Design is not Tech

Working on digital products is like working in a bubble – it’s easy to forget that what we do remains mysterious to the rest of the world. Few things bring home that point like someone saying, “Oh, you design apps? What’s it like having a tech job?”

That question always gives me pause. I don’t usually think of myself as having a “tech job.” I use a computer, sure, and I design products for computers. But, to me, “tech” implies engineering. Being an interface designer is no more a “tech” job than being a novelist is a “paper” job. The medium in which we work informs our work, but it doesn’t define it.

The popular confusion around this can lead to some strange interactions. We’ve all been there:

  • “Oh, you designed [such-and-such app]? Your generation is so good with technology!”
  • “I’d design it myself, but I don’t have the software.”
  • “You’re a designer, right? Can you help me fix my printer?”

The relationship between hardware, software, and the people using them remains widely misunderstood. A person isn’t a “tech worker” just because they use a computer a lot; by that logic, accounting is more of a tech job than design. Similarly, a company isn’t a tech company just because it’s primary point-of-contact with consumers is software. If that were the case, any bank with more ATMs than branches is a tech company.

It’s strange that Uber is considered a tech company, rather than a transportation company. Or that Airbnb is considered tech, and not hospitality. Novelty breeds confusion; despite the ever-increasing number of companies that rely primarily on software to do business, everything digital is considered fundamentally different than its offline contemporaries.

The computer, with all its ubiquity, is still treated as such an alien thing. Right now, two billion people are carrying in their pocket a computer several thousand times more powerful than the one that sent Apollo 11 to the moon. Computers are such a deeply-woven part of our lives that many people, when they don’t have one in their pocket, feel phantom vibrations from it anyway.

Everything is technology until it isn’t. Once upon a time, the telephone was the pinnacle of consumer hardware, but as phones became universal we stopped thinking of them as high technology. Now you’d be hard pressed to find someone who refers to the guy fixing the telephone line as a tech worker. Haven’t we reached a similar level of ubiquity with consumer computing?

As Marc Andreessen recently posted:

We live in a world where computers are the primary tool for getting things done. It’s time for people to stop thinking about anything computer-related as being “tech,” and start appreciating that jobs involving computers are as varied and independent as jobs that don’t.