On Smuggling Great Design Out of Capitalism

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The problem with capitalism for the designer is not how the economic theory stacks up against alternatives—it’s a reasonably efficient way of getting things done at scale. The core issue is how the making of money has become a goal in and of itself. To the extent that design serves “business,” we are then left with two delusional princelings as narratives to give the design purpose and direction: the insatiable need of investors, and the opportunistic pandering of end user marketing—neither addressing the question that really matters for great design: why?


Why? Why is this product, interface or service making this world a better and more interesting place? Keep asking why, and then ask why again. Because great design, yes you guessed it, does great things. Things of grand ambition. But big goals mean nothing if the problems they solve aren’t equally great. There is no story without conflict. The bigger the conflict, the bigger the story—and the greater the design will be.

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Iconic examples of design that serve ambitious stories? The Swiss railway clock, a red second-arm to highlight the importance of precision that runs slightly fast for 58.5 seconds then stands still for 1.5 seconds to “bring calm in the last moment and ease punctual train departure”—unique mechanics housed in a minimalistic design to mark a positive place in post industrial modernism. The Catholic church: tall, imposing buildings golden logos, super-hero uniforms: designed to instill awe and maintain status as supreme gatekeeper to all things divine—a brand to survive questionable behavior for thousands of years and still attract more members than Facebook. NASA’s Apollo 11: think all utilitarian design? Then compare it to a very different political narrative supported by the competing Russian space program, building off the same technical specs.

All very ambitious stories projected through design.

End user research makes it worse

In contrast, today’s corporations often like to ask users what products or features they want. Or worse, what marketing they might respond positively to. This takes some pressure off of management to figure out what they are actually doing. It’s much easier to simply give people what they want. This is also the greatest excuse for poor products, and really poor design. There is—of course—nothing wrong with understanding what real world problems you are trying to solve. But if the goal is petty, you are simply asking people on the street how to make petty work better and what might make it sound more appealing.

So, given that much of our existence is lived out in service of some business driven primarily by petty politics and profit, how do we extract great design from a system that is inherently self-serving and holding on to a very weak story?

Here’s what we do: we smuggle in a bigger narrative to work from. And we smuggle out a greater design. That is how great design is done when conditions aren’t pure. And they very seldom are.

We, the smugglers

First order of business is to ask all the why?s we can muster. If you have a great client, you will hear the story about solving big and important problems in our world. But in all other cases, you will be met with details of product features, market research and really shiny technology. And if you keep asking why, more details and more shiny will be eventually be replaced by annoyance and blank stares.

If you accept the project, two things are required: firstly to complement the brief with elevation and grandeur. If the story isn’t there, you must create it. Smuggle it in. Most likely you already have smaller pieces of the puzzle—context, functionality, technology, limitations etc. Use that to create the very ambitious narrative: a large obstacle that we as humans absolutely must solve. You are already brilliant at solving problems with design. And now you have something worthy to work towards. An epic narrative to give the design epic purpose and direction.

A confused smile from the jaded and greedy

Secondly, you must smuggle your more ambitious design out from the studio and into production. Good news is, this is usually not an issue. When asked to explain details of your solution, you will give answers that actually makes sense. And even the most jaded and greedy clients will offer a confused smile and appreciate a little elevation as long as it doesn’t get in the way of management-book buzzwords from the 80’s or empty marketing goals. They might not appreciate it fully or for what it is, but that was never the goal. The goal was great design.

But wait… the critical reader will pause; are we not simply using great narrative and design skills to propel what we are trying to avoid? It’s still a crap product, isn’t it? And isn’t the goal for the makers of said crap still just money or the anemic dream of a bigger corner office. Indeed it is, all of it. But your design can still be great.

A war-cry for clandestine smuggling

Different narratives can co-exist. And the grand narrative you helped manifest with great design is now part of the world. Yes, it lives in a less than perfect context. But it hasn’t given up. And if done right, it hasn’t sold out. The marvel we experience when seeing the pyramids most likely has very little to do with how well the structures serve their original purpose. Now, this is not an excuse to do anything for money: at some point you have to ask yourself to what degree guns kill people. And how willing you are to get paid obscene amounts of money and rake in shiny awards while spearheading the coveted and iconic design of the next Coke bottle, only to realize that all your applied brilliance, bravery and hard earned taste is there only to have more children drink massive amounts of refined sugar.

It’s not a perfect world. But rather than resigning to the dark side in a lazy cloud of excuses and design indifference, this offers a war-cry to fight for bigger narratives. We can always fight the good fight through subversion and the clandestine smuggling of greatness, one project at a time.

If the story is too small for your great design, well then; designer up—and go make that story bigger.