I read a great post this week from Robin Rendle, Systems, Mistakes, and the Sea. It’s worth reading just for the description of “hyperobjects”, a much more practical concept than the name might suggest.
The post is about design systems, the trend that has been sweeping the design field for several years. I’m torn, in any discussion on design systems, between consistency being good for users and the danger that design systems might squish creativity and autonomy out of web development work. In general, any move towards standardization for standardization’s sake makes alarm bells go off in my head – but design systems can add a lot of value by speeding up developers’ work and letting them focus on edge cases instead of routine components.
Robin’s post touched on a deeper point, though: that every presentation or discussion of other teams’ design systems work seemed wildly successful and easy, while his own team’s efforts were one difficult challenge after another:
What gets to me isn’t that everyone appears to be building beautiful design systems. Instead what bothers me is that it appears as if everyone is building them all so very easily. This has led me to wonder that, if this work is so easy for them, then why is it so hard for me? And how can they do it without ruining their evening, or a relationship, or letting the state of the system ruin their health? Is it a problem of experience? A lack of mentorship? Am I bad at my job?
But in conversations with other designers, privately, the story is different. The work is hard, everywhere; things aren’t going as smoothly as it might seem from the outside:
My hunch is this: folks can’t talk about real design systems problems because it will show their company as being dysfunctional and broken in some way. This looks bad for their company and hence looks bad for them. But hiding those mistakes and shortcomings by glossing over everything doesn’t just make it harder for us personally, it hinders progress within the field itself.
The ugly truth is that design systems work is not easy. And what works for one company does not work for another. In most cases, copying the big tech company of the week will not make a design system better at all. And so instead we have to acknowledge how difficult our work is collectively and then we have to do something that seems impossible today—we must publicly admit to our mistakes. To learn from our community we must be honest with one another and talk bluntly about how we’ve screwed things up.
Although Robin’s post is about design systems, it couldn’t be a better description of public service modernization efforts. Public discussions of digital government – on social media, in conference presentations – paint a rosy, optimistic picture that doesn’t live up to how things are actually going. This work is hard. It burns people out. And if, as public servants, we can’t talk about real problems because they’ll show our institutions or our leadership or the government in a negative light, we won’t be able to learn and grow and change.
One of the values of the US Digital Service is “Find the truth. Tell the truth.” It’s something that, as Canadian public servants, we’re particularly reluctant to do – despite appeals to be a voice for evidence in an increasingly misinformation-driven world.
Finding and telling the truth publicly is important: to counteract misinformation, to push back against vendor-driven hype, to be part of broader societal or practitioner conversations, and to help drive important internal changes. It’s not always clear how to do that, as a public servant – partly because of the unclear lines around loyalty and public criticism, and partly because there isn’t an obvious escalation path or “happy medium” between, on the one hand, saying nothing potentially-negative publicly, and on the other hand, formal whistleblowing or resigning in protest. If there’s a silver lining to Robin’s post, it’s realizing that this is a challenge for people in private sector companies too.
But it’s worth figuring out. As public servants, in any government and at any level, how can we find and tell the truth more often?