Chevron pointing up

How to design with humility and avoid the traps of narcissism

October 30, 2022
As designers, we can unexpectedly fall into the trap of egocentricity and self-congratulation, especially when it comes to "designing for good." I explore what it takes to subvert these patterns and lean into humility.

So, what does it mean to design with humility?

I explored this in October 2022 in a talk on How Narcissism Fuels Inequity and Bias in Design at the Service Design Global Conference. Check out some lovely sketch notes from @francisrowland)

Now these topics are quite complex, so I'll do a surface review in this post.

Let's start with some introspection

If you're looking to minimize potential harm in your path toward designing for inclusion and equity, you have to spend a lot of time looking inside yourself.

You have to unpack your worldview and privilege. You have to examine what biases, stereotypes and assumptions you're carrying and possibly reinforcing. And you have to explore how you wield power in the world and the (unintended) consequences of your decisions.

There are some precious values and qualities that can aid you in your journey. Among them are humility, integrity, compassion and accountability. Most people need time and practice to cultivate these, even if some may come naturally.

But we have some big barriers in our culture that can stand in the way.

One of those barriers is narcissism, which is somewhat of a silent norm in our society.

What's narcissism and how does it show up in design?

Think of it as a specific set of behavioral traits, such as ego centricity, entitlement, grandiosity and hypersensitivity to criticism (among others). Now, we all can display these traits to a certain degree.

But these traits, especially when they present at high degrees in someone, can add fuel to a fire of bias and inequity. At their worst, they can be dangerous and toxic, especially for marginalized folks who already face a lot of adversity in society.

Narcissism can show up in our work in a variety of ways. For instance:

  • When designers hold onto power in the design process and assume a position of superiority ("You just don't know good design")
  • When you deny someone else's experience of bias, discrimination or oppression, even indirectly ("That image isn't offensive, you're being too sensitive")
  • When designers assume they can easily build deep empathy who are very different from them, when research proves it's difficult to do ("Only we truly know what users want")

What can we do about it?

There's no simple solution. Along with systems of oppression (such as white supremacy), narcissism is deeply rooted in many aspects of society and culture, especially in the workplace.

You can, however, be more intentional about cultivating your humility.

Here are a few simple tips to get you started:

  1. Practice sharing power in the design process. Bring people into the design process whose lived experiences differ the most from yours. Include them in simple ways — ask for feedback or a critique, especially through the lens of bias and inclusion. Don't forget to ask for consent and to return value to them in some way.
  2. Check your ego. This might mean letting go of some of your ideas, concepts and "design standards," especially if that results in a more inclusive experience.
  3. Listen if someone calls you out or shares criticism. Resist the urge of saying "Sorry, you feel that way" or "That wasn't my intention." Instead, lean into active listening and engage in a dialogue to understand.

Subscribe today.

Get a biweekly dose of tips, insights and resources on designing for positive change in my Design Changemakers Digest.

Your data is protected. View Privacy Policy.
Thank you!
Please check your inbox to confirm your subscription.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Please try again.

Take a closer look at how we can work together.

I help teams align their business practices with their values by harnessing the power of design for positive change. All it takes is a willingness to challenge your assumptions and evolve how you design.
"I strongly recommend Sandra for any job that requires strong analytical skills, an innovative mindset and leadership."
Muy Cheng Peich, Libraries without Borders