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

Don't just read: Think

January 24, 2007

This week I encountered two unfortunate design articles in popular publications: Fast Company magazine (print) and AIGA’s design forum (online). Both of these articles were cited and/or linked to in prominent weblogs. The articles were concerned with the design/business and designer/client relationships and both of these articles irresponsibly mischaracterized and championed unhealthy versions of these relationships. I suspect, however, that this fact was not apparent to many readers.

While these articles were ostensibly about improving relations between design and business and between designers and clients, in reality they serve to drive these parties farther apart and cultivate an unhealthy environment. Many designers reading AIGA’s design forum and business executives reading Fast Company are likely gobbling this stuff up, trusting that the information is valuable and the proffered wisdom sound – because it’s coming from AIGA and Fast Company. This is what happens when people don’t stop to think about what they’re reading and just blindly follow popular institution.

Unsuspecting, many of us may have glossed over the vacuous wisdom offered in these articles and I want to put a finer point on the issues they addressed. So in this article I want to speak to designers and managers/executives about specific problems in and exemplified by these two articles. I fear that if we don’t get into the habit of thinking more often and more deeply about these things we’ll senselessly perpetuate misunderstandings and distractions that divide us.

From the Business World

The first article I read was published in the February 2007 issue of Fast Company: No Accounting for Design, by Bill Breen. The article is about how Whirlpool’s design chief, Chuck Jones, has worked to address the mandate for his team’s efforts to become quantifiable in order to garner approval. The extrapolation is that design’s impact on profitability can and should be measured, but that it’s not necessarily easy to accomplish the measurement. Furthermore, the article suggests, there is room for debate on just how best and most accurately to accomplish the measurement. Okay, granted on all points.

This article was supposedly about bringing business and design a little closer together, but the result of Mr. Breen’s efforts will work to separate them even more for those who don’t know any better than to trust what they read in Fast Company magazine.

Problems arise, however, due to Mr. Breen’s flippant and careless treatment of certain assumptions, vacuous ideas, and troubling (or dubious) facts cited in his article. For instance, Breen describes how Jones didn’t initially have the hard data to backup his forecast of better ROI through his designs and, in Breen’s words,

“…he was forced to fall back on a rationale that was simultaneously elitist and lame: Trust me. I’m a designer.”

Elitist and lame? Is it elitist and lame when this “rationale” is employed by a physician, or by an architect, or by an attorney? Perhaps I’m just naïve, but I thought it was widely understood that when trained and skilled professionals ask us to trust in their advice, it is generally foolish to do otherwise. Unless that trained and skilled professional is a designer, apparently.

Breen goes on to say:

“A design solution might be technically masterful and aesthetically pleasing, but if you can't quantitatively calculate its clout, you can't claim its success.”

Well, when it comes to product design, technically masterful and aesthetically pleasing are pretty much the whole ball of wax (provided the thing actually works and the marketing department is doing its job). All things being equal, technically masterful and aesthetically pleasing are so often what drive success in the marketplace. If technically masterful and aesthetically pleasing aren’t enough to garner an investment of trust and enthusiasm, I wonder just how a company is then supposed to move forward to measure success?

With each of these unfortunate statements Breen seems to purposefully mislead and instill unnecessary doubt in the minds of business leaders regarding the purpose and profession of design. Elsewhere in the article Mr. Breen cites ideas supposedly held by members of the design profession, apparently for no other reason than to cloud the landscape of the issues he’s working to examine.

This article was supposedly about bringing business and design a little closer together, but the result of Mr. Breen’s efforts will work to separate them even more for those who don’t know any better than to trust what they read in Fast Company magazine. I suggest that you can trust Bill Breen to write technically well, for he is a professional writer. But he’s not a designer nor is he a business executive, so on points related to those disciplines his efforts here come off as little more than, to use his words, elitist and lame.

From the Design World

The second article I read this week that made me shake my head came from AIGA’s design forum (no surprise there). In the article, “The Resistance: Designers and Clients Go Head-to-Head,” Kenneth FitzGerald attempts to make the case that designer/client collaboration is a good thing and that designers should welcome the likely resultant challenges. However, FitzGerald makes several missteps and ends up casting the designer/client relationship in an unhealthy and inaccurate light.

The article begins with a vacuous statement offered as a truism:

“As no military plan survives contact with the enemy, no design concept survives contact with the client.”

Powerful prose, but I’d like to interject a bit of fact here: Throughout history, many expertly crafted military plans have survived contact with the enemy and many expertly crafted design concepts have survived contact with the client. This is a feeble way to begin, as the author’s premise falls flat when measured against reality. Perhaps FitzGerald’s suggestion is that designers are incapable of crafting suitable designs initially— or perhaps that clients are too dim and selfish to recognize an appropriate design solution (neither is accurate and both insulting). Otherwise, I have no idea why he begins with such a statement.

A competent designer doesn’t have “spiel,” but rather presents facts, educated insight, and a sound foundation for specific decisions and choices when supporting a design.

Certainly, the more common tale is that a design effort involves some sort of refining process with input from both the client and the designer, but this is not what FitzGerald goes on to propose. Instead he characterizes the ensuing process as nothing more than an antagonistic trial for victory between the designer and the client. He concedes that the dynamic may be adversarial and advantageous, but his implication is clearly that the two parties must be adversaries.

Complicating things for those not paying attention is the fact that the author does cite some less admirable habits and ideals that some designers maintain with respect to their relationships with clients. To his credit, he does this in order to criticize these ideals, for they’re worthy of criticism. However, with this promising setup one would expect an appropriate conclusion. None is supplied.

“A new, sophisticated client will ask informed questions and expect substantive responses. Those answers may not be forthcoming. Designers have limited experience facing a worthy opponent. So far, clients have failed to mount a substantive challenge to designers’ spiel.”

Learn it now and remember it: The designer and the client are not opponents. Never let some boob convince you otherwise.

Let’s step outside of Professor FitzGerald’s sad, imaginary world for a moment and pretend that the designer is competent. In such a world a “substantive challenge to designer’s spiel” is not relevant. A competent designer doesn’t have “spiel,” but rather presents facts, educated insight, and a sound foundation for specific decisions and choices when supporting a design. And just who are these designers “who have limited experience facing a worthy opponent”? The author’s effort to lump all designers into this impotent category is insulting and inaccurate. Lastly, in my experience clients often mount a substantive challenge to design suggestions. When one takes the time to work with the client to clearly define for all involved the relevant constraints, expectations, goals, and desires, substance is the predominant fare in challenges from either side of the table. It’s called professionalism; get cozy with it.

FitzGerald concludes that designers must be prepared to adapt to changes and defend their designs in the review process, but the reasons he cites and his definition of the ensuing environment are regrettable distortions. What he describes could certainly happen under the worst of circumstances, but it is presented as if this must happen. He fails to note that such a catastrophe can only result from a failure to develop a healthy relationship with the client; something toward which FitzGerald seems to be averse.

In the context of this article the author’s last suggestion, that “true collaboration and accommodation not simply its rhetoric, should be the goal,” [emphasis mine] is codespeak for “be willing to compromise.” Bad advice. Compromise is not a worthy goal. As I’ve observed in a previous article, compromise is nothing short of failure for both designer and client. Go ahead, be willing to fail, but know that it’s your fault if you do.

The Landscape

Pertinent to both of these articles’ contexts is the environment from which they’re borne. When you’re reading articles in any publication and from any organization, it is important to be aware of the nature of the landscape you’re navigating. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to note that it is in the interest of periodical publications to cultivate friction, to instill doubt, and to inspire controversy. Doing so is what puts money in the bank. It’s what creates buzz and attracts pageviews.

So it is required of us to carefully reexamine everything we’re fed through these instruments. Otherwise these resources don’t so much serve us as we serve them and dance to their tunes, to our detriment. The design profession’s interests and those of AIGA are often at odds. The ideals as represented in the words and deeds of this organization regularly make this fact abundantly clear. Likewise, the business world’s interests and those of Fast Company are often at odds. Fast Company is in the business of selling magazines. Period. Never forget this fact.

So as you consume the daily wisdom offered by periodicals, blogs, organizations, and individuals—regardless of their popularity and supposed gravity— remember that it’s your responsibility to not just read, but to chew and digest the words and ideas presented. As designers and businesspeople, ideas are our currency, our launch pad, and often our product. It is irresponsible to treat those precious items with anything less than utmost respect and attention, regardless of the environment.

Respecting your landscape is not just the responsibility of environmentalists. It’s a component of professionalism and the mandate of every designer and business executive. Take stock in your professional environment and work to preserve it. Do read all you can from whatever publications you can get your hands on, even AIGA and Fast Company, but don’t just read. Think.