Famous Dentists

You’ve probably heard this quote before, from designer Noreen Morioka:

Being a famous designer is like being a famous dentist.

It resurfaces every few years and gets passed around the design community, reminding us that even the luminaries of our industry are unknown to the outside world. Point well taken, especially considering how many designers are driven by a thirst for Dribbble likes rather than a desire to do good work.

Except, I’m not sure I agree. The quote makes its point, but I’m afraid it throws the baby out with the bath water. Being a famous designer may not hold much credibility in the outside world, but it’s still qualitatively different than being a famous dentist.

Dentistry is intrinsically transient — there’s no chance that a set of teeth will continue their useful function after the bearer has died. Design, though often squandered on the impermanent, has the ability to long outlast its creator. We remember the Parthenon long after we’ve stopped caring if Iktinos and Kallikrates had good teeth. (Iktinos and Kallikrates designed the Parthenon in the 4th century BC. See? Famous designers.)

Dentistry is about maintaining and restoring something that already exists; design is about creating something new or improving something beyond its original capacity.

I don’t want to contribute to the design industry’s already impressive level of self-aggrandizement. That being said, while having an overinflated view of our significance is obnoxious, having an under-inflated view can be dangerous. We’re at risk of forgetting that the work we do has far-reaching ramifications. Design has been the key force in reshaping the environment around us, physical and digital alike. As media becomes an increasingly large part of our lives, our work will continue to grow in importance.

I’m reminded of Wilson Miner’s incredible talk, When We Build:

As more of the tools we live with every day become digital instead of physical, our opportunity – and responsibility – as designers is multiplying. We live in a world of screens, and we are the ones who decide what goes on them. We are in a unique position to have an impact – one that lasts longer than the next redesign or the latest technology.

Fame is fleeting, and even the designers who speak at every conference are no more recognizable to the outside world than Earth’s mightiest dentists, or the guys from Daft Punk without their helmets on. We should have a healthy and correct view of our own significance, approaching our craft with the humility that comes from having confidence in our work.

Incidentally, there are plenty of famous designers. Maybe not interface designers, but plenty of people in the outside world can name a few graphic designers (Saul Bass, Milton Glaser), architects (Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry), and fashion designers (Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld). “Design” is such an open-ended term.