Mule Design’s Mike Monteiro on responsibility in experience design

What responsibilities do designers have to their clients, their users and ultimately, themselves?

Mike Monteiro will tell you in no uncertain terms the answer is aplenty. Mike’s the co-founder and design director at Mule Design, a leading interactive design studio in San Francisco. He’s also the author of the books Design is a Job and You’re My Favorite Client, both published by A Book Apart; can be found giving talks around the globe; and dabbles in teaching through Mule’s workshop series, which covers topics Mike sees as underserved by art school design programs, like presenting design work or collaborating on user research.

Mike joined me on the podcast to share why he believes the veil of ignorance – not empathy – is perhaps the most important item in a designer’s toolbox, the issues he sees with design education today, the skills he looks for in potential design hires, and much more. If you enjoy the conversation check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Stewart: Mike, welcome to the show. You’ve been traveling a lot with your latest talk, “How to Fight Fascism”, and there was a little story I saw you post on Twitter from when you were in Toronto. It was about a Portuguese bakery. What happened there?

Mike: I was in Toronto. I looked at the map, and I saw there was this neighborhood called “Little Portugal”. I thought, “Let’s go check that out because I’m Portuguese.” I was walking around Little Portugal, and I started seeing little tiles on the houses, little signs, that if you’re Portuguese you know you can get safe haven here. Other white people they don’t know, but we know. We can pick up all these signs. There’s winks and handshakes that we give each other.

Then I saw this Portuguese bakery. I walked in, and I saw all Portuguese pastries and stuff that I was used to growing up. I walked up, started talking to them and asked, “Are you Portuguese?” They looked at me like, “What’s this guy want?”

I said, “I’m Portuguese too, it’s okay.” We started talking, and it turned out that they’re from the same town as my people are. Then, the guy who owned the bakery came out from the back and his wife. Because every Portuguese business is a family business. It turned out they all knew my grandmother. The owner used to work at the same factory that my dad worked at, before each family emigrated out of Portugal. I gave him my Dad’s number, gave my Dad his number, and called my Dad up. He remembered this guy, and then they gave me like a little box of pastries and sent me on my way. I was in Toronto, a town that I’ve never been to before, and met people who knew my grandmother, randomly. That’s pretty great. I felt good for the rest of the day.

Stewart: That story speaks to what I wanted to ask you about today. How can we, as designers, working on digital products, create more experiences like yours in that bakery? Experiences that promote and enable the kind of human connection and decency that you got there. You said that was the first time you experienced that in awhile. What can we be doing, as designers, to facilitate more of that?

Mike: Get out there and find out what the rest of the world is like and see what people in the rest of the world are like. It’s really depressing to come back here, other than my family’s here so that’s good. My friends are here and that’s good. Then you get back into the groove of being at work, and you see what people are working on or interested in. Everybody’s talking about Juicero, which, what are we doing?

Can you look at the world around you, at this point in time, and see what people are going through around the world? Even in our own country? When you look out at that landscape is the first thought that pops into your head, “It’s time for that Juicero idea.” What is wrong with us? What’s wrong with us that that’s the kind of stuff they want to design, and what’s wrong with us that that’s the kind of stuff that we want to pour money into? How much money did they get? It was a lot.

If we are problem-solvers, this should be a rich moment in time.

They got a lot of money to create this ridiculous smart juicer. We make fun of them a lot because that’s a funny story, but it’s not like they’re an outlier. They just need to think about that. We’re on this planet for how long? 80 years, if we’re extremely lucky.

We have this career. We call ourselves “designers”, (and think) “Hey, we’re going to go design things. We’re going to go make things real. We’re going to make things happen. Things that couldn’t happen without us.” Is this what we want to spend our time on? We’re supposed to be problem-solvers. If we are problem-solvers, this should be a rich moment in time because we’ve stacked up those problems like none I’ve ever seen before. We’ve got a load of problems that we could be working on. How to squeeze juice using your phone is not one of them.

The role of ethics in design

Stewart: Design is unquestionably an ethical trade. How would you describe the ethical responsibilities that we carry and where designers sit in the big picture of that?

Mike: All trades are ethical trades, all of them. It doesn’t matter what you do. Imagine a baker, like that baker that I met in Toronto. He discovers that his flour’s bad. He says, “Screw it, I’m going to use this flour anyway. I’m going to use this flour to make my pastries.” Because people might get tummy aches, but they’ll probably never really blame the pastries. There’s a reasonable chance that he’ll get away with it. He’ll use that bad flour. He’ll make his pastries, and then he doesn’t have to throw that thing out. Except a good baker would never do that. It would never occur to them, because that’s not who they want to be. That’s not who they are. That runs counter to everything that a good baker would believe.

Doctors famously have ethical standards, like the Hippocratic oath. You couldn’t walk into a doctor’s office and get a prescription for pills that you didn’t need. It would be totally unethical for them to do that. They would lose their license if they did that. All of these professions out there have ethical standards. Take cops. The last few years we’ve been hearing stories about cops not behaving according to those ethical standards. We get pissed off at that, and we should get pissed off with that.

When I talk about designers having ethical standards, people argue with me. That’s the part that I find ludicrous. It’s not like, “Hey, let’s define what those standards are.” It’s, “Should we have these? Is this something that we need to worry about?” That makes me worry about the immaturity of people out there calling themselves designers. It makes me worry about the decency of people out there calling themselves designers. Wondering if this is a thing that they should even consider – I think that’s pathetic.

Designing with the veil of ignorance

Stewart: Everyone loves to talk about empathy, that we need to design with empathy. You’ve spoken a fair amount about the “the veil of ignorance” and how that’s actually the most important item in a designer’s tool box. Why is that distinction important?

Mike: That’s a great question. I think empathy is a bullshit term. Not by definition, but it’s certainly something that’s become a bullshit term in this industry. It’s become a way for us to keep excluding other people from the problems that are being solved. It’s a great way for a company that’s 90% white men to keep excluding everybody who’s not a white male – just by saying, “We’ve got empathy towards those other people so we can design with them in mind.” I much prefer including all of those people. It’s another word for exclusion really.

I think empathy is a bullshit term.

The veil of ignorance, on the other hand, is a philosophical construct where when you’re designing a system you can’t take for granted which side of the system you would actually be on. Take a company like Uber. If you take a look at it, in the most abstract terms, it’s a ride sharing company where people who can offer rides team up with people who needs rides. At its base core, there’s nothing unethical about it.

Take a look at the people who run that, and the decisions they make and why they make those decisions. There’s no thought given to the people getting into those cars and different types of people getting into those cars. What happens when someone getting into one of those cars gets harassed? If you’ve got a team of white boys who’ve been designing this tool and they’ve never been harassed in their life, you don’t think about that stuff. I don’t think about that stuff, and that’s why I make sure that when I’m designing something there are people who aren’t like me also working on it.

You take a look at who’s making money off of this, and it’s certainly not the people doing the labor. Certainly not at the percentage that they should be making money off of this thing. Let’s say that I’m designing a system like Uber and I’m designing it with the veil of ignorance in place. When all’s said and done we spin a bottle and we could be a passenger, we could be a driver, we could somebody working on the app or we could be the person who runs the whole thing. Under that scenario you’re going to design a tool that hopefully works well for everyone involved because it could be you.

The state of design education

Stewart: Let’s think for a minute on the issue of design education. What are some of the skills that designers generally lack, and how do we fill that void?

Mike: First we need to pull design education out of art schools because it’s a joke. Art and design have as much to do with each other as a lemon and a bag of meat. When I was growing up and I went to art school, there was fine arts and then there was the commercial arts. They were still viewed as arts. Out of the commercial arts, you had mostly illustrators at that point. You would use your drawing skills to help sell sugar water. That was basically it.

Then, interaction design emerged from all that. Those same departments in those schools. We’re still grabbing kids from the hallway in the art department to come be designers. You still have designers graduating from those programs talking about feelings. I have nothing against feelings, but this is a job. This is the job that we decided to go do. Dribble, that’s not design. I know Dan who founded that, but I think things like that do a disservice to design. I don’t think that was the intent, but that’s where we are.

Design is a Job, Mike’s first book published by A Book Apart, explains why the business of design is just as important as craft.

You’ve got designers who are most focused on style, which is the least important part of designing anything. You’ve got people hiring designers based on that. You’ve got a generation of designers following a definition of design that was given to them by engineers, when we first started doing this whole internet thing. They still don’t know what the job entails so they’re not doing it right.

Stewart: So we have this gap between when a designer leaves school and acquiring the skills they actually need to do the job of a designer. What would your advice to graduates be? Should they take a job at a smaller startup? Is it more beneficial to work at larger companies early in their career?

Mike: This is the hardest problem of all. It’s so complex and so ridiculously big. You just graduated from school, you are $50-100k in debt, and you’ve got Facebook offering you $150k to come work there. You go from one campus to another one. You go from a place that they told you where to be every five minutes of your existence and had laundry facilities and had lunch facilities to the exact same type of place, and they’re taking care of you. They’re giving you haircuts and they’re feeding you and they’re doing your laundry. They’re paying you $150k, which sounds pretty good when you leave school with $100k in loans.

Or, you could go work for some crotchety old designer like me or you at some tiny little design shop. It pays you maybe half of that, if you’re lucky, and can teach you a ton about how to do this job. If you’re taking a long tail view of the thing, you’re eventually going to become a much better designer if you go work for somebody. Because you just graduated from school, you don’t know shit. The only thing you know is that you owe somebody $100k, which is a pretty amazing thing to know and a pretty scary thing to know.

I remember graduating school – this was a long time ago – and I was $10k in debt. I remember not being able to sleep at night because there was no way in my life I was ever going to make $10k to pay off those loans. That shit is real when you’re 22.

Why would anybody in their right mind not take the $150k job at Facebook where they take care of you and help you pay off your student loans that much faster? That’s the problem – the combination of having to go into debt to get a bad education, graduating from school and having somebody with a bus right outside of your graduation ceremony saying, “We need 100 designers to start tomorrow.” You’ve got to be an idiot not to get on that bus. That’s the problem. I don’t know how to solve that.

Filling the gaps

Stewart: Your design shop, Mule Design, has started putting on workshops covering things that designers need to learn to function at the appropriate level. Things like presenting work better, user research, etc. Our team Intercom was recently at one of those, and they had a great time. Was that education gap the impetus for starting to put those?

Mike: Yes and no. We started out as a client services shop. You hire us, and we make you a website. Then as the world changed, we expanded that. You hire us and blah blah service design, blah blah design thinking. I still don’t know what (design thinking) is, but we charge for it.

How do I make my case for my work? Most schools don’t teach that.

The entire time that we were doing this, our industry was also trying to convince people that design is something important, something that you need to build into your company from the beginning, and they did. People did that, which was great. The net result of that is there were less projects, because people were working with less outside vendors. Little design shops like us who were in the business of doing that had to evolve, so we did.

We picked up on this trend that all of a sudden companies like Facebook and Uber are hiring 300 designers at a time, straight out of school and then dumping them into projects. These people have absolutely no idea how to do this job yet. There’s rarely anybody at those companies who can train them.

There’s a career path that you take where you start off, you absolutely suck at something, then you get a little better at something and then you master it. Then you get good enough that you can teach somebody else how to do it. I’m now at the point where I can teach other people how to do it, and I wanted to teach other people how to do it. I looked around at what was going on in design schools, and I didn’t like what I saw. So I figured we’ll just do this on our own. We’ll just do this workshop thing, get our toe into educating and that’s what we’ve been doing.

I enjoy the hell out of it. I do a workshop on how to present your work. Let’s say I’m a designer and you’re my boss, and I have to convince you that this thing I just did actually meets the goals of the project and it was done right. That’s that interaction. How do I make my case for my work? Most schools don’t teach that. That’s such a fundamental part of our jobs. I have to convince you that this stuff is right and you have to take it three floors up convince somebody up there that it’s right.

I see people at the beginning of the class and they’re admittedly scared shitless of talking in front of other people. It’s a scary thing to do. By the end of class, they’re climbing all over each other to go next. It’s great to see that. It feels like I’m actually making a difference. I can see that difference over the course of the day. Then I go home feeling like I’ve had an impact on people’s lives.

How to hire a designer

Stewart: So if a designer shows up at Mule Design looking for a job, what traits or skills do you find in candidates you want to work with?

Mike: My first contact with somebody is generally an email. You send me an email like, “Hey I want to come work for you.” If that email sucks, I’m not even going to look at your portfolio. We’re professional communicators. If you can’t write a decent email, nothing else matters. If you wrote me a half decent email, then I’ll take a look at your portfolio. I’ll take a look at your portfolio (to see if it) shows any modicum of intelligence and explains things like, “Here was the problem in front of me and here’s how I solved it.” That’s the sentence that I’m looking for when I’m looking at those portfolios. I see a lot of portfolios that are just, “Here’s some style, here’s some style, here’s some style.” That tells me nothing. If I see, “Here was the problem, here’s how I solved it, here’s how well it did,” that immediately gets my attention.

How excited do you get about things that you don’t know?

There is a visual component to this stuff that we do. I don’t want to dismiss that completely out of hand. A lot of designers think that’s 100% of what we do. If they can solve those problems in a visually compelling way, then I’ll bring them in for an interview.

It’s the interview where I decide whether or not to hire you. How do you talk about your work? What do you want to get out of your career? How excited do you get about things that you don’t know? How willing are you to admit that you don’t know something? Of all the people that I’ve hired where it went south, that is the most common thread is people who are not willing to admit when they don’t know something. That’s a career killer.

If you can’t admit you don’t know something, you’re never going to learn it. When a designer tells me, “I don’t know anything about this,” I get excited, because they’re comfortable enough to admit something and now I get to teach it to them. I get to watch the understanding just pour in.

Making meaningful work

Stewart: Let’s quickly talk about your new talk that you’ve been taking on the road, “How to fight fascism”. What’s the enduring message for designers at the end of that talk?

Mike: Think about what you’re doing. Look at the things that you’re spending your time on. Realize that you’re responsible for the outcome of the work that you’re doing.

Do you remember about a year ago, after that horrible massacre in San Bernardino, when the government asked Tim Cook to build software to break into an encrypted iPhone, and Tim said no. He’s no angel, by any means, but in this particular case, he said, “No, I will not build that because then it will exist, and if it exists, it can be used for evil. If it’s used for evil, then I will as responsible as the people using it for evil.” That’s what I want designers to be thinking about. What am I building? What am I giving my labor to? How could that be used? Is this making the world better?

Optimally you’re working things that are making the world better. I’m not trying to talk you out of leaving your startup job and going to work at Greenpeace on a trawler saving whales. I need you working at Facebook. I need people who give a shit, people who think ethically, working at places like Facebook. That’s where we need people with spines.

Stewart: Mike Monteiro, thank you so much.

Mike: Thanks for having me, Stewart.