Every designer contends with a certain restlessness. Something beckons from within, whispering that the world around us could be better. It’s a type of idealism that feels attainable. And so, as designers, this restlessness fuels us to take a closer look and ask, “Is a better way possible?”
This question can feel rhetorical, but we usually have an internal answer—something that sounds something like, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.” And there’s a confidence in this refrain. Rather than pure perfectionism, it’s the drive to keep improving. No one with a designer’s intent sets out to make something more difficult, complex, or convoluted, though these attributes can become unintended byproducts when pursuing improvement.
We must learn to channel this restlessness into betterment because it is also true that constant critique and analysis can become fertile ground for cynicism. This drive for better is beautiful. It can lead to innovation and reinvention. When we lean in a little closer, we realize this drive is hope.
Over my lifetime I’ve gotten to know fear intimately. I was an anxious kid, always finding new things to lose sleep over. As a child, adults chalked it up to a vivid imagination. Then the teenage years came, and physicians blamed my anxiety on hormones. Phrases like, “You will eventually grow out of it,” were efficient ways of giving false assurance to my panicked mind. Even then I knew that there was something different about the way my brain was wired. The suffering was a visceral reality.
What I didn’t expect was for anxiety and depression to follow me into my adulthood. It culminated in me being diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD is a fancy medical term for anxiety getting in the way of your everyday life. Sufferers commonly have persistent and uncontrollable worry about everyday situations. In my lived experience, I’ve found that anxiety is chronic fear that feels paralyzing and unsurmountable. It’s a looming cloud that never seems to fully vaporize, always forcing you to have a keen sense of your next move. Most troubling, it’s numbing. It makes it near impossible to enjoy just about anything. This includes the things in life I value most: my family, my community, and my work.
Hope became more than just a nice strategy emblazoned upon a motivational poster. It became my medicine. I quickly realized that true hope had an answer for fear in its expectant confidence. Hope is a muscle that requires constant exercise. Often I’ve found that hope presents itself as a choice. Hope is always present, it just requires the right eyes to see it. It often appears very blurry just upon the horizon, taking time to come into focus. What is encouraging is that anyone can learn to see it. However, it will require us to redefine some terms that have lost their power in our lexicon.
Changing our definition
Hope is a word that creeps its way casually into my daily conversations. I hope it won’t rain today, just as I hope the coffee pot isn’t empty. It’s a word we’ve given a new, social meaning. It’s an expectation that can have even the most mundane requests. However, my favorite definition of the word is often listed right below our casual definition in the dictionary. This definition is powerful in describing a feeling of trust, a confident expectation.
Webster himself wrestled with its definitions in his 1828 Dictionary.
Hope: A desire of some good, accompanied with at least a slight expectation of obtaining it, or a belief that it is obtainable. Hope differs from wish and desire in this, that it implies some expectation of obtaining the good desired, or the possibility of possessing it. Hope therefore always gives pleasure or joy; whereas wish and desire may produce or be accompanied with pain and anxiety.
This first definition plants the seed of possibility. It seeks not only to define what hope is but also to reaffirm what it isn’t. It even ends with a veiled warning that “wish and desire may produce or be accompanied with pain and anxiety.” This distinction is crucial in my work. His second definition gets closer to the hope I’ve grown to know and love.
Hope: Confidence in a future event; the highest degree of well founded expectation of good.
I don’t think hope is simply an antidote to the restlessness I spoke of earlier; I think it goes much deeper. Webster arrives at it in defining “the highest degree of well founded expectation of good.” Hope comes when we are searching for the good, beautiful, and true. It’s not about convenience, comfort, or efficiency. It’s about what is good for others.
Hope requires morality; it requires a point of view, an answer to this question. Hopefulness can be jarring for people not used to encountering its authenticity. When we peel away the lifeless exoskeleton of our modern definition, we find true hope rooted in humility. And real hope can get you in a lot of trouble, so proceed with caution.
Hoping for others
Hope’s confident expectation fuels us often in spite of our clients. If clients had a confident approach, and the skills to implement their goals, they likely wouldn’t have hired us. We’re aren’t hired to wish or simply desire a better way; we’re hired to discover it.
Throughout my design career, I’m continually surprised by how often I encounter hopelessness. Hopelessness can be a destructive force spreading like wildfire within the organizations that we are seeking to help. Its spark is easily carried on the wind of our words. It only takes one hopeless word to carry this spark of despair to a project.
And this isn’t simply on the client side of the equation. Like most of us, I get a good laugh from client horror stories. I’m sure we’ve all been informed that “we’d love to see the logo bigger,” and “I wish it would pop more.” However, these moments can quickly snowball into the collective villainizing of the people we’re seeking to support. This cynicism can lead to hopelessness in our own practices, viewing our clients as roadblocks rather than patrons. After all, they are funding an effort that helps people in need.
A designer not only has tremendous opportunity to provide hope to those interacting with our work, but we also have a responsibility to do so. Without hope we would have no confidence that the solutions we offer bring about any meaningful change. Those who seek us out do so with the intention of bringing a decisive, assured voice to the conversation.
I have a strong suspicion that a lot of the negative feedback that creates designer/client horror stories stems from a lack of confidence. When we self-examine how we act in times of low self-esteem, we notice that the patterns are no different when scaled to the size of the organizations that we’re serving. It seems glaringly obvious, but it’s worth the reminder: Organizations are just a collection of people. We shouldn’t treat them like lifeless, inanimate things.
We have a propensity to use language in design that inherently creates inanimate entities. Words like “brand,” “product,” and “application” begin to feel sterile when they become too commonplace in our vocabulary. And they become completely lifeless when divorced from the real people that they are serving. These final products are only as powerful and organic as the real-life interactions they foster.
It’s our job to generate hope not only in our processes, but also on behalf of those whom we are serving. Just as hopelessness can spread like wildfire, so too can hopefulness. Sometimes it takes a while for our clients to rekindle hope in their mission, brand, or product, but that simple spark left smoldering can generate a flame. The larger the organization, the longer these effects can take to spread out to the edges.
Before a pen touches paper, a marker touches a whiteboard, or a pixel is pushed across a screen, we must start with hope. Clients seek a final product, but they also come to us because they want another eye to recognize the value in what they’re doing in their community.
To our clients, hope often doesn’t feel anything like a confident expectation; it feels more like a pipe dream. In the absence of hope our clients can feel stuck. I’ve experienced this many times working with clients who have just spent an enormous amount of time, money, and energy into a strategic venture. Whether it’s research, content strategy, or even a large-scale branding project, the excitement usually wears off really quick when our clients have to pivot to executing on expensive advice. They are often left with a large, heavy toolbox with no instructions of what to do with it.
We have to remember that hope can be taught. It’s our responsibility—better yet our privilege—to redirect our client’s expectation toward an attainable future.
More than blind optimism
The truth is that hope will take hard work. True confidence doesn’t come without the proper amount of elbow grease. Blissful ignorance can be quite good at perpetuating blind optimism.
However hope doesn’t come without belief in an outcome. Hopefulness is a form of optimism that looks for the true and beautiful rather than endlessly searching for the imperfections around us. Paying closer attention to the systems around us reveals their troubled nature. Offsetting this harsh reality with blindfolded positivity isn’t hope at all but rather foolishness.
Maybe the confidence aspect of hope is informed by experience. Maybe it comes from trusting the discipline. Regardless of its source, we know that it comes from an intimacy with the problems we’re solving. You cannot solve what you do not know. We have to hear from real people and live among their words. Only then can we have the confidence to begin removing their barriers.
Advocating through design
My biggest fear upon the technological horizon is that we’ll lose our humanity in the quantification of our lives. Data is now so easy to capture and analyze. We can use it to mold minds creating persuasive traps for users to fall into. Our confidence can stop being informed by hopefulness and can start to be informed by manipulation.
There’s such sadness in seeing this play out in our society. Faces are transformed into numbers, and numbers are quite easy to manipulate. This manipulation may start upstream of our audience interacting with our design, but it creates a vicious cycle that sends our processes into a tailspin. Visions of success appear like a mirage in the desert when we’re seduced by dehumanized data. We learned this in kindergarten: The game is much easier if you cheat. Allowing hope to power our practice is much harder to do than create a cheap spike in analytics.
These persuasive traps are just as tantalizing to our clients. Tension between our clients and their users can make that fragile line feel quite taut. This is where our hope has to influence both parties.
We can’t stop at simply hoping on behalf of our clients; we have to hope for their users as well. Advocating for users is something we will have to do repeatedly. It can be exhausting to constantly redirect the attention to the people we’re serving, but it serves as a necessary reminder to us as designers. We don’t just serve clients; we serve their users.
We navigate this taut line between our clients and their users like a high-wire act. At times it can feel as though the feat is impossible. Sometimes advocating for usefulness looks like letting go of grand aesthetic visions or solutions that make your brand the hero. More often it looks like sitting with real people, hearing their struggles, and allowing your work to simply react to those realities. This is advocating for users. It isn’t creating problems for your work to solve. It’s creating lasting solutions to issues real people are experiencing.
This approach also affirms our pivot to hope being a confident expectation. When I begin to encounter challenges I can confidently ask, “Did I listen well enough?” Stories often illuminate the pathways. Remember the solution is often right in front of us, living in the stories of both our clients and our users.
What hope requires
In our daily work, hopelessness can cause us to respond cynically with phrases like, “It’s just not my job to _____.” (I’ll let you fill in the blank.) Encouraging our clients is often out of scope, inefficient, and doesn’t always favorably impact our profit margins, but I believe it’s our job and the source of a wealth of hope.
True hope calls us to have courage and endurance. It will take time to foster within ourselves and even more time to foster within the organizations we’re serving. We must remember that though a spark can cause a wildfire of hopelessness, so too can it shed the right amount of light to foster hopefulness. The time required shouldn’t deter us from seeking hope as our end.