Milgram’s participants, “failed to realize that subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to the moral issue at hand so long as they are not transformed into action.”
He says, “Most of us enter the field of design filled with individual passion and unrealized visions, and learn quickly that the other people know better: first teachers, then bosses, finally even the judges of design competitions, and the editors of design annuals.” The essay’s closing remarks challenge all of us to stand up for what we believe in and start something. Bierut writes, “We designers, wanting to do what’s right but afraid to make trouble, will keep sitting, maybe just a little more nervously, our fingers on our control panels, waiting for permission.”
Although written nearly 20 years ago—when we were both coloring with crayons—we love this essay’s call to action and think it is completely relevant for design entrepreneurs today. Many design entrepreneurs may not have to fight clients for an equal partnership, but they may fight the idea that other people know better than they do. One thing we hope our 100 Days proves is that many of today’s design leaders are willing to admit they don’t know what they are doing. They work hard to follow their passions, and learn everything as they go. This means that you’re free to learn as you go.
Today, more than ever, the tools and the support are there for designers to do something with their careers. Like-minded individuals are only 140 characters away, audiences are waiting to give feedback, and talented peers are willing to help. Bierut’s essay is just one more reminder that ideas and beliefs are only as good as the actions that they evoke. If you’ve got passion, hustle, and perspective—don’t wait for permission.
You can read the full essay on Typotheque, here.