I know, I know. It’s been a couple of weeks. And if I’ve learned anything from all of the “blog like your life depends on it” blog posts, it’s that I should be posting something each week, even if I have nothing to say. Online blogs need an online audience. And online audiences need content on a consistent basis to stay interested. So, I failed you (she says from the isolation of her suburban tower to the faceless, empty void of her computer screen). But really, I needed to think.
Over the last few weeks, things have been swirling. Each morning, I’ve opened my news app to find increasingly unbelievable headlines, leading this bubble-living design educator to wonder if the world was, indeed, insane. I soldiered on, though, reading the articles and posts in hopes that I could understand what our nation was feeling so I could at least pretend to understand my fellow American, no matter who they were aiming their vote towards.
Regardless of the craziness I saw in the headlines, and the anger I read in each comment section I dared to review, I still found myself (along with more than a few friends and colleagues) incredibly excited. Despite the lack of enthusiasm many had towards either candidate, we were about to elect the first female President of the United States. This was a moment of opportunity for everyone. A chance to prove, once and for all, that progress and level-headedness could win the day.
I knew that electing a female President would not mean immediate equal footing for women. I was not voting for that. The election of our first African-American President did little to quash the racism and bigotry we’d seen up until Super Tuesday 2008. But it did open avenues for discussion, hope, and healing that didn’t seem available prior to that event. Voices were being heard. Or so I thought.
No. I voted for progress. Progress in education. Progress in social interests. The chance for economic policies to gain real traction. The idea that reason can prevail over rage. And maybe even for some proof that the smart girl can beat the schoolyard bully by keeping calm and going high. But apparently, our fellow voters didn’t see things the way I, and so many of those living in my bubble, did.
Wednesday morning, suffering from insomnia, I woke up at 3:45am est to a shock. The “first female US President-elect” didn’t exist. Still. Instead, the polls showed … Well. The polls closed with her opponent as the victor.
I and a large portion of my fellow voters spent most, if not all of Wednesday in mourning. It might seem silly to many, but we were in shock. Not because our candidate had lost. But because we felt our nation had lost. We mourned for our students, who would potentially graduate to find no jobs available anywhere. We mourned for our children, who were just told that yelling, bullying, and hatred are more acceptable than logic, level-headedness, and experience. We mourned for our friends, whose lives we’d fought so hard to improve, as they realized their voices might soon be silenced and their rights might soon be revoked. We mourned, not for politics, but for our community. For our friends. For our future.
In the process, we yelled, we cried, we vowed to take care of each other, and we asked “why, why, why?!?” as we fell asleep Wednesday night, numb from the day and unsure of what it all means.
This morning, I awoke to the following tweet from @SSS_joshnelson:
Updated poll numbers
231,556, 622 eligible voters
46.9% didn’t vote
25.6% voted for Clinton
25.5% voted for Trump
1.7% voted for Johnson
I’ll admit, this one stunned me less than the previous day’s tweets, but it hurt more. What followed the tweet was a series of comments regarding the selfishness of the non-voter, the Trump supporter, and the Johnson supporter. The loudest comments came from those yelling at the Johnson supporters for the perception of their “wasted vote.” There was a lot of bashing. What did surprise me was how raw we all are. And how much we wanted to lash out at the ones we perceived had done us wrong.
While I’m frustrated by the percentages, I really don't want to continue the bashing here. Not because I’m not angry. Not even because I think you shouldn’t be angry (if you want to be). But the thing is, everyone has the right to vote (or not vote) for the candidate of their choice, regardless of whether that choice aligns with the majority, silent or not so silent. That’s the beauty (and the flaw) of our political system.
So no. I won’t bash. I won’t scream. I won’t point fingers. And I won’t blame.
Instead, I’m going to ignore the 74.6% of America who didn’t vote for the progress I’d hoped we were voting for. Just for a moment (and only a moment). Instead, I’m going to try and help the 25.6% of us who just need to understand what happened. Because this isn’t only happening in politics. It’s happening in our classrooms, our offices, and our communities at large.
We’ve stopped listening to each other. And when we stop listening, bad design happens.
Listen to Me!
I was texting with a colleague this morning about the crazy feelings floating around following the election, and I made a comment that suddenly helped me put things in perspective. Not the “why the world went crazy” part of “things.” The “why does this hurt so damned much” part.
In the conversation, I pointed out that it feels like we’ve been working on this huge project for the last few years, and we’re just about to hand it off to the client. In our minds, we’ve addressed all concerns. We’ve talked with the target audience. We’ve added their needs to the product. We’ve coordinated with fabricators. We’ve even lined up a great marketing strategy. It’s all solid. And we go, with our full team, to the client to present our final product for approval and implementation. At this stage, the presentation is a formality. Nothing more.
During the meeting, a couple of people on the team who have, for the most part, been quiet during all previous meetings, start pointing out the flaws in our design. In front of the client. We’re a bit taken aback, since they’ve had, in our minds, ample opportunity to add their insights well before now. Hadn’t we asked their opinions? Hadn’t we balanced their ideas with those of the larger team? Hadn’t there been countless meetings about these issues? Hadn’t we…
Yes, and no.
Yes, we’d listened to them. But no, we’d not heard them. Yes, we’d balanced their ideas. But no, not with the group—against it. Yes, we'd had meetings where they voiced their opinions, and yes, we’d taken into account what they’d said, but only the parts that aligned with what everyone else was saying. So no, they hadn't been heard. And that’s where the team fell apart.
Back to the presentation. These team members, who have worked alongside us while feeling unheard, now see this as their last opportunity to have their ideas presented at all. So, they speak up. They point out all of the things that don’t work. They point out the fact we’ve ignored a huge part of the target audience. They admit that certain aspects of the design are in line with what that audience needs, but that the bigger, “finished” product is not what they want. And you know what? Whether these teammates are right or wrong, they grabbed the client’s attention. And the client voted the project down.
Substitute “countrymen” for “team” and “country” for “client” and the story holds more weight. We’ve ignored each other while fooling ourselves into believing we've addressed the needs of our fellow countrymen while actually ignoring what they've been telling us. And because of that, our classmates, our teammates, our neighbors, our fellow Americans are calling attention to the flaws in our design.
Another analogy. This one isn’t mine. It belongs to my boss. About 3 years ago, when our institution was in the midst of upgrading its LMS, the then-VP of online education presented a new learning environment that his team was in the process of implementing. While selecting the LMS package, the VP spoke with vendors, IT people, and our upper administration to get feedback on implementation. He failed to speak with instructors, students, or mid-level administrators. You know. The people who would be using it.
During his official unveiling, my boss fought back. She didn’t like this guy (there’s a whole David and Goliath, or politician vs middle-class citizen series I could use to explain the animosity), but that’s beside the point. She fought back because this magic bullet he’d ordered was never going to work. It was built for business. Not academia. She said (and I paraphrase here)…
“It’s like you’ve designed a wheelchair. You’re up here, pointing out all of the great features you’ve added to it, including cup holders and fringe and bags for holding stuff, and you’re saying ‘here it is, isn’t it perfect—you can get it in green or purple.’ And I’m saying ‘that’s great. But I need it to go backward.’”
Her point? He didn’t listen to his target audience, and now he has a problem.
This week, we put forth our first female Presidential candidate. We said “here's our candidate, isn’t it perfect—it has tons of experience and a level head.” And the collective American public just said “that’s great. But we need it to go backward.” And if we’d been actually listening, we might have realized they’d say this earlier.
Okay, that was harsh. But really. Just listen for a minute.
(Ouch—did I really just make that parallel? Sorry! No more bashing!)
Believe it or not, there’s a lesson here. We tout ourselves as educators, communicators, innovators, and leaders. We claim to have the interests of our students and audience in mind. We want to make the world a better place for them and future generations. But our definition of “better” might not line up with theirs. I learned this the hard way as I watched my Facebook feed fill Wednesday morning with happy comments regarding the election outcome, all posted by some of my former students working in the “real world.” They’d kept their opinions to themselves during the campaign. But they opted to share their joy. They finally felt they would be heard.
And there’s the lesson. We need to start actively listening to our audience. All of our audiences. We get furious when our brands ignore us. We get frustrated when our bosses don’t listen to our ideas. And we’d like to think that we’re listening to our audience when we’re working out the details of our designs. But there’s a difference between listening and hearing.
Humans have a tendency to hear what we want to hear. We surround ourselves with like-minded people who echo back our own thoughts, and we might forget that there are others out there, with significantly different backgrounds, viewpoints, and ideas on what makes the world a better place. They may not be as educated as we are. Or maybe they’re more educated than we are. Regardless, it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that, as designers and design educators, it’s our jobs to hear, not just listen. Even when we don’t want to. Our countrymen (all of them) are part of our audience, part of our society, part of our tribe. And their voice matters just as much as ours does. So let them speak. And listen to them. Really.
When the silence inevitably falls, don't counter-argue their points. Not yet. Think about what they said.
How can we help them feel heard? How can we help them get what they need without sacrificing our own needs or the needs of our collective work? How can we take those needs and turn them into progress, change, and opportunity? How can we design a society that caters to all without sacrificing the needs of any?
It’s a huge project. It will take a lot of collaboration. There will be parts we don’t like and parts they don’t like. But it will also have parts we all need.
And it will start as soon as we stop hurting, stop yelling, and start actually listening to each other. So let’s start.
We can do this. Yes, we can. Because really, truly, more now that ever, we are stronger together.