Designers Suck?

No they don’t suck, but my wife might say otherwise with me! Bruce Nussbaum, of Business Week fame, decided that “designers suck” during his recent presentation at Parsons New School of Design.

What started as a NextD email me asking what I thought about this blog post written by Bruce Nussbaum from business week titled “Are Designers the Enemy of Design?”, turned out to be something that I would have responded too anyway. This article, a written form of his speech, was a powerful one that touched on many of the undercurrents in the design industry today.
However this presentation, to eager to learn students, contains a few issues here that are over generalizations, probably made by a lack of real understanding in the nuances of a design profession.
1) Bruce’s comparison of what is considered design is so simplistic that it reminds me of the age old discussion of what makes an Amateur vs. a Professional.

…the design of our music experiences, the design of our MySpace pages, the design of our blogs, the design of our clothes, the design of our online community chats, the design of our Class of ‘95 brochures, the design of our screens, the design of the designs on our bodies—We are all designing more of our lives.

It’s like saying, “I designed blog template thus I am a web designer”, “Picasso’s cubes is something even I could do”, or “I write this blog therefore I am a journalist just like Bruce”? Yes we are all designing more today, but are we professionals?
The discussion continues to discuss “design democracy” and about getting customers into the design process to design their own products with designers. Designers ARE already doing this. Other than the boutique lifestyle designers, I don’t think there are many successful designers still working in the ivory tower. Market research, user scenario development, open forum discussions, focus groups, user case studies, all examples of participatory design.
But news flash, “design democracy” or participatory design is not a free range chicken, it needs to be managed and managed well. You need to filter out the noise, and people are only good at telling you what they don’t like, empty vessels shout the loudest etc. Any designer with a strong background in research will know, “design democracy” is only part of the equation. True innovation still needs to come from deep inside the mind of a designer after synthesizing all the data in his/her melon. No I’m not saying only designers can do real design. No far from that, what I am saying is designers have to training and tools to do the RIGHT design. And that is where products such as the Palm Pilot, Apple iPhone, Motorola Razer came from.
2) Designers are not getting away from this discussion scott free. Designers have long been very poor in communicating complex design concepts and theories to non-designers. As a result people view designers as these “gods” sitting on their high horse and ivory towers, un-compromising, difficult to work with, and just down right SUCK. Well as you can see it’s not so much about protecting one’s job, but it’s about communicating to the misunderstood or the less informed.
Perhaps this to me, is more important than this whole business “trend” bandwagon that all the business schools seem to be jumping on. Really if designers can better communicate their work and thoughts, I think there will be less of a need for managers to go to school to learn to be a designer.
So what good can come out of democratizing of design? First participation can inspire designs, and secondly it pushes designers to push themselves to do great work. However I don’t think “democratizing design” is only about people who want to get involved in the design process or “to design their lives”. In fact my view of “democratizing design” stems from the birth of the Pro-sumer. They are consumers so aware and knowledgeable about the products they buy, they can tell you everything thing about your product, even things you never knew. Thus these clever consumers are starting to dictate what they want instead of accepting the junk already in the market. Life as a designer will get more difficult, and companies focusing on design has re-invent to survive
3) Towards the end Bruce implies designers suck because they are not Green focused? I can bet you good money that there are no designers out there today who does not know their impact to the environment. My god it’s like a broken record, this blame the designer nonsense. Well perhaps this rant was targeted to the 1% of the designing population with titles like Vice President, Design, or Chief Design Officer?
Honestly don’t blame designers, but really it’s hard for anyone who has not worked in the design industry to see this. To me the real blame lies with the companies designers work for. As long as there are very few designers in the boardroom all this ranting and raving is going nowhere as it does not apply to 99% of the design population who have very little say in such matters.
Ultimately being a designer is a profession, it puts food on the table or feed the kids. And if you are struggling designer looking for work, would you say No to a company with a less than perfect environment record, or get hired, get fed and be an agent of change when the time is right?

8 Comments
  • Jon

    March 27, 2007 at 2:03 am Reply

    Hmmmmm….sounds like you and I are on the same page with this one.
    http://www.aialone.com/pivot/entry.php?id=437

  • Design Translator

    March 27, 2007 at 8:33 am Reply

    Nice one Jon, nice one.
    My concerns are, judging from the comments, the business people, students from Parsons, actually do listen and read such articles especially if it comes from Business Week. The problem is their (BW) articles are factually correct but skewered in the wrong direction.
    I think they need to get some people onboard that have a design background, to actually get some cred, but then again Business Week is a business mag.
    Nice write up, you explained a few more things I missed out.

  • john trenouth

    March 31, 2007 at 12:51 am Reply

    Its important to put things in perspective. Bruce is a journalist. He is not a designer. As a journalist his job is to make a bunch of noise and attract a lot of attention in order to move more papers. Journalists do this by riding the trend, and then by riding the backlash, amplifying both. Generally speaking Bruce doesn’t know what he is talking about in terms of design.
    Here’s an analogy. Who would you turn to for insights into movie making: Roger Ebert or Steven Spielberg? The guy who watches a lot of movies, or the guy who makes, writes, directs, and produces a lot of movies?
    That said, Bruce’s point here is spot on: designers are their own worst enemies. From our frequent obsessions with the trivial to our general inability to define our profession in some meaningful way, our problems go a lot deeper than a mere inability to communicate ideas.
    The barrier to entry in this field is very very low, and the results are obvious in the general professional quality of people calling themselves “designer.”
    After more than a decade in this business we still haven’t got our professional act together, and its a matter that frequently drives me crazy.

  • Design Translator

    March 31, 2007 at 6:49 am Reply

    Hi John, good to see you again its been awhile.
    I think thats the point I was trying to make with out coming right out in saying it. My analogy about being a blogger thinking I am a Journalist is a good example. But the annoying part is as you hit it on the nail which is the spin Bruce tend to put behind things, and the fact that people are lapping him up.
    And yes you are right as we are not totally blame free, but hey thats what make use all so interesting right! Heh-heh.

  • Mario Vellandi

    March 31, 2007 at 2:39 pm Reply

    The rift between business and design has existed a while, and a lot comes down to cultural misunderstanding. Bruce is blowing his horn from his side of the table, making some broad generalizations crafted partly with disdain…This is editorial material after all. Not a well-balanced thought piece, especially for a blog.

  • Design Translator

    March 31, 2007 at 3:15 pm Reply

    Good point Mario, I think with his employer Business Week, he needs to be on one side of the discussion. But it looks like he is trying to play both sides, though difficult as he has very little respect by designers.
    However the situation is sort of reverse, many designers are getting savvy with business concepts and can speak business jargon with the best, so I dont see why business managers or writers dabbling in design dont take the effort or see it that way?

  • Spunk! Studio

    April 6, 2007 at 2:59 am Reply

    Actually ‘design translator’ says it all. We are bilingual maestros adapt at translating clients ideas, briefs, formulations, studies, research, tastes, programs, statistics and ego into a coherent context that we can shape into reality. However, a good sign is: many singapore client side personnel ARE starting to understand design as a important and integral part of their marketing and biz development program. We’ll just have to be patient and wait for the older generation (read: stiffs with antediluvian mentalities) to die out naturally.

  • Design Translator

    April 6, 2007 at 8:45 am Reply

    Great insight in the “maestros” its almost like that. The skill it takes to pull it all together is amazing. Thats the beef I have with critics who have no experience in such matters, and that is simple apprecieation of what it really takes.

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