Embracing a values-based approach, Simon van Acht, a freelance UX strategist, shares insights on the importance of empathy, ethical decision-making, and positive impact in the digital industry. In this article, we delve into Simon's journey, from redefining his career to focus on sustainability, to the challenges he faces in creating digital products that align with his values. Join us as we explore the world of conscious design and discover how designers can contribute to a more sustainable future.
Hi Simon, thank you for taking the time for this chat, I have a warm coffee ready for our conversation. Let’s start by giving our readers an introduction about yourself, background, and experience.
My name is Simon and I have been working in the digital industry since I was about 18, maybe even earlier. I am currently a freelance UX strategist focusing on sustainable and societal challenges. I work to help companies, brands and agencies define their future. My work focuses on taking vague ideas and turning them into concrete visions. I believe that if you can visualise where you want to go, it is much easier to work towards it.
In my day-to-day work, I do a lot of research and talk to a lot of people to gather interviews and information, trying to understand their needs and challenges and translate that into a strategy. My focus is on digital products. It could be an app, a tool or a platform and I help teams with strategy and design from a user experience perspective.
What is a core value in your strategy work?
Empathy. The most important thing in my process is that I try to empathise with people. I always try to look for ethical and moral choices. If a client asks me to use a certain design pattern, I would always be the one to question it. Asking if it is ethically right to do that. Are we steering people towards some kind of unhealthy behaviour? I always try to look for clients and projects that have a strong moral compass and are trying to help make the world a better place rather than destroying it.
Are your clients exclusively working in sustainability and social impact?
Early in my career, I worked mostly for commercial projects and brands with a focus on profit - which I don't think is a healthy business approach. Now my work has shifted more towards companies that already have a strong moral compass at their core.
Could you tell us a little bit more about what your career looked like before? Was there a shifting point in your career where you decided to make sustainability and conscious practices become the pillars of your work?
I think the turning point was about three years ago when I realised that most of my work was for the commercial side of things and I was always, um, doing what the clients told me to do. I noticed that my energy was really drained and it just didn't feel right.
Then I started a process and asked myself, "What do I find important? I realised that the values I have in my life are the same values I have in my work. You know, going through the adventure of finding out what you care about in life and reflecting on your work. From there I started to rebrand my own freelance practice with a new positioning, a new logo, new principles and a written manifesto of how I see the world and define my responsibilities within the creative sector.
What's the most unsustainable part of digital design and how do you work around it?
That's a difficult question. The first thing is to create digital products or campaigns that don't add value to what we already have. For example, if a big brand came to me and said we are launching a campaign for a big event and we are trying to get as many email addresses as possible, would you help us? I would say no.
Because for one thing, it's mainly business driven and focused on collecting data for profit and possibly supporting a product that is destructive to the environment and to people. I think the most unsustainable thing is to ignore the moral compass - which I think everyone has - and also to ignore what's happening in the world right now.
What do you think is the most challenging part of your job?
I think the biggest challenge is always trying to see the bigger picture and how everything is connected. The exhausting part is that you are constantly juggling different issues and topics at the same time. At the same time, you have to make the people you work with aware of their actions and the consequences.
Someone might think that if we add a simple box or this button to the design, then we have solved the problem. But if you think 10 steps ahead, it could cause problems for a certain group of users. The most challenging part remains; making a decision now with an eye to the future.
The last question is, for designers interested in sustainability topics and eager to engage in the conversation, where would they recommend they start?
I think being aware of what is happening in the world and keeping up with the news (in a healthy way) is the first step.
The other action I would recommend is to have conversations and follow creatives and sustainability advocates from other industries who are doing inspiring work in this area.
Change is possible when designers from different backgrounds, industries and levels come together and take a stance on producing work that has a positive impact on the planet. If you want to join us in our mission to promote sustainability in the world of digital design, whether you are deeply involved in the discipline or just a little curious, get in touch with us at SDD.
We’d love to hear your views, answer your questions - and ask some of our own - and learn from what you’ve learned over the years at email@example.com.