Zac Halbert

Zac Halbert

Product Design Portfolio

Illustration for an article about designers being realistic about the impact they can have

Where the Buck Actually Stops

Where the Buck Actually Stops

Harry S. Truman was famous for having a plaque on his desk that read “The buck stops here.” He took responsibility for all decisions made during his watch, which is an admirable trait in a top leader.

However, designers are often too willing to take responsibility for things they have no responsibility for. We care about the impact of our work, and so we’re susceptible to believing narratives that cast us as the heroes who will solve all the world’s problems with The Magic of Design Thinking™. It’s an inspiring thought that motivates us to work harder, and for many of us is the reason we got into the career in the first place. The problem is that it’s a pretty lie.

We are both more responsible and less responsible than we think for the successes, failures, and ethical lapses of our companies. Believing a false narrative robs us of the opportunity to pursue impact where we can be most effective.

You probably aren’t saving the world

Everyone wants to feel that their work is having an impact, but it’s important to stay grounded. We're part of a larger team — without which, all we'd be doing is making pretty boxes in Figma.

Here’s a story I heard from a friend, which I’ve obscured to protect identities. This friend of mine was interviewing at a large, well-known tech company you’ve definitely heard of. During the interview, he heard a story about a time that the President of the United States had come to speak at their campus. One of the employees of said company told a colleague that they were going to skip the speech because the work they were doing had a bigger impact every day than the leader of the free world. My friends... this person was not correct.

However, I don't blame this employee with delusions of grandeur. I blame the company culture that encouraged this belief in order to harness their optimism for profit.

If you happen to be one in one of the rare positions where your design work is actually saving lives, kudos! Please keep it up. However, staying grounded is useful for you too.

Design is a skill that helps businesses be better at business. Some businesses are beneficial to the world, some are beneficial only to the founders and investors. If you want your design work to have a positive impact, then go work for a company that is incentivized to have a positive impact.

Things you are NOT responsible for

This is a non-comprehensive list of things that non-leadership designers often think they are responsible for, but are not. The more senior you are, the less the following applies to you.

Your company’s business model

If you join a company that makes its money in a way you disagree with, say, by hooking users to scrolling then advertising to them, then that’s your job too. You are not responsible for, nor will you likely be successful in influencing leadership to change the model. Your only real responsibility is deciding whether or not to keep giving your time and talent to that company.

Your company’s culture

If you join a company that is “user centered” but refuses to invest any time or money listening to users, then you’re probably not going to be doing a lot of user research in your job. It’s your responsibility to try to influence the culture if you can, but don’t wage an endless war with leaders who aren’t interested in changing. Just move on.

How your company chooses to invest its resources

If your company decides that shipping a half-assed MVP to production is good enough and aren’t willing to invest the cycles to create a more polished user experience, then again — all you can really do is attempt to change their minds, or leave.

There are many other examples you can probably think of. Stop taking personal responsibility for decisions made by the leadership team.

Your actual responsibilities

Unless you happen to be on that leadership team, here are your actual responsibilities (aside from, you know, designing stuff):

Attempting to influence

It IS your responsibility to attempt to influence the company culture and investment decisions. Put in a real effort, too, because it’s very difficult to tell the difference between deliberate choices, and choices made due to ignorance, convenience, or a focus on more pressing matters. The worst that can happen is you’ll get more practice with storytelling and influencing stakeholders, which is a skill 100% of us need to improve.

Deciding if you’re comfortable

Is IS your responsibility to get a second opinion, which may lead to the realization that you're actually comfortable with the way things are. One common thing I’ve heard from recent grads is they’re uncomfortable with the level of user research in their first startup job because it doesn’t match what they were used to in an academic environment. However, when discussing it with peers and mentors, they’ll admit that every single feature probably doesn’t need a full-blown user study if there are good patterns and secondary research to draw from.


If you can’t successfully influence the company, and you’re not comfortable with how things are, then it's your responsibility to leave. Go find a company that has a business model you agree with, with leaders who embody the values you find important. I have seen too many designers stick around for far too long at companies where they are fundamentally misaligned with the values. By staying, you’re doing yourself a disservice, and you’re robbing the company of having a designer in your role that is better aligned.

Feel the Freedom

While articles and talks about the Grand Importance of design feel good, there’s a freedom in understanding that the buck stops with your CEO and leadership team. You are an important part — but still just a part — of a larger organization. Delusions of grandeur can be a potent motivator, but also lead to a rollercoaster of emotion that is ultimately not very helpful.

Seek out more sustainable sources of motivation, like being a part of a team of people you like, working on a goal you agree with, for users that you can empathize with. You’ll find that motivation and inspiration is much easier to come by.

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