In a post for Design Observer, my colleague Michael Bierut asked what turned out to be a surprisingly provocative question: “What is the relationship of bullshit and design?” Bierut was inspired by the astonishing success of On Bullshit, a slender little volume by Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. Public enthusiasm for the book, first presented as a lecture 20 years ago, suggests that the quantity of bullshit in our culture is an issue that preoccupies many people.
Bierut had some startling confessions for anyone nursing the idea that a bullshitter is not the most positive thing to be. “Early in my life as a designer,” he said, referring to his student days, “I acquired a reputation as a good bullshitter.” The Pentagram partner expressed the view that every client presentation was “inevitably, at least in part, an exercise in bullshit.” It was clear, even in these opening remarks (the online discussion, in which I participated, ran on and on) that Bierut was using the word “bullshit” in a particular way. “The design process,” he noted, “always combines the pursuit of functional goals with countless intuitive, even irrational decisions.” Bullshit was the kind of explanation offered to clients to explain these intuitions. Simply admitting, “I don’t know, I just like it that way” would be unlikely to do the job because most clients need to hear something that sounds like a rational justification.
This struck a chord with many designers who responded to Bierut’s post. “Bullshit is one essential part of the selling process, particularly at the stage where we are trying to sell the idea to the client,” ran a typical remark. A design educator, Greg Hay, said he tried to make his students realize that “the best artists are not necessarily the ones with the best talent or work . . . they are invariably the ones who bullshit the best.”
The odd thing about the way people kept using the word was that they seemed to disregard the basic dictionary definition. Merriam-Webster online defines the noun as “nonsense” or “foolish insolent talk.” As a verb, to bullshit means “to talk nonsense to especially with the intention of deceiving or misleading.” There is no dispute among lexicographers about the meaning of bullshit. Robert Chapman’s New Dictionary of American Slang has: “nonsense; pretentious talk; bold and deceitful absurdities.”
This is all rather damning, but the collective view of design bullshit, as it emerged on Design Observer, was much more tolerant and forgiving. “Bullshit is not necessarily bad and can function quite well in the design process until someone decides to call it,” Bierut said as the argument unfolded. I began to suspect that my own distaste for bullshit, grounded in the dictionary definition, was more severe than that of many designers, especially those who had come to regard a degree of bullshit as an inescapable part of dealing with clients. Bierut pointed out that “charlatans have long been viewed with something verging on affection in American culture” and someone else mentioned the snake-oil salesman as a quintessential American character.
Whichever way you look at it, though, a too-ready acceptance of the idea of bullshit spells problems for design. From the way the word was bandied about, it seemed that any explanation dealing with the intangible aesthetic aspects of designing ran the risk of being written off as bullshit. Using the word as a lazy synonym for rationalization does intellectual damage to design, suggesting that “fancy talk” offered in support of a design decision will always be suspect, no matter how apt or well-intentioned.
In fact, the meaning of bullshit is much more specific. The bullshitter speaks purely for effect. He cares only about the way his words influence the listener. For this reason, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than an outright lie. The liar knows and accepts the truth but chooses to deny it. The bullshitter couldn’t care less whether what he says is true or not.
Referring to the use of so-called bullshit in client meetings, Bierut notes the “desire to conceal one’s private intentions in the service of the larger goal: getting your client to do it the way you like.” But is this really bullshit? What, after all, is being concealed? It must be obvious to the client that the designer is trying to win acceptance for the design proposal. That’s a given. It must further be obvious that anything the designer says, any rationale offered, has this aim in view. The designer would be guilty of misleading the client — of bullshitting — only if he knew that his preference would not serve the project’s purpose and might even harm it, but he chose to hide this and make a case for it anyway.
It’s quite possible that this happens all the time, though not a single designer owned up to such irresponsible behavior in the Design Observer discussion. However, if a designer sincerely believes that his preferences will serve a project’s aims, then bullshit is the wrong word to describe any rationale used to support them. Moreover, it is inevitable, given the subjective component of so much design, that designers will sometimes realize only later why their intuitions were appropriate. “If you made something red because ‘it felt right’ and later realized that it evokes worker solidarity or sexual abandon or fire trucks or hot sauce,” writes Gunnar Swanson, “it is neither lying nor abandoning truth to say ‘the color red does x.’” Exactly.
What tended to be overlooked in this discussion was the far more serious problem of the pervasiveness of bullshit in our culture. If designers can accept bullshit as part of their working experience, as a selling technique they might legitimately use on clients, then how scrupulous are they about having a hand in communications that contribute to the avalanche of bullshit in advertising, commercial promotion, and the media? Frankfurt certainly believes that there is a connection between the two phenomena.
“The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept,” he writes. Frankfurt points out that these areas are staffed by “exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen” — designers, art directors, photographers, copywriters — who work tirelessly to perfect every word and image. If people are drawn to Frankfurt’s unlikely best-seller, it’s because contemporary life splatters them with bullshit and they want to know why. Bierut asked the right question: What is the relationship between design and bullshit? But by taking a purely professional view, he approached the issue from the less significant side.
Any sign of tolerance for bullshit in public life should concern us. The last thing we can afford is to view the bullshitter indulgently as a source of amusement. In communication, as in all our social relationships, there has to be a basis for trust, and trust is grounded in a sense of what is real or unreal, reliable or unreliable, true or false. Those who aim to create an effect on the listener or viewer without regard for the truth of what they say contribute to a climate of vagueness and confusion that eats into everything. The willingness to switch off our bullshit detectors and go with the flow of verbiage, nonsense, dubious claims and even falsehoods shows that the bullshit habit is dulling our critical faculties and blunting our instinctive sense of why honesty and accuracy matter. Lost in a haze of wishful thinking, we can have no sensible basis for action, no way of making a rational choice. Bullshit leads only to even more bullshit.
When words become overfamiliar, it’s easy to take them for granted. This seems to have happened to bullshit, especially when it’s reduced to the milder-sounding B.S. So imagine yourself in a field where cattle are grazing. You trip over a clod of earth and fall headlong into a deposit on the ground. This is our subject. There is nothing sweet-smelling about it.
This essay was first published in Print, September/October 2005. It is unavailable on the Print website and is republished here under the magazine’s original title. It was reprinted in Looking Closer Five: Critical Writings on Graphic Design (Allworth Press, 2006) edited by Michael Bierut, William Drenttel & Steven Heller.