Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Compromised Design

December 26, 2006

Compromise is the refuge of the inept and weak–minded. It can be described in sugarcoated terms and even associated with lofty ideals for the purpose of misdirection, but compromise is nothing less than failure.

Others will tell you different. They’ll tell you that compromise amounts to a win/win situation. Bullshit. A compromise means you’ve failed in one of two ways; either you’ve failed to achieve the appropriate design (which invites compromises) or you’ve failed to convince your client to let you provide them with the best design (which also invites compromises). As the designer, it’s your job to keep compromise out of your projects. And I don’t mean that you should limit the compromises; I mean you should eliminate them. When you think of little compromises for what they really are – little failures – your mandate should become clear.

Now I’m not talking here about protecting your ego’s integrity. A designer’s refusal to compromise should have nothing to do with staying true to one’s own subjective vision. Rather, it’s about not allowing corruption of what is best for the client. It is the client’s interest we’re looking out for here, not our own interests. So let’s take a look at the pathology of compromise and how some work to make compromise an acceptable feature of the design profession.

Compromise Kool–Aid

For some strange reason there is the expectation from those both inside and outside the design profession that compromise is inevitable and, even more regrettably, beneficial in design work. This mistaken and destructive idea could only have originated with those outside of the design profession. I’m talking about those with some measure of power and influence and whose concerns are irrelevant and selfish. In any event, this idea persists and is perpetuated by many designers and those who associate with them – all of whom have simply been duped.

One reason that this idea persists is that it is often mistakenly equated with constraints and collaboration. These two beneficial factors feature prominently in most design projects so in order to guard against compromise demagoguery it is useful to first understand the nature of constraint and collaboration and how they are antithetical to compromise.

Constraints and Collaboration

The common connotation of constraint is somewhat negative. After all, constraint is, by general definition, a limitation on some sort of freedom. But the purpose and environment of design is not concerned with freedom. Rather, design is concerned with producing specific results, communicating specific ideas, or allowing for specific affordances according to some specific or general conditions. The constraints associated with a design project define the role and purpose of design. So actually, design is enhanced by constraints. Constraints allow design to have a purpose. In fact, without constraint there is no reason for design.

Compromise is what happens when those who lack relevant understanding or vision demand that their limited or irrelevant views be represented despite what is otherwise best.

There is nothing about constraint in the context of design that has anything to do with compromise. Any compromise must involve some sort of disregard for the relevant constraints. Some measure of design ineptitude and/or the imposition of irrelevant concerns is required for this to occur.

Unlike constraint, collaboration is not entirely necessary to design work, but it certainly can pay positive dividends. Collaboration is the effort to maximize the benefit of combined understanding and vision. But collaboration can only take place among those with sufficient relevant skill, deep (even if different) understanding, and a common commitment to excellence.

Conversely, compromise limits the utilization of relevant understanding and vision. Compromise adds irrelevant concerns to the mix. While collaborators are working toward a common ideal of excellence, those peddling compromise are instead working toward something different. In most cases this “something” is little more than the ego-based goal of self-representation.

The Pathology of Compromise

Compromise is common fodder in our daily lives and in many facets of society. It is necessary in endeavors like politics, for instance, because that playing field is not defined by mutual interest, clearly defined constraints, and fundamentally sound vision, but rather by demagoguery, selective myopia, limited vision, and selfish or misrepresented interest. In healthy interactions and soberly considered matters, compromise is indicative of failure.

Compromise is what happens when those who lack relevant understanding or vision demand that their limited or irrelevant views be represented despite what is otherwise best. Compromise is the byproduct of distrust, envy, slight regard, ignorance, apathy, and most importantly, ego. These elements cultivate an environment where irrelevant concerns can be rationalized and what was a cooperative effort degenerates into a bargaining process. Once this happens, positive, contextually-appropriate outcomes are nearly impossible to achieve. Instead, a compromise is achieved.

it is useful to first understand the nature of constraint and collaboration and how they are antithetical to compromise.

In design (and everywhere else), any result of compromise will be less than it could have been. Always. Compromise is necessary only when none present know what they’re doing. Compromise is corruption and corruption has no place in design. A design resulting from compromise is by its very definition a compromised design. A compromised, corrupted result is not what we’re hired to produce. Again, responsibility requires that we prevent compromise and corruption in our work and instead produce excellence.

Excellence is not born of compromise. Excellence is not the result of capitulation. Instead, excellence is the product of clear vision, superior insight, and flawless execution. But as excellence is threatening to all other ideals, it must often be fiercely defended. But more importantly, it must be competently defended.

Battling Compromise

Among our requisite skills must be the abilities to present information, defend ideas, and address compromising or irrelevant concerns - all in a compelling manner. Otherwise we’ll not be allowed to do our best work for our clients. This is especially true given the fact that we most often interact with clients from the business world.

One of a designer’s responsibilities is to speak truth to power. The timid or insecure need not apply.

Compromise is a prominent feature of business and the politics that are woven into business. So in many cases our clients, out of sheer habit, expect compromise. It is therefore required that we be prepared to fend off and effectively dismantle expectations of and efforts at compromise. Perhaps the best way to do this is to preempt such ideas by exhibiting a confident and expert manner in client interactions (be the pro they hired). Otherwise, given the context, another good way to do so is to appeal to matters of the bottom line. Explain how a specific compromise takes money out of the client’s bank account and you’ve likely made your best argument.

Sometimes, however, a confident manner and a financial argument are not enough. Those accustomed to getting their way, being in positions of power, are practiced at cutting off their nose to spite their face. This might be funny (in a sadistic sort of way) if not for the fact that such compromises mean that we are then participating in the effort to provide the client with a corrupted design. It’s not easy, but we owe the client better than that.

One of a designer’s responsibilities is to speak truth to power. The timid or insecure need not apply. A designer unwilling to do so, and do so as a matter of course, should choose another profession. Speaking truth to power is not enough, though. Merely making strong, logical arguments may not do the trick. So it is required that we be adept at making convincing arguments that result in the proper accord.

Conclusion

True, this is not easy stuff (it’d be sort of worthless to write articles about easy stuff). Unless you’re superhuman, compromise is going to find its way into some of your design projects. It certainly does with me. But we have an obligation to work on our weaknesses and work to prevent compromise, so it’s time to recognize compromise for what it is and develop strategies for eliminating it from our projects.

But first you’ve got to learn to despise compromise. You’ve got to learn to recognize invalid associations between it and truly useful elements of design, like collaboration and constraints. You’ve got to get into the habit of thinking more deeply and more clearly than others, especially as it relates to your responsibilities as a designer. Your clients are counting on you to deliver your best work, not compromised versions of it.

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