Designer, a Bullshit-Job?

Following David Graeber’s book »Bullshit jobs. The true meaning of work«, 2018

In: Experience Reading Time: 3 min
  1. Is »designer« a bullshit job?
  2. According to David Graeber, a bullshit job is a job that society doesn’t need. It is pointless and superfluous because it doesn’t help anyone.
  3. Answer from a designer friend: No, because that’s what it’s all about: helping. I design so people have fewer difficulties and can live better. And maybe I don’t just focus on human and social needs but planetary needs, too. With Erika Hall1: »As a designer, you have an enormous, exciting responsibility. You define the human world, one object or system at a time.«
  4. Objection of the economic system: Design as an independent job only becomes possible when it is demonstrably profitable. If this is being heavily questioned, it might be dispensed with. One is then satisfied with the implicit design done by engineers or business people. Advantage: the quality of implicit design does not have to be evaluated, as there are no visible costs.
  5. Once upon a time, it was like this, and for a long time. Design is applied knowledge of and about creating form; it was only from the 19th century onwards that this knowledge was assumed to require special care – so that it could differentiate itself as a profession. However, because no one can guarantee that it will not de-differentiate itself, the layoffs in the tech industry and the resulting fear dominate the current »discussion« about whether designers will be abolished, i.e., disappear into the Bermuda Triangle of data science, design systems, and generative AI.
  6. Consequently, design as a profession has the recurring problem of being a dependent, assistive, and implicit technology. Whether a designer has a bullshit job ultimately depends on the bullshittiness of the client.
  7. Which answers the initial question: In and of itself, design is not a bullshit job.
  8. However, because the individual case counts, there is always a risk. Are the things commissioned and designed meaningful, helpful, and valuable?
  9. To answer this question, David Graeber proposes a what-if game: What would happen if the designed things disappeared from now on? Would the consequences for society be “immediately noticeable and catastrophic?” Incidentally, 2 years before Covid, he poses the question of “systemically relevant” professions.
  10. I don’t remember designers being among them. We can, therefore, assume that their absence will be easy to cope with in the short term (!).
  11. Nevertheless, there are likely to be significant problems in the medium and long term. Crashing airplanes, poor ergonomics in furniture, dysfunctional household appliances, defective nuclear power plants, illegible posters, shapeless clothing, misconceived websites and apps, poorly connected materials, ill-conceived operation of medical devices, miserably set-up processes and services—there are more than enough opportunities to ruin things with poor design and its disastrous effects.
  12. But for many things, it doesn’t really matter. Which brings us back to the question of where bullshit begins and where it ends.
  13. As you can see from the word, it’s more about a feeling than a scientific definition. Bullshit is hardly usable as a term — you will find a reasonable justification and explanation for any work, no matter how stupid, to be able to fend off the bullshit accusation. Even if it’s only about being able to pay for food and rent.
  14. Which is an extremely good justification.
  15. Instead of making a formal distinction between bullshit and non-bullshit, Graeber prefers to write lists. Lists of jobs that he thinks are meaningful, valuable, or useful – and lists of those that he thinks are not.
  16. Bullshit jobs include private equity managers, marketing staff, lobbyists, public relations researchers, insurance specialists, telemarketers and legal advisors.
  17. On the other hand, there are nurses, street cleaners, car mechanics, bus drivers, dentists, farmers, music teachers, craftsmen, gardeners, firefighters, stage designers, plumbers, journalists, security officers, musicians, and tailors. They all make »a meaningful contribution to the world«in his eyes.
  18. (Interestingly, all jobs that were created before 1900).
  19. These lists create evidence with which Graeber successfully conceals conceptual deficiencies. You intuitively grasp why some jobs are on this list and others are on that list. I often had to smile and nod.
  20. If you are a designer, which list do your clients appear on?
  21. This is Graeber’s central criterion for recognizing a bullshit job: ask the people themselves.
  22. Graeber is probably more capitalistic than he would have liked, for he engages heavily in moral outsourcing. Because he cannot make a scientifically tenable distinction between meaningful and meaningless jobs (i.e., one certainly needs to ask how »meaningful« his very own category of a bullshit job is), he relies on the self-description of the workers. They would know best whether they have a bullshit job.
  23. Do you have a bullshit job?
  1. Erika Hall. Just Enough Research. 2nd Edition 2019