Stealing the soul of design

by Andy Polaine on April 12, 2007

There’s a great piece by Rick Poynor in Icon called The Soul of Design in which he de-bunks many of the management consultant myths and misunderstanding about design. He brilliantly takes apart the over exclamation marked, Tom Peters and one of his ‘cool friends’, Virginia Postrel.

In many respects I am glad to see management and ‘business’ (an abstraction that I’ve never really come to grips with – what does that actually mean?) seeing the value of design and creative thought. If they want to frame it as the ‘creative economy’, that’s okay by me. What I do take issue with is the idea that they’ve discovered anything new and that many of the Peter’s ilk appear to not actually engage designers (and other creative professionals) in this process and discussion.

The same has been going on in education as well – many of the shifts in ideas of pedagogy have been towards process and collaboration instead of learning facts and sitting written exams. You see it in all areas from mathematics, hard sciences through to engineering and music, art and design educators can offer a wealth of experience in this area. But most of the time they’re not asked about it. The same is going on in a lot of corporate areas it seems.

It all reminds me of the dotcom boom somewhat, when all the consultancy companies (many of who are accountants and auditors) got into the whole e-Experience and digital strategy. They were talking absolute nonsense most of the time from the meetings I had to endure in those days.

There’s a real danger in having design and creative processes being claimed by those without a background in it as Poynor points out:

The more design is seen as a magic ingredient with the power to melt away customer resistance and win undying loyalty to the brand, the more it seems in danger of losing what consultants who dream of wheelbarrows laden with gold like to call its “soul”. This will have profound consequences for the way we think about design and what we expect it to do for us, and this can already be seen in the views of design promoted at an institutional level.

Poynor points out the naked emperor with regards to Ralph Ardill’s essays on experience design on the Design Council’s website. From Poynor:

This kind of baloney must go down a treat with clients. It might even sound acceptable when we are talking about other people rather than ourselves. But you only have to put yourself in the picture to see what’s wrong with it. No one with an independent point of view and an ounce of self-respect wants to hear that his or her thoughts, feelings and behaviour are being nudged and even determined by other people who have gathered in meeting rooms to research, plot and calibrate exactly those desired responses.

It’s great to see design and creativity being valued, let’s not let it become de-valued again by just being the new, new thing.

(Thanks to Niclas for the heads up on the article).

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bob Jacobson April 14, 2007 at 9:02 pm

I think Poyner is a romantic, hearkening back to a Golden Age of purist design that, if it occurred at all, lasted probably only until the pure designer encountered a client.

Especially in terms of experience design, Poyner’s lament about people in committees determining how other people should experience things is noble but comes about thirty millennia too late. Let’s not call it design, let’s call it religion and the same persuasive invention is being foisted on abject Cro Magnons — magical hunting murals in caves, burial rites, mythologies about the cosmos, etc.

An approach to dubious or domineering design, more practical than a wale in the darkness, is to understand, critique, and alter or counter the experience design processes that are initiated constantly, not just by designers, with the intent to shape others’ perceptions and actions. Idealism has its place, but few idealists change the world for the better. That’s for the street fighters to accomplish.

2 Andy Polaine April 15, 2007 at 2:28 pm

Bob, I agree that Poynor is a design purist of sorts, although whether that makes him a romantic or not I’m not so sure.

I agree that experience design (a phrase which I don’t really like) is a world apart from the lone designer/artist/Great Talent that Poynor may be referring to, as is much design thinking and processes from the past.

Paul Rand, described design as being ‘a personal activity, where collaboration is more likely to hinder than enhance an individual designer’s thought process’ – That was in 1993, so a decade and a half later that is totally out of date and, I would argue, already outdated when he wrote it.

My point about the Poynor article was more that there are plenty of people working in creative industries (to use another phrase I’m not keen on – sigh) that have a great deal to offer the business consultancy arena. By and large design is being heralded as some kind of new find by many of those folk, which simply isn’t the case. Holding design up as being some kind of magic bullet brings up the same issues that always devalue design (and other creative professions) – i.e., that it’s easy and that anyone can do it given the right tools and talent. That’s a particularly West Coast American approach to design too.

Decent design takes hard work and discipline as much as anything else. It also succeeds best when it’s completely integrated, not just a magic topping, which is why so much Scandinavian design is so successful.

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