Rescuing Design from Innovation

En 2008, Rick Poynor publiait dans feu le magazine I.D. un article à charge contre le design thinking – qui reste accessible sur Design Observer, ici, et dont les deux illustrations originales de Paul Hoppe sont (à cette heure) .

J’ai beaucoup de respect pour Mr Poynor, un critique de design éclairé et exceptionnellement articulé, mais je crois qu’à cette occasion il exprime une frustration émotive qui ne peut être due qu’à une mésaventure conjoncturelle.

J’ai donc souhaité lui répondre, avec tout le respect qui lui est dû mais quand même avec un peu d’humour, et j’ai envoyé mon petit (enfin, moyen) laïus à que je tiens aussi en haute estime – et dont je me demande pourquoi cela me semble normal que de pareils phares critiques existent aux Etats-Unis et non en France.

Dans un premier temps Michael Bierut (immense praticien et grand critique en matière de design graphique, l’un des trois editors) m’a répondu positivement, même avec enthousiasme, exprimant une vraie demande pour des contributions sur le sujet. Mais ensuite Michael m’est revenu en me disant qu’après en avoir parlé avec ses collègues, il avait été décidé que je malmenais trop leur ami Rick, l’un des contributeurs réguliers du site, et qu’on ne publierait pas ma diatribe. Je n’insistai pas et ne cherchai pas non plus un autre support pour ma prose.

Je la reproduis donc ici – en anglais dans le texte – pour que cet exercice de style n’ait pas été complètement vain, et je laisse juge le lecteur qui verra si la réponse qu’on m’a faite était justifiée.

Rescuing Design from Innovation

The May issue of I.D. opens up its yearly “Design & Business” section with Rick Poynor’s defense of designers against design thinkers and their assumed war cry: innovation. The headline itself is a crisp summary of the charge: “Down with Innovation – Today’s buzzwords suggest that design has become so important designers no longer can be trusted with it.

I agree – “of course” dare I say – with the overall logic and case: that’s why I chose one of Rick’s favorite playground to put down my soapbox [ndlr : I.D. Magazine and later]. This is due respect, not provocation. But, reading through, I experienced a severe stroke of what you could call rhetorical insecurity. My being a French user of the English language could account for my reaction but I have a feeling a few fundamental issues are really at hand here.

In short, the paper goes like this: There is a claim that design-ers make things pretty, while designthink-ers offer to restructure projects and actions with strategy, to operate from the big picture perspective and make things new in a new way – to innovate – to the accountable benefit of clients. The claim is supported by a new breed of design angels who seem to rearrange the words of the “good design is good business” motto into a more immediately profitable “design business is good good” – something like that.

The author, worthy of the quest for revenge that we (the design community) trust him with, brilliantly demonstrates the vanity of such claims compared to values of humility, sincerity, intelligence and talent found in true designers, especially those with considerable mileage (e.g. Michael Bierut).

This trailer is obviously a distorted reduction of Rick Poynor’s discourse therefore I beg the reader to follow the link up there and eat up the real thing before going on.

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There is evidently nothing wrong with this stand. If the issue is whether or not strategists may rightfully monopolize design intelligence, the question doesn’t even deserve an answer and the author does them a great favor by condescending to discuss the case.

But I end up wondering what design is about. Design, industrial design, graphic design, design thinking… and for my part: interaction design. What is their relationship? Is there an invariant definition of the word throughout? Not that I should be the first to ask, but if Rick Poynor himself supports this kind of equivocal semantics, where is one expected to look for comfort?

I’ve been following Stanford University’s developments around design thinking where the key words are creative, collective, and interdisciplinary. You can also google around for a more statistical picture and it all pretty much comes down to Wikipedia’s definition (summarized): design thinking is design process applied to anything under the sun.

Is this practice really what Rick Poynor is slashing through? If some guys call themselves design thinkers and start bullying everybody, should it follow that design thinking is a disease?

In my own words, design is a creative search for the best solution. It’s a solution because it is an answer to a problem, that is: a set of constraints, means and goals. It’s a search because there is no book of solutions encompassing all possible problems. It’s creative because there is no deterministic, deductive process by which to reach the solution: one has to surrender to a somewhat physical response to the situation, letting all sedimented memory and cultural experience come forth in the shape of more or less volatile ideas.

(By the way, that’s why the collective dimension of creative thinking is important: by stimulating the emergence of solutions that are produced by all but controlled by none, collective problem solving provides another way to circumnavigate the system of thought which accounts for the nature of the problem in the first place.)

Now if you integrate the principle of aesthetics in your definition of design, of course, it is difficult to abstract away a general process that can be applied to non formal stakes like management, administration and marketing. That’s a conceptual glitch that we inherit from the wide spread dialectics of “looks versus usability”, which Rick Poynor, from his visual culture home plate, endorses straightforwardly.

But if, instead, you consider that looking good is a function like any other, then all intentions (looks, usability, costs, delays…) may fit in the same string of factors whose relative weight may be determined, applied and tested. This sounds like leaving design to a computer program but no: it does not make anything simpler – it only shifts the aspect issue from a kernel position to one that is subordinate to intentions.

Rick summarizes perfectly the popular faith in good looks: “…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”. Because I find no French counterpart for this American expression I like it a lot: “Give me a break”.

Really, how can one build a life long practice on that kind of mushy superstition? I mean: just what are the properties and dynamics of “a more pleasurable and engaging experience”? How do you discuss with a client about whether the experience is just as pleasurable as it should be, or maybe a wee bit too much? How does this relate, for example, to grossly vulgar advertisements that really sell? Isn’t the issue more looking right than looking good, and is not the confusion of the two the cause for all this war of words?

As a creative director in interaction design the word is central to my practice, but for me the misunderstanding of the aesthetics issue in the overall design process results in narcissistic overflow, wishful creating, and antagonizing clients. The job of the designer is to make things work, whatever the stakes (selling is only one of them), and pretending otherwise is an invitation for other trades, unashamedly bent on achieving results, to take over. Arguing that strategists are lousy at making things look good only fuels their case – and sneering that strategies will not be exhibited in museums one hundred years from now naturally substantiates accusations that designers are frustrated artists.

I like one of Paul Hoppe’s illustration of the article (in its original I.D. publication) very much:

© Paul Hoppe

The message is clear: the product that’s more designed than others is easily recognizable but it also works better – there is no hint here that the efficiency gain is due to a pleasurable experience. On the contrary, there is simply more intelligence in the output and the looks of it are a byproduct of this intelligence. Could it be that we just like how clever things look?

There is abundant literature discussing the fact that an optimally simple and relevant solution bears an intrinsic elegance that shows. That this elegance has an aesthetic value on some intellectual plane is without question, and it can be pleasing to the eye, too, if the result is of material nature. But that’s not what Rick Poynor refers to when he talks about visual appeal.

The aesthetic quality of a chair or of a poster is established, at least partly, on a less abstract front – the perceptual level. The fact that these two formal qualities (logical and visual) are distinct is best illustrated by the familiar example of a terrifically looking object that serves its originating purpose very badly, being in this case rather inelegant with respect to intrinsic relevance.

Graphic design is where these two dimensions mix in the most confusing way. That’s probably what we like about it – the fact that graphic designers apply design intelligence to aesthetics itself. But it must not make us forget that this is a special case of the process. And that’s what this is about, a process.

We can draw an interesting parallel here, circling back to the author’s paper, which is that innovation falls in the same class of duality problem. The self appointed design thinkers who suggest that there is a paradigm shift in replacing prettiness by innovation are heading for a sad realization. To work better, yes, but to look new is not sustainable. If all products live by the same race for newness the approach may yield some bumps in the sales charts, but compared to products that actually work better they will loose ground sooner or later (with comparable advertisement budgets, of course).

Innovation for the sake of stamping *NEW* on the box is not added value, as everybody knows – it is just a subclass of communication, where the goal is to stand out from the context in which we speak up, to be heard. Design thinkers who are preaching this kind of innovation are selling disruption – they are talking advertisement. Nothing new in fact, just an old trade reaching for some of this design fad that’s all the rage.

But even then, completing this inventory of, in my opinion, wrong reasons for a just cause, does it follow that we should demonize commerce? Rick Poynor has a beautiful sentence about that: “…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”.

This, too, is a familiar debate, much too big to fit in a couple of blog paragraphs. Any force can be abusive or productive – nuclear, political, military… Likewise, commerce can be fair and make a lot of people’s life easier, while it can also foster destructive consuming habits and dishonest selling strategies. Commerce, by definition, is only the principle of exchange, and it can’t be dissociated from human social organization. But there will always be some irresponsible marketers ready to do just about anything in order to increase their sales.

Which is the better world? The one with good designers handling commercial communication and trying to leverage quality branding with design intelligence, or the one where designers turn their backs on the merchants of the temple and let them deal with their own marketing soup? As with design thinking, refuted by Rick Poynor because of bad design thinkers’ behavior, should marketing be damned because of ruthless marketers (even though these two words sound admittedly redundant)?

To be perfectly honest, I could be accused of hypocrisy here since most of my contracts have historically come from the culture sphere – museums, ministries of Culture, of Education, of Research, publishers, events, schools, etc, with projects usually dedicated to culture, art and science. But humility has been beaten in my bones by 20 years of desperately low client intelligence bandwidth – not that interactive communication clients are particularly stupid, but they are predictably (even) less knowledgeable in this entropic field, which has been undergoing constant redefinition from the start. And, in truth, when I have the choice I’d rather work on the interactive showcase of a new car than, say, revamp the internet outpost of a museum, where everybody involved in the project seems to be illuminated by the holiness of the task but no one has any idea of exactly what we’re trying to achieve, let alone how to check if we did achieve it. I end up scanning briefs for the word “ROI”. Is this a greener side issue? Could be, but then it works both ways.

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Thus, to conclude… In my opinion, there is an arguable case for design thinking and it’s not a threat to designers in general, not even to graphic designers in particular. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to revisit the notions of aesthetics and innovation and lay out a clearer picture of the whole design value system. Doing so, we will undermine the rationale of those who try to pit strategy against looks, and we will preserve the essential value of the designer’s savoir-faire.

But this only stands if we agree that design is about making things work, all other considerations following from that axiom – including visual experience.

[visuel d’en-tête © Microsoft Office]

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