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What lies beneath?

Photo of participants smiling and facing the front of the room as the keynote Dan Mall smiles with arms out.

Perception vs reality of what designers do

Ernest Hemingway coined the phrase  “iceberg theory” as a writing technique where the writer only shares superficial details, allowing the reader to work out implicit detail and the deeper story for themselves. As a creative technique, it offers freedom for our imagination.

However, when it comes to solving business problems, the “Iceberg Principle” has serious implications. It suggests that we cannot see or detect most of a situation’s data. We have to dig deeper to understand root cause. The iceberg is a useful visualisation in business to remind us that what we are aware of and what causes problems are two completely different things.

Iceberg Principle

a theory that suggests that aggregated data can hide information that is important for the proper evaluation of a situation.

Monash University, Marketing Dictionary


Adam StJohn Lawrence uses the iceberg to reflect on how service design/design thinking is perceived (workshops and sticky notes) and what it really does (e.g. research and implementing change). Adam asking the question, “why it’s hard for service design to get attention” suggests that the value of design is not being given the appreciation or prominence it deserves. What designers do, and the impact they make is not always properly understood.

IMage of the the iceberg Graphic by Adam St John Lawrence.
Graphic by Adam St John Lawrence

The Service Design Academy team wanted to explore the perception gap by bringing the iceberg exercise to life at UX Scotland. This 3-day conference gathered over 300 designers, researchers and other user-centred professionals Edinburgh over 3 days in May 2024 to learn, share and connect with their community.

The Iceberg Exercise

At the conference, we introduced our “perception vs. reality” iceberg to uncover the hidden depths of participant’s roles. Participants were asked two simple questions:

What do people think you do?

What do you actually do?

The first question was all about perception—subjective and varied. The second focused on reality—grounded and tangible. To respect anonymity, and keep the exercise suitably fun for people to take part in conference breaks, we didn’t track individual responses for comparison. Rather, we themed answers above and below the line. We also had to recognise the safe environment where the questions were asked, so it did lead to some people “venting”, sharing that adding their thoughts felt like therapy!

Image of the banner at UX Scotland covered in sticky notes from participants in the sections for what do people think you do and what do you actually do.
Service Design Academy UX Scotland 2024
Close up of one of the sticky notes - shows a cartoon drawing of a robot and the words "Screen producing robot".
Above and below the line

The findings

What people think designers do

Responses were categorised into four main themes:

  • Creating Things

Many people believe (UX) designers primarily create things like websites or apps. This perception is based on the visible outputs of their work.

  • Superficial

There were amusing yet telling responses like “I talk all day” or “spends time on social media,” highlighting a surface-level understanding of their roles.

  • Creating Barriers

Some see them as the “GDPR police” or the ones who “say no to great ideas,”; that they often hinder more than help.

  • Helpers and Facilitators

Interestingly, some think of designers as “firefighters” or “therapists,” reflecting a belief that their primary function is to help others to achieve their goals.

Image of the banner now at the SDA offices. Where the sticky notes have been rearranged into themes.
Back at SDA HQ, the data was themed above and below the waterline

The Reality of Design

When it came to what designers really do, the themes were notably different:

  • Creating Value

Their true role is to help emotionally and functionally connect with people. Designers reported that they create meaningful experiences that resonate with users.

  • Versatile Roles

UX and service designers wear many hats. Strategists, researchers, and problem-solvers, adapting to various challenges and responsibilities.

  • Challenging and Disrupting

constantly asking, “Why are we doing this?” UX roles involve questioning assumptions and pushing boundaries to improve user experiences.

  • Contributing to Organisational Success:

Beyond individual projects, designers play a critical role in creating an inclusive culture and driving the overall success of the organisations they work for.

Challenging Perceptions

The exercise at UX Scotland highlighted a significant gap between perception and reality in design. When designers communicate the value of their work, it’s crucial to share not just what is created (the “things”) but the thought processes, research, and decisions (the “outcomes”) that underpin design.

How can we bridge this gap?

  • Educate colleagues to explain the breadth and depth of your role to team members and stakeholders
  • Showcase impact by highlighting the positive outcomes of projects and work, from good user experience to business success.
  • Continuous learning by staying curious – keep asking critical questions of each other and colleagues.

Understanding and addressing the perception vs. reality gap can lead to a more accurate appreciation of the amazing work designers do every day.

Two smiling participants at the SDA table in Dynamic Earth.
UX Scotland Service Design Academy zone

Thank you

A big thank you to all the participants and volunteers at UX Scotland who participated in the exercise, Connor Finlayson Kim Anderson and the Service Design Academy team for designing the iceberg activity and to Niloofar Kumbla for analysing the data.

A small step towards shaping how design is communicated in our organisations.

We’d love to hear what you think

For more insights and learning opportunities, visit sda.ac.uk or drop us a line at info@sda.ac.uk