In the 1980s, when I began to write about design, its appeal seemed fairly obvious. Things that had received the attention of good designers tended to look better than their more routine counterparts. This improvement was layered with all kinds of meanings tied up with the question of how and why something looked better. Nor could visual appeal be dissociated from the function of an object, graphic, or interior design. If the designer’s visual concerns got in the way of the design’s intended use, then this was naturally a problem. But the crucial point was still that the designed object was attractive and provided a more pleasurable and engaging experience than undesigned or less-designed versions of the same experience.
Even then, some observers worried that designers saw their work as little more than decoration. Style was regularly denigrated for being superficial and empty-headed, usually by designers themselves. Yet the visual nature of design was not seriously challenged and designers continued to argue, as they had argued for decades, that “good design is good business.” By improving the design quality of their products, companies would sell more than competitors that hadn’t seen the light. Still, plenty of companies didn’t seem to get it. In defiance of common sense, or maybe because their leaders lacked a visual education and just didn’t know how to look at things, they really weren’t comfortable with designers or design.
But designers were right. By the 1990s, almost everyone was getting the message. Design had turned out to be as important as designers always insisted, and it was the force of their commitment, imagination, and creativity, as an expression of public need and desire—designers are people, not a breed apart—that had made it so. Design is now so important, it seems, that designers can no longer be trusted with it, and to make it absolutely clear that control has moved into someone else’s hands, design needs to be given a fancy new name. Call it design thinking. Call it innovation. “Everyone loves design but no one wants to call it design,” BusinessWeek’s Bruce Nussbaum informed the readers of Design Observer last year. “Top CEOs and managers want to call design something else—innovation. Innovation: that they are comfortable with. Design, well, it’s a little too wild and crazy for them.” Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, offers this prescription: “Businesspeople don’t just need to understand designers better—they need to become designers.”
The first step in the process of disempowering designers is to insinuate that, despite all that time at design school followed by years of doing the job, they have an incomplete grasp of design. They are so preoccupied with fussing over the details and their need to “make things pretty”—tantamount, it’s always implied, to a character flaw—that the big picture passes them by. “Designers like the shiny-shiny,” writes Peter Merholz, president of the design and consulting firm Adaptive Path. “That’s often why they got into design.” Merholz has apparently spent his career “fighting small-minded design thought, particularly in the world of graphic design where the cool, novel, and stylish is lauded over the useful, usable, and truly engaging.” Enough of those pesky design stars with an overinflated belief in their own creative vision! “Design is getting a lot more humble, and that is a very good thing,” says Adam Greenfield, who teaches in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. “I take my inspiration from guys like Jasper Morrison or Naoto Fukasawa, who very consciously try to step out of the role of godhead or genius or expert.” Never mind that Morrison, however mild his manner, has been a highly publicized design luminary for the better part of 20 years.
Having written off designers as mere stylists with insufferable egos, whose sole aim is to impose their impractical excesses on long-suffering consumers whom they never trouble to consult, the way is clear for a new breed of intermediary to step up and take business’s hand. They might once have called themselves design consultants—the rhetoric is not so different—but today they are known as design thinkers and innovation experts. For these design-ovators, everything is subordinate to strategy. Design is one small cog in an elaborate analytical machine intended to dazzle prospective clients into believing that they are dealing with rigorous professionals who work with precise methodologies and defined, quantifiable outcomes. “The great news for designers about the rise of corporate interest in innovation is that it recognizes, more than ever before, the strategic contribution of design to product, service, information, and environmental offerings,” says Larry Keeley, cofounder of the “innovation strategy” firm Doblin. Doblin has an impressive chart detailing 10 types of innovation it addresses in the areas of finance, process, offerings, and delivery. In the explanations of “business model,” “networks and alliances,” “product performance,” “customer experience,” and so on, the word “design” occurs just twice.
Design thinkers are masterly at weaving a dense web of plausible-sounding words around their analysis—just read their blogs—and this is where they win out against designers, who generally speak most eloquently through their work. But if we leave aside the self-serving patter aimed at building a would-be design thinker’s reputation and wooing clients, what are the innovationists saying? Let’s hear from Ziba, highly regarded in innovation circles, explaining its approach to experience design on its website: “Customers seek beautiful everyday experiences. To be moved. To grow. Laugh. Cry. Discover. Move beyond their basic needs. Surprise them—maybe throw in a bit of suspense… inspire, educate, involve and entertain. The right combination creates insane loyalty.” Whether Ziba clients such as Pepsi, Dell, Black & Decker, Starbucks, and Frito-Lay do any or all of this for you is a matter of taste (for me, it’s a “’fraid not”). But let’s be clear that the big conclusion about “insane loyalty” is pure marketing hogwash.
If a continuous cycle of vital innovation is going on, why do the mission statements sound so trite and patronizing? And, actually, which is more patronizing: to create something you believe in because you think other people might like it too, and just put it out there? (The old, design, way.) Or to study every facet of consumers’ behavior with the intention of filling them with feelings of “insane loyalty” for your client’s products? (The new, innovation, way.) Lest there be any doubt about the ultimate goal of all this higher-grade design thinking, Fast Company magazine has the lowdown: “It’s taken years of slogging through Design = High Style to bring us full circle to the simple truth about design thinking. That it is a most powerful tool and, when used effectively, can be the foundation for driving a brand or business forward.” In other words, good design is still good business. While this view of design remains as limited as it ever was—what else might good design be?—it is becoming harder and harder to keep sight of what is wrong with a culture mediated largely by commercial forces pursuing their own ends. But it comes down to this: Is an encounter with an everyday brand—a bottle of soda, a power tool, a packet of snacks—the place to go if you want to be moved, to seek education, or to grow as a person, and aren’t there better places to find those kinds of experiences?
This brings us back to design’s visual qualities. It is hardly surprising that designers try to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the accusation that they are hung up on making things look pretty. Belittling language of this kind suggests that the visual is inherently trivial, easy to do, and beneath consideration, that form is not a powerful medium of expression and carries no meaning for the viewer. Design thinkers like to talk as though we have somehow passed beyond the stage where the way things look needs to be a primary concern, and designers, browbeaten and demoralized, half seem to believe them. They have been too ready to accept the caricature of themselves as airheaded stylists who care about insignificant niceties of no concern to anyone else. At the very point when designers most need to mount a spirited defense of the visual, many seem to have lost their nerve and fallen silent.
Yet the rhetorical reduction of design to frivolous prettification reveals a willful blindness to the power of expressive form-making, if not a deep, philistine ignorance of the history of design and visual culture. The scale of the oversight is so colossal, and frankly baffling, one hardly knows where to start. Are the great cathedrals of Europe—Rheims, Lincoln, Chartres—merely pretty? Are the gardens of Kyoto? Is Alvar Alto’s Paimio armchair? Was Alexey Brodovitch’s Portfolio magazine? How about Leica cameras? The patterns on Moorish ceramic tiles? Or the PowerBook and the iPod? There is surely no need to go on.
A moment ago I used the word culture, a notoriously awkward concept. According to the critic Raymond Williams writing in Keywords, his classic lexicon, culture is used in two crucial senses. In cultural anthropology—now there’s a word the innovators love to bat around—it refers primarily to material production, while in history and cultural studies it refers primarily to signifying or symbolic systems. Combining these usages, we might conclude that culture is about things (which have a look) and meanings (conveyed by how they look). Whichever way you look at them—so long as you do actually look—these products of our culture tell us who we are. There is bound to be a relationship between impoverished ways of (design) thinking and impoverished visual form.
Design thinkers set great store by business targets, by driving the enterprise forward, because it is exactly what their clients want to hear and it gets them work. Seen from outside the cozy bond of service provider and client, this is a severely limited way of viewing design, and the total domination of current design discussion by this kind of commercial rhetoric is a worrying trend. Michael Bierut is one of the few designers to call out the design thinkers and question their nostrums, so I asked him whether design has a cultural value beyond its business uses and functional purposes. “The business use—the specific goal that motivated the client or sponsor to initially fund the work—often fades away, sometimes quickly,” he says. “In some ways, you might argue that aesthetic value—for an enduring design, at least—is the only lasting value, since over time functional needs can change and business moves on to the next goal.” Approaching heresy at a time when aesthetic quality is the last thing we are supposed to consider, Bierut goes so far as to modestly propose that “just making something look nicer” or “replacing something ugly with something not so ugly” is an admirable goal for designers.
That probably sounds woefully simplistic to design thinkers. Where is the system? Where are the charts and diagrams, the Capitalized Concepts, the new ways of thinking uniquely suited to market conditions now? To understand why it isn’t at all simple, to appreciate how hard it is to create something special, of lasting quality, you need to know a little about design.
The problem that designers face now is the same problem they have faced all along: how to communicate with clients who lack a basic grounding in the visual arts and don’t seem to think it matters. Businesspeople don’t need to become designers. They need to learn that there are types of awareness and understanding expressed through visual form that even a team of the finest poets would be hard-pressed to summarize as a list of handy PowerPoint bullets. Music, dance, and the visual arts operate on a different plane from words. As Dori Tunstall, design teacher and anthropologist, says: “There is an inherent intelligence to beauty, which is about the depth and passion we feel for the world.” Design thinkers like to wax lyrical about the elegance of their strategic thinking as a form of design in its own right, as though this could ever be a substitute. They can keep it— in 2108, if there are museums then, no one will queue to see a strategy. Give me something tangible, something brilliant and extraordinary that illuminates our perception of what human life can be. For that, we still need designers.
Rick Poynor is a writer and critic based in London specializing in visual culture.
Illustrations by Paul Hoppe