design from what you know.

As designers, we are familiar with schools of theory that urge us to use our wealth of design for other people who are in need—and similarly-passionate schools of thought that tell us that to do is hopelessly narcissistic and that to parachute in, no matter how thoughtfully, robs others of agency.

Through this, I appreciate the words of Candace Faber. Faber suggests that to draw this dichotomy is to begin with the wrong problem frame.

To Faber, to distance ourselves from others is to ignore how similar we really are—and that our tendency to impose these distances is out of a desire to deny that we could ever be in a similar circumstance. 

“There is not a single person whose investments are totally safe or whose sense of belonging in society could not be overturned overnight.” —Candace Faber

I want to suggest that designing from what we know and love is not only responsible—it is provocative. Design is a problem-seeking process. To design from what we know and love is to first acknowledge that our own contexts have problems, and next to permit ourselves to imagine possible solutions.

A few months ago, writer and professor Anne Helen Petersen wrote a viral essay on “millennial burnout.” It provoked immediate add-ons, backlash, and critique (as is the recipe for anything that attempts to define something about millennials). What I found most interesting about this column was its attempt to redefine an ill-structured problem. Petersen took stereotypes about millennials (“lazy,” “entitled”); economic realities (gig economy; erosion of labor unions; the first generation in 100 years to earn less than their parents); and new communal/relational/psychological realities (disappearance of community foundations and religious traditions; declining rates of marriage and childbirth; the rise of social media) and put it through an analysis of human behavior. “Given this context, how do I understand the behavior I am observing across an entire generation?”

Given this context—how do I understand the behavior I am observing across an entire generation?  

Crucially, Petersen begins the work with herself. She does not position herself in a posture of privilege, seeking to understand an “under-explored,” anonymized population—her work goes through her own heart. The resulting essay is confessional (self-analytical), observational (tracking behaviors of friends, colleagues, and students), and analytical (extrapolating to larger contexts). She is sensemaking, on the way to coming up with a problem definition.

That definition is remarkably simple: That we as a generation are facing systemic burnout. But she follows with a provocation: That millennials’ attempted solutions for burnout—to do more; to be more; to pour money and time into attempts at “self-care” (taken together, what she calls “a culture of self-optimization”)—not only fails to work our way out of burnout, but in fact contributes to it.

“I never thought the system was equitable,” she writes. “I knew it was winnable for only a small few. I just believed I could continue to optimize myself to become one of them.”

What I find interesting about this problem definition is that it reframes quite a bit about our state of the world—both our participation in it, and the ways it makes us ill.

Defining burnout shows, first, that the tropes of the “lazy” “entitled” millennial are not necessarily wrong, so much as grossly incomplete. And second, that our cultural obsession with efficient self-optimization is not only the wrong solution, but a contributing factor to the problem.

It suggests that our language (“millennials are killing homeownership!”) around the problem of burnout is wrong, because our underlying assumptions about human behavior (“millennials are pampered and can’t handle the adult skills needed in the real world!”) is wrong.

If the drive to self-optimization is a compounding factor, Silicon Valley’s obsession with efficiency may not be the wrong motive so much as the wrong solution to a salient, wicked problem. Our particular generation’s extreme drive to self-optimization and self-improvement in the lens of the marketplace is not at all workable as a collective (or even personal) solution. Something much bigger and more comprehensive is needed in how we understand how society is structured.

Petersen’s burnout insight isn’t new, so much as a new way of defining a problem. But the model has potentially very interesting implications as far as what solutions might look like. 

Our task as designers is to define the problem, and then attempt to make solutions. As I consider what solutions to burnout could look like, I’m carrying the words of Faber:

There is only our choice to treat one another with dignity and compassion — or not.

And why build solutions for “others” while rejecting that those same solutions could be the ones that I, too, will—today or someday—desperately need?