The arrogance of design

21 January 2016

More often than not, the initial energy and excitement of solving a problem in a local township fails to last. The clever designs just don’t stick. Designers give up in frustration, and communities wave disinterested hands at outsider folly before going on with their lives. I then read The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems by Courtney Martin, which re-affirmed this problem.

I think many of us are all too aware of how rarefied cleverness seldom lasts once trampled into the real complexities of people’s lives. The dirt of life soon compromises previously oiled ideas borne from anti-septic studios, crisp white pieces of paper, and quietly humming MacBook Pros.

Design is by its ontological nature an arrogant undertaking. Unlike psychology or ethnography, design doesn’t accept the current state of things. It rarely seeks to truly understand. Instead it demands change. It dismisses the present and gets lost in daydreams of the future. It insists on making things “better”.

An obsession with the future is exactly how John Christopher Jones distinguishes design from other disciplines in his book, Design Methods:

The main point of difference is that of timing. Both artists and scientists operate on the physical world as it exists in the present (whether it is real or symbolic), while mathematicians operate on abstract relationships that are independent of historical time. Designers, on the other hand, are forever bound to treat as real that which exists only in an imagined future and have to specify ways in which the foreseen thing can be made to exist.

This is not to say that trying to improve on the present isn’t a valuable goal, but it is important to understand the difference between understanding a neatly defined design problem versus understanding the reality of the people for whom you are designing something (in all its present day complexities and scope). Very often the former is defined well before – or in spite of – even a cursory glance at the latter.

The future-focussed motivation that underpins traditional and long-standing design approaches engenders effort away from an honest attempt at understanding unavoidable realities. It starts on the wrong foot from the very beginning. As Roger Tallon put it, “Design is first and foremost an attitude.” And I’d argue that this attitude is far too disrespectful of the present.

Its provenance fuels its arrogance

Design as a profession has consistently proved itself to be forcefully heavy-handed. It can be argued that the occupation of design originated in England during the first mass industrialisation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was both an engineering and marketing tool for selling a sudden excess of goods. No one really asked for these goods, but they gradually became indispensable, weaved into cultural mores and aspirations of what it means to be civilised. This aspirational weaving for commercial gain was the cornerstone of the profession. I fear it continues to be the cornerstone for most involved in present day design professions. This is why it proves consistently ineffectual at actually solving existing human problems.

In order to be more effective at solving real problems, design needs to let go of its provenance as the love child of a patriarchal humankind sliding its hand up nature’s skirt for the first time; being nothing more than a marketing tool for forcing a productive and consumptive proposition on nature and humans at real scale. It has flooded the world with things made of synthesised materials, which are purported to be wonderfully useful and apparently time-saving. Although, as if sand in a bucket, industrialisation and post-industrialisation have continued to punch holes into the bucket in order to insert more sand. So, as more sand is injected into the bucket, so too does more of it keep leaking away.

Thanks to industrialisation, post-industrialisation, and our current technological revolution, I’m able to write this post and share it with you in a way that laughs in the face of previous divisions in time and space. So I don’t assume to sweep away all the progressive benefits of design’s future-focused efforts.

However, it should be accepted that design traditionally comes from a forceful and arrogant place, and as such will fail far more times than it succeeds in solving present day problems. This failure is inextricably built into its ontology. It will unavoidably hurt many people in the process of trying to realise its perfect future. So if we are ready to acknowledge this, maybe we’ll be motivated to spend a little more time focussing on the present before jamming our future down other people’s throats.

There’s hope thanks to contemporary methodologies

That said, this arrogance is slowly been put under scrutiny by contemporary methodologies, like user-centered design and agile workflows. Although there’s a long way to go, in that these methodologies at times only offer a mere scratching at the surface of present states, and are very much open to self-fulfilling prophecies due to severe resource constraints, they are at least rising beacons in a sea of future storms.

If we want to reduce the very real and disproportionate harm failed designs cause, we need to give these methodologies more focus, more time, more money, more patience. Agile thinking and user-centered mantras are all about not straying too far from the present, and therein lies their power to be much more effective at solving real problems, rather than marketing new problems aimed at distracting us from existing ones. We need to give the present much more respect than it is currently given before fantasising about the future. These relatively new methodologies, if nothing else, are a healthy reminder of this.

Update 10 February 2016

As if on cue, only a few days later Jeffrey Zeldman, someone who’s considered to be a thought leader in the design community, tweeted this quote from some ad agency hero from yesteryear:

We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mould it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.

So anyone shaking their head at this post’s seemingly unfair characterisation of the design profession’s true place of origin and predominant contemporary modus operandi, maybe should give this some more honest introspection. Zeldman has close to 340 000 followers on Twitter (undoubtedly most of which make their living as designers in some form). The idea of pedalling things no one asked for or dictating new behaviours many are forced to accept is deeply ingrained into the profession, an outlook which is euphemised under the banner of “innovation”.

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