What gives our work meaning? Striving to “make the world a better place” is a noble cause, but there’s a reason that phrase has become parody — it doesn’t mean anything. Be humble, narrow your focus, and design the project right in front of you.
Design for your community
Regardless of what your product does or aspires to do, it always comes down to the people involved. No, not the ones who created it — the ones using it. Without users, there’s no product, and yet without the product, there’s no users.
There may be a number of other products that do the same things your users come to you for, but you’ve got some secret sauce they can’t find anywhere else, right? Your unique value proposition serves a community of people around the product. This is where you get your small wins.
A matter of perspective
I’ve never worked on a great altruistic cause as my day job, but I do like to think I’ve made a difference in the small communities my work has reached. My job has less to do with the subjective greatness of our users’ goals and more to do with making sure these people achieve them.
As a designer — hell, as a human being — I don’t judge people for what they place value on. I only judge the process of getting them from point A to B.
Meaningful design work isn’t hard to find. It just takes some perspective and above all, dedication to the designer role.
Embrace the problem
So, how do we actually meaningfully contribute to society? We can’t all work for companies that are directly feeding the hungry, treating the sick, or uplifting the downtrodden. As I’ve never worked for one of these companies, there’s a decent chance you haven’t either.
Just focus on what your specific audience is trying to achieve and get them there. This might be obvious, but become the audience. Their concerns are your concerns. It’s just empathy, plain and simple. Once in their shoes, use your experience as the designer to look at the problem from a variety of angles.
The most important problem the client has is the one you’ve been hired to solve. Make a difference for the client, and you make a difference to everyone who uses their product.
When you’ve nailed a solution to the client’s problem, take it for what it is: a meaningful success.