Everyone is a dancer. I mean, a designer.

The spirit of things 👌

Coleen Baik
4 min readApr 12, 2017

Someone once asked me at the ballet, “you look like a dancer! Are you a dancer?” I replied, “Well, I’ve some training. And I like dancing. But no, I’m not a dancer.” The person patted me on the shoulder and replied, “That makes you a dancer!”

I thanked the person and appreciated the spirit of what she said. She meant to be flattering and encouraging. She meant to elevate, as a supportive gesture, my experience to that of a professional. She meant that the act and heart of dancing is beautiful, transcending titles or training. In many ways, I agree.

If she’d meant to ask me if I move my body to music, then yes, I am a dancer. But that’s not what she was really asking. She was asking me if I was a professional ballerina.

For me to have replied, “Yes, I’m a dancer” would not have been technically incorrect. We can play the semantics game all day (which is tiresome but here we are), but at the end of it we know that it would have given her the wrong impression.

In a sense, yes, we’re all dancers. But we feel uncomfortable calling ourselves that because, at a minimum, it incorrectly expresses an equivalence of expertise.

And by doing that, it also—inadvertently or no—devalues the amount of time, practice, focus, discipline, and number of choices that led to the development of this expertise. Expertise that’s valuable enough for teams to be built on, curricula to be developed for, to be recognized as a profession.

The framing of things 😐

Google Ventures design partner Daniel Burka recently wrote an article called Everyone is a designer. Get over it. It references Jared Spool’s article, The Power of Experience Mapping as an inspiration.

The laudable gist of both is this: building a product is a collaborative effort. The reality is that everyone gets involved in an area not of their official expertise. In fact, they should. In fact, it’s not happening enough. Boundaries get in the way. Talk to each other. Don’t lose sleep over titles. Focus on making things. It’s better, together. Go, team!

Except that’s not how it came across to many.

The point of his article — don’t sweat the semantics, build together, being territorial is lame — is spot on. That’s why it’s unfortunate that the tone and framing distracted so much from the point he wanted to make, and was divisive rather than unifying.

The title itself kicks off with “Get over it.” The implication is: this is the correct point of view. It’s just how it is. And if you disagree, you’re wrong.

For a piece that aims to encourage inclusion and collaboration, it seems like the wrong foot to start on.

Daniel is a designer. He’s someone I respect in the industry. He’s also a friend. Clearly he understands the value of design:

Design is a hard job. You’ll need a wide range of skills…and years of practice to truly master design.

Yes, design is a job. And as with most professional disciplines, it takes a lot to develop a mix of knowledge, instinct, and dexterity over a long period of time. He himself mentions craftsmanship: “mastery” implies a high level of discernment, experience, and skill above the casual or competent. It implies expertise. It baffles me then that the article continues in what I can only describe as an oddly pugilistic tone, directed at the design community at large:

Maybe that’s why so many designers are offended when non-designers do design work or get called “designers” by Jared and me. You can act offended if you want, but the reality is that other people are making design decisions with or without you. Embrace them .[sic] They don’t make your job less valuable. They don’t make your job title less meaningful.

Experienced, mature designers are not offended because other people are making “design” decisions. I know very few designers who are threatened by engagement. Collaboration does not make our jobs less valuable. Dialogue doesn’t make our job titles less meaningful.

Stating that it’s not a real job does.

That sounds harsh, but that’s in effect what the article headlined. It’s easy to say that disagreement implies failures on the part of the reader: insecurity, competitiveness, over-sensitivity, defensiveness.

That’s presumptuous. It’s also a cop out.

You can’t shrug this off onto the reader.

Daniel is well-known and respected. He speaks from a position of influence. What he says has weight and garners significant attention. Young colleagues, peers, industry leaders, listen and codify; perhaps misapply. How he framed his point overshadowed the spirit of what he was saying. And no, the spirit of it is not provocative or detractive. The framing of it is.

This is why how we choose to say things matters as much as what we are saying. In such cases, intent is not enough.




Coleen Baik

Independent product designer, artist, advisor. @Twitter & @Wellesley alumna, the-line-between.com