June 15, 2017

Protestant Design Ethics


Recently, I’ve been digging into some texts that have made me introspective about my role in the workplace.

I find it easier to think about these problems when I’m not projecting personal biases as a designer. I try to think of myself only as an employee. It frames issues in more foundational terms and helps me understand the larger picture. However, I am a designer, so to understand these concepts in a more personal way I to link these two worlds together. If I don’t do this I tend to justify certain issues with the caveat that designers are different.” We’re not.

Lately, I’ve been focusing on the idea of the Protestant work ethic. The theory by Max Weber claims that the Protestant ethic was an important factor in the economic success of Protestant groups in the early stages of European capitalism. For some reason, I can’t shake the urge to map this back to design to see the impact in the industry.

Protestant Work Ethic

You could spend a lot of time doing research on the Protestant work ethic. You could do more than I did and actually read the book by Max Weber. But a good TL;DR version is the view that a person’s duty is to achieve success through hard work and thrift. The Protestant’s believed this led to being saved by God. God wants you to work hard. Hard work and success are connected to your salvation. Want success and glory? It’s on you to work harder.

Creatives tend to think they are different than other workers because their output is more connected to craft or art than it is to traditional labor. Working hard as a creative might feel more true to one’s self, but if someone does it as a professional they are doing work in a traditional sense.

Also, if someone is a creative worker, chances are they got into the industry because of a calling to work creatively. They were driven by something bigger than themselves. For the sake of this post, I’ll refer to this calling as the higher power.

A key aspect argued by Weber is the importance of individualism in the Protestant Reformation. It was the individual’s job to find salvation rather than by simply being a member of the Catholic church. As a creative, I can relate to the fact that I usually function within a larger team, but I feel defined more by individual contributions than the outcome of the teamwork. I’m also judged by individual contributions when it comes time to talk about my work.

So, taking this into consideration, it makes sense that I always feel lousy at jobs if I’m not designing at the top of my ability, and I’m sure you feel the same way. I have a need to produce quality work in order to feel productive. That struggle I have with the higher power is internal, and in order to feel like I’m doing my duty as a creative, I must push harder.

Meanwhile, there are factors externally that push back on my ability to produce my best work. In a world where I am being judged by my individual contributions, it is a constant balancing act for me to juggle internal pressures with external factors: business, resources, etc.

The Problem

There are a lot of criticisms of the Protestant work ethic. Most of them are general, but I want to frame things from the lens of a creative.

If creatives are Protestants in this analogy, and we need to commit ourselves to the calling of the higher power, then surely the most devout followers will rise to the top. We can’t make excuses for the factors that hinder us: in this example business problems, access to resources, etc. It is our individual responsibility to live up to our fullest potential. Only then will we be fulfilling the commitment of what it means to be a follower of the higher power. We must always pick ourselves up by our creative bootstraps. (Gross.)

In response to this belief system, we have created a culture that supports this thinking. Instead of fixing the problems at work, or helping people get resources when they have none, we have created ways to fulfill our duties that ignore the issues hindering our progress: doing side projects, designing fake interfaces for Dribbble posts, Behance rebrands, etc.

This response is driven by guilt, and also by false logic. The Protestant ethic assumes that those who are successful work hard, therefore if one is not successful, one does not work hard. When applied to design it goes: Those who are creative do creative work, if one is not doing creative work, one is not creative.

This is problematic for obvious reasons. It keeps us from challenging the forces in front of us that are hindering us, and others, from making creative work.


If we take a step back and understand the impact of this false logic we might be able to change some of the problems in our industry. Problems with diversity, burnout, and design management can be reframed and dealt with in more logical and realistic ways.

Creatives are in a constant struggle for collectivism in an individualist culture. Hopefully, understanding this struggle and where it stems from can point us in the direction of progress.

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