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There is no table
What’s got four legs and doesn’t exist? This tired metaphor
Metaphors have a way of distancing us from the hardest-to-say things.
Take the ol’ work adage of “Keep-the-lights-on.” What you really mean is, “A bunch of projects we have to do even though no one wants to.”
In office culture, coded language is the norm. Metaphors can help get people excited about things. Metaphors can help clarify concepts. They can also be used to hide what’s really going on.
For years, you couldn't turn a corner without hearing a design thought leader drop that powerful and evocative metaphor: seat at the table.
It has been a declaration: "Design needs a seat at the table." It's been a promise in job interviews: "Don't worry, you'll have a seat at the table." It's been a reason to act: "Now that we have a seat at the table..."
The problem is, there is no table.
The table is a construct. It's not a helpful metaphor. In fact, all it does is divide people into insiders and outsiders. It defines a group (people at the table) and assumes that some people (we!) are outside of it. It's self-defeating by default.
There is no table.
There are only people.
A table carries the idea that there is a finite number of seats. As though only 8 people (10 with a leaf) can make a difference. That value happens within a finite border of belonging.
You don’t need a seat at the table, because there is no table. You don't need permission to do your job. You don't need acceptance by an imaginary (and for some reason, seated) council of thinkers or leaders. You don't need anyone's blessing to have an opinion about design, about product, about the world.
Reject the mindset that you need a seat at the table to make a difference. Holding on to that belief tricks your brain into thinking that someone else can define when and where you bring value.
You have value just by being you.
It can be hard to go against the grain. For some, fighting the system in place can lead to untenable conflict. If that’s true for you, then protect your peace. Some mess ain’t worth your stress! But if you have the capacity to fight exclusion, do it. And leave the door open behind you.
Either way, let’s stop talking about the table.
Let’s talk about the people. And systems. And beliefs. And arbitrary lines in the sand. (That’s another metaphor.)
Replace “I want a seat at the table” with “I don’t want to be excluded by my org.”
Replace “Design needs a seat at the table” with “The business needs to include design in discovery.”
Replace “This work will get you a seat at the table” with “This work is strategic and shapes what we do next”
Drop the metaphor, speak the truth, seek change.
Because you don’t need to sit at some imaginary table in your office, but you do need to work with the people there.
So pull up a chair.
A soft blanket in the grass for pals and practitioners.
Dealing with your own mythical table? Jonathan McFadden is a Senior Content Designer at Shopify.
Check out his talk Making Space at the Table: Inclusion Requires Action for practical and strategic ways to create a more inclusive space at work.