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Poor Design(ers)

If you’ve got half a mind to be an editor, that’s all you need.
October 5, 2007

Pardon the interruption. Between technical, logistical, and temporal conflicts, I’ve been remiss. For example, I had to finish up this piece for the Financial Times, which was kind of fun because it’s not often that something I write provokes critical comment from the President of the Royal Society. What can I say? His response affirmed my essential point: scientists are every bit as vested in their expertise as lawyers and lobbyists. Remember that delightfully cynical George Bernard Shaw line? All professions are conspiracies against the laity …

Which is a natural transition for yet another piece I wrote for someone else, except this essay-lette was cavalierly canceled at the last moment. It was originally for Business Week (notice the absence of a link) and describes my brief tenure as a judge for the Industrial Design Society of America’s global design competition.

I confess that I had a hoot of a time and learned a lot–both about design and about myself. More important, I gained a very keen insight into the way that great design does–and does not–align with great innovation. You’re fully welcome to disagree (this was originally written in July), just as did Lord Rees. But if you do disagree, please make a better argument.

Serving on a criminal jury exposes one to unpleasant realities about the legal system and human nature. Serving on a design jury, on the other hand, merely exposes you to unpleasant truths about corporate innovation and creative talent.

Much to my surprise, being a design juror gave me a far more useful and revealing glimpse into pop culture than a criminal trial. The experience radically altered my perceptions–and preconceptions–of how designers design and what “good design” really means. I literally do not look at “designed” objects or services the same way anymore. Neither would you.

I am not a designer. Nevertheless, I was asked to serve as a juror on the Industrial Design Society of America’s prestigious International Design Excellence Awards. Apparently, my research on innovative prototyping, along with my work with design-oriented innovators, made my participation appealing. My fellow jurors were a global mix of world-class designers from industry and academe. They were uniformly smart, talented, articulate, and passionate about great design. Here was their chance–here was our chance–to examine hundreds of submissions from around the world and select the very best examples of great design. What a fantastic opportunity.

I thought I’d have a terrific time kicking back, listening and learning how designers drew distinctions between the mediocre and the magnificent. Instead, what I discovered were profound–and angry–disagreements over the very essence of design value. For example, a hardcore group of jurors took a hard-line approach that great design was what resonated with their design sensibilities. They took an unabashedly, unashamedly elitist view that their training, experience, and professionalism gave them special insights into greatness. They were ardent and articulate champions of their choices.

On the other side, an equally adamant faction emphasized that excellence was better measured by how well customers and users were integrated into the design process. Great designs were designs that real people felt great about using and experiencing. The “design populists” argued that the elegance so valued by the elitists shouldn’t trump the importance of users in defining value. Yes, voices were raised; designers are passionate people.

Provocative arguments swirled around the importance of design interfaces, accessibility, and ease of use. A majority of the jurors agreed that usability was an integral part of great design but merely one of many factors to judge. A vociferous minority insisted that ease of use and accessibility are what truly drives great design in this postindustrial Google era. You couldn’t predict where the populists or elitists would fall on this issue.

Unsurprisingly, world-class designers believe that design is a medium and method with which to change the world for the better. So several heated conversations revolved around what kind of “message” a jury ward might send about a) the environment, b) sustainability, c) children’s education, d) safety, etc. Corporate designers who were exquisitely sensitive to the issue of brand as an organizing business-design principle had friendly quarrels with the independent designers who saw design as a medium to redefine or revolutionize brand perceptions.

By far the most striking revelation for me was the collective designer obsession with detail. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “God is in the details” or “The devil is in the details”? This design jury had heaven and earth covered. You can talk “brand” or “vision” or “concept” or “insight” or “elegance” until you’re blue in the face, but world-class designers care about how those ideals are expressed in the details. Something that I would dismiss as a niggling detail the designers would say revealed the essential point they were trying to make. Great design is about the ordering and intention of details that you can–or aren’t supposed to–see and feel.

Yes, the Big Idea matters enormously. But world-class designers insist that the matrices and arrays of little details reflect and respect the Big Idea. By the fifth or sixth hour of deliberations, I realized that I could never be a designer. For me, precision of detail is a means to an end. For a designer, the precision is both a means and the end. That’s what “design integrity” means to a design professional. That’s why the arguments over usability vs. elegance vs. accessibility were so intense. These were battles over integrity.

Integrity is a terrific value to fight about. That helps explain why so many entrepreneurs and executives find designers naive idealists who refuse to understand the trade-offs that business demands. However, it also explains the sustainable successes of Steve Jobs and design-centric companies like Bang & Olufsen. Design integrity may not be essential to innovation success, but it holds the undeniable power to be transformational.

My verdict: it’s easier for a criminal jury to reach consensus around guilt or innocence than for a design jury to find a majority around great design. For some reason, I find that exhilarating.

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