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Michael Bierut

On (Design) Bullshit


In Concert of Wills, the fascinating 1997 documentary on the building of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, architect Richard Meier is beset on all sides by critics and carpers: homeowners who don't want the Center's white buildings ruining their views, museum administrators who worry that the severe stone benches will be uncomfortable, curators who want traditional molding on the gallery walls. The magisterial Meier takes them all in stride, until one moment that is the hold-your-breath climax of the film.

The client, against Meier's advice, has brought in artist Robert Irwin to create the Center's central garden. The filmmakers are there to record the unveiling of Irwin's proposal, and Meier's distaste is evident. The artist's bias for whimsical organic forms, his disregard for the architecture's rigorous orthonography, and perhaps even his Detroit Tigers baseball hat all rub Richard Meier the wrong way, and he and his team of architects begin a reasoned, strongly-felt critique of the proposed plan. Irwin, sensing (correctly, as it turns out) that he has the client in his pocket, listens patiently and then says, "You want my response?"

His response is the worst accusation you can lodge against a designer: "Bullshit."

This single word literally brings the film to a crashing halt: a very long fifteen seconds of dead silence follows, broken at last by an awkward offscreen suggestion that perhaps on this note the meeting should end, which it does.

What is the relationship of bullshit and design?

In asking this question, I am of course aware that bullshit has become a subject of legitimate inquiry these days with the popularity of Harry G. Frankfurt's slender volume, On Bullshit. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, is careful to distinguish bullshit from lies, pointing out that bullshit is "not designed primarily to give its audience a false belief about whatever state of affairs may be the topic, but that its primary intention is rather to give its audience a false impression concerning what is going on in the mind of the speaker."

It follows that every design presentation is inevitably, at least in part, an exercise in bullshit. The design process always combines the pursuit of functional goals with countless intuitive, even irrational decisions. The functional requirements — the house needs a bathroom, the headlines have to be legible, the toothbrush has to fit in your mouth — are concrete and often measurable. The intuitive decisions, on the other hand, are more or less beyond honest explanation. These might be: I just like to set my headlines in Bodoni, or I just like to make my products blobby, or I just like to cover my buildings in gridded white porcelain panels. In discussing design work with their clients, designers are direct about the functional parts of their solutions and obfuscate like mad about the intuitive parts, having learned early on that telling the simple truth — "I don't know, I just like it that way" — simply won't do.

So into this vacuum rushes the bullshit: theories about the symbolic qualities of colors or typefaces; unprovable claims about the historical inevitability of certain shapes, fanciful forced marriages of arbitrary design elements to hard-headed business goals. As Frankfurt points out, it's beside the point whether bullshit is true or false: "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction." There must only be the desire to conceal one's private intentions in the service of a larger goal: getting your client it to do it the way you like it.

Early in my life as a designer, I acquired a reputation as a good bullshitter. I remember a group assignment in design school where the roles were divided up. The team leader suggested that one student make the models, another take the photographs, and, finally, "Michael here will handle the bullshitting." This meant that I would do talking at the final critique, which I did, and well. I think I mastered this facility early because I was always insecure about my intuitive skills, not to mention my then-questionable personal magnetism. Before I could commit to a design decision, I needed to have an intellectual rationale worked out in my mind. I discovered in short order that most clients seemed grateful for the rationale as well. It put aside arguments about taste; it helped them make the leap of faith that any design decision requires; it made the design understandable to wider audiences. If pressed, however, I'd still have to admit that even my most beautifully wrought, bulletproof rationales still fit Harry Frankfurt's definition of bullshit.

Calling bullshit on a designer, then, stings all the more because it contains an element of accuracy. In Concert of Wills, Richard Meier is shown privately seething after Robert Irwin drops the b-word. "For one person to say," he tells the camera, "I want my object, I want my piece, to be more important than the larger landscape of the city...that my individual artwork is the controlling determinant, makes me furious, just makes me angry beyond belief." Of course, that same accusation could be leveled against Meier himself, who out of necessity had been nothing if not single-minded and obstinate during the endless process of designing and building the Getty. The difference is that each of Meier's victories was hard-won, with endless acres of negotiating, reasoning, and you-know-what expended in the process of winning over the project's army of stakeholders. On the other hand, Robert Irwin, flaunting intuition and impulse as his first, last and only argument, required no compensating bullshit: he's the artist, and that's the way the artist likes it. Can you blame Meier for finding this maddening?

Every once in a while, however, there is satisfaction to be had when design bullshit attains the level of art. I remember working years ago with a challenging client who kept rejecting brochure designs for a Francophile real estate development because they "weren't French enough." I had no idea what French graphic design was supposed to look like but came up with an approach using Empire, a typeface designed by Milwaukee-born Morris Fuller Benton in 1937, and showed it to my boss, Massimo Vignelli. "That will work," he said, his eyes narrowing.

At the presentation, Massimo unveiled the new font choice with a flourish. "As you see," he said, "in this new design, we're using a typeface called Ahm-peere."

I was about to correct him when I realized he was using the French pronunciation of Empire.

The client bought it.




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Comments [81]
I love that last bit about Vignelli and the way he dealt with the awkward client. That's just so spot on, it's not funny and hilarilous at the same time.

A most fascinating piece, Mr. Bierut.
Brad Brooks
05.09.05
03:34

Thank you for articulating the value of my one and only skill retained from design school. I was told by a team mate once, while working on a valuation project, that I couldn't finesse a presentation based on excel spreadsheets, it was finance not design. I believe he used the term finesse to mean bullshit.
niti bhan
05.09.05
03:58

I love it! That is my favorite part of that film... In fact, I tell every designer I know about "Wills" and about that part in particular - what a great insight into the design process.

Funnily enough, a few weeks ago I was in a meeting where an art director introduced a new banding direction with "now guys, I'm not going to bullshit you..." at which point, i am pretty sure, the bullshitting began ;)
michelangelo
05.09.05
04:13

But is it really beside the point whether bullshit is true or not? Michael's discussion stops with the designer's intention and strategies for winning acceptance of a design idea, and that's fine if we are primarily concerned, as designers, with whether we can do what we like or not. But this work is for a purpose, it has a public presence and influence, and the shiny world of communication is full of bullshit, too. Maybe there is a connection between designers' habitual bullshit in client meetings and the bullshit they and their clients produce?

In any case, not every reason and justification is necessarily bullshit. Michael seems here to be dismissing every conceivable variety of visual theory and saying that it all comes down to subjective preference. If that's the case, then perhaps we don't need all those BAs, BFAs, MAs and MFAs, after all? Maybe the qualification should be a BS?

I've always valued something Gunnar Swanson said in an old issue of Emigre: "Form makes a claim and designers are responsible for the claims their work makes." As a proposition, that's about as bullshit-free as you can get. If more designers took this truth to heart and acted on it, maybe the quality of visual communication would improve and our daily experience of the media would feel less like wading through ... bovine ordure.
Rick Poynor
05.09.05
04:28

Rick, I think I would draw my blurry line somewhere at the distinction between justification based on function and justification based on aesthetics. The former is not b.s. and the latter (often) is. Gunnar's quote, which I know and like, reminds me of Kahn's interrogation of a brick (the brick famously told him it wanted to be an arch). Does form really make a claim? Or do designers make claims on form's behalf to suit their own ends?
Michael Bierut
05.09.05
05:03

How about this: perhaps a lot of this BS that goes on is the only way the client will listen and approve of what has been done. In some parts of the world, the general population is treated to art and design classes from an early age and grows up with a much more open attitude to design in general. Here in the U.S., it seems only the designers understand design and what's worse is the non-designers barely think it's necessary. Removing the BS would need removing of the notion that design is about "making things pretty" and instilling a more open and appreciative attitude toward the act of designing.
michelangelo
05.09.05
07:06

With that division between function and aesthetics in mind, I have often found all sorts of subjective after-the-fact rationale for my work to make it more "understandable" to the client, and to hopefully cement those nebulous, intuitive artefacts which would otherwise be at risk of their graphic lives.

What I'm often not sure of is that the BS is so goddamn good that I wonder if it isn't in fact true. Is it the very examination of what comes out of intuition that unearths one's true subconscious intent? Maybe our creativity is more rational than we think it is, and once the left side of the brain gets to work on the matter, order is revealed.

(This is, of course, bullshit.)
marian bantjes
05.09.05
07:10

I have see "Wills" and was reminded of it when I visited the Getty Center last February. Following a docent lead tour of the austere modern complex we came to the Irwin sculpture garden. The only thing I could think was " poor Richard Meier". Those victorian gardens complete with ornate iron work looked so out of place with his architectural statement. But then I remembered that the whole Getty Center from the freeway below sort of looks out of place in the very organic Santa Monica mountains.
leslie
05.09.05
07:36

I'm not sure but I think that the thing that y'all keep referring to as "bullshit" is in fact the field of aesthetic criticism.

It's that thing (i.e. culturally sensitive, informed formal analysis) wherein somebody says how a cultural object functions; breaks it down into its component parts; shows how they add up to the creation of meaning (i.e. value) for the perceiver and hence the client.

I guess you guys (and Marion) are calling it "bullshit" because that kind of talk never really shows up in graphic design publications, blogs, banter.

The architects have it. The artists have it. Even the industrial designers have it. Why don't graphic designers have it?

This might explain the difference between graphic design and the fine arts. The fine arts have aesthetic critics; designers seem content with bullshit.

Designers: bullshit artists?
boris
05.09.05
08:46

Michael, I think Gunnar meant something different with his suggestion that "form makes a claim". It's not that form makes a claim on the designer, "asking" to be fashioned in a particular way, like Kahn's brick. It's that form, once it is out there in the world, makes a claim on behalf of the product/service/client that it represents. In that capacity it can tell the truth or it can lie.

The distinction between lying and bullshitting just clouds the issue. If someone is bullshitting -- saying something for effect irrespective of the reality of a situation -- they are certainly not paying careful attention to the truth and a truthful outcome is unlikely.

Boris, aesthetic criticism is not entirely neglected in design. Your dismissal is too sweeping just as Michael was too sweeping in his implication that any kind of aesthetic theory is necessarily bullshit. If that were really the case, then there would be no basis on which to teach graphic design. The challenge is to distinguish between valid forms of theory and criticism and real bullshit. (These issues have been discussed on Design Observer here and here.) There is a fundamental distinction between thinking that genuinely informs the creation of a work and rationalisations produced to impress and persuade a client after the event. However, fullscale theorising "after the fact", conducted outside the meeting room, is an essential task for any mature, self-aware discipline, including design.
Rick Poynor
05.10.05
06:04

I've taught what essentially is creative conceptualization at Columbia College in Chicago for a number of years as an adjunct. Amongst everything else, there are two things I try to get them to realize. First, perceive yourself as a artist/project yourself as an artist/conduct your craft like an artist. Second, the best artists are not necesssarily the ones with the best talent or work... they are invariably the ones who bullshit the best.

Since most do not want to believe me, at a couple of random points during the semester, I will take one of the student's pinned-up roughs and wax poetic about various points and rationales. I do this either before knowing the student's own concepts, or just plain ignoring their original concepts. I do this so that they realize that they have to learn to vocalize their thought process, and preferrably in a fashion a non-artist can understand. And if you make it sound good, most anyone will buy it (except another good bullshitter).

How many times have many of us seen a painting/sculpture/installation where we just look at it, perhaps even study it, trying to discern the artist's intents, and still say "That piece is just crap"? Yet someone important thought it was brilliant. That artist probably wrote a brilliant artist's statement about the piece, or did an entire dissertation on the psychology behind his/her "emerald green monkey spunk" series of paintings.

That said, and even though I can do it fairly readily, I do think there are many strong strands of truth throughout the vital elements of bullshit. Bullshitting accomplishes a number of helpful things. It helps get team members on the same pages (or hopefully at least in the same book). It helps validate what we do for a living to non-designers, especially when most of us have problems articulating what we do to the lay person. It justifies asking for $100+/hr when Kinko's charges $15/hr for template design. It helps the clients, who often really don't understand the importance of what we do, feel good about spending the money on that design-thingy-thing.

Most importantly though, I believe that on an individual basis, if we, as artist, are able to bullshit early and well, it reminds us to keep re-focusing on the one core element that defines good/great work.

Concept.

It is damn hard to bullshit well if you don't have a concept.
Greg Hay
05.10.05
06:59

We've all been there when forced to justify something in front of a client. Hopefully current and up-and-coming designers can be more informed and erudite when it comes to explaining the intrinsic importance of emotion and aesthetics within the design process. Resorting to speaking in a 'foreign language' to instruct or 'BS' a client doesn't do anyone any favours.

There is a growing body of research and writing in this field which should be used by designers to inform their work and their clients. Sole reliance on 'designer's intuition' in todays information-drenched and globally-connected world seems so, er, twentieth century. Ce n'est pas?
Andrew Haig
05.10.05
07:37

Greg, you seem to be proud of your ability to bullshit so I hope you'll take it as a compliment when I say that this is a great piece of bullshit.

It doesn't clarify any of these issues. It muddies them. The reason your students don't want to believe you, I would guess, is that they are holding on to some notion of truth. They don't want to believe that the activity they are involved in is as cynical, manipulative and ultimately meaningless as you make it sound.

It is entirely reasonable that students learn to talk about their thought processes. Yet you equate this activity with bullshit. You sidestep the issue of whether the notional "monkey spunk" paintings are any good. All that matters is that the bullshit makes them sound good and that the artist hoodwinked everyone with a great line of bullshit. You use the term so indiscriminately that it becomes meaningless (that's bullshit, all right) and even concepts, which you say you value, exist only to generate a more persuasive line in bullshit.
Rick Poynor
05.10.05
07:52

All I know is that without the "art of Bullshitting" most of us would have never passed any college English class, Psychology class or Philosophy class (especially the writing assignments....) Myself included.
As a designer, I find it harder to BS my way through explaining my work. There has to be a solid concept there, and a good design to begin with.
It is really hard to pull "something" out of "nothing" right?
Stacy Rausch
05.10.05
10:17

Let's see if I have this right.

Michael is at one end of the scale: ideas be damned; thought equals vacuous pomposity, in short, lies. Rick is at the other: graphic design must have its critics, it must have ideas, it must have educators; right, it must. And the rest of us, more or less, are in the middle, though Michael's side seems to have more adherents: note the number of postings which make a case for the inevitability of bullshit versus those that favor its opposite, or who are truly interested in the distinction between bullshit and informed argument.

The ideology of the bullshit artist is common enough. Americans aren't supposed to be sophisticated: land of Lincoln and all that. We've been selling snake oil since we got off the boat. More topically, Michael's BS paean echoes, in its way, Steven Heller's well known, aw-shucks, good ol' boy, anti-intellectualism. It's the low-brow, high end of the field. With a certain degree of success, one no longer needs big words, arguments, facts, charisma alone seals the deal.

In the end, Rick, I'm not so sure that the field has all that much of the much discussed aesthetic criticism. Aesthetic criticism must be formal criticism, rooted in the question of how the object is what it is, how it functions, etc., and it must be cultural, which is to say, capable of linking formal description with the cultural values that support the object and vice versa.

A glance at any given month's design magazines should be enough to make my point: lots of enthusiasm, healthy doses of homage, but not much by way of this kind of criticism. Another measure can be had in a sampling of "popular" (top selling) design books: lots of homage, again, and a great many how-to manuals, technical stuff for the kids in school. But how-to manuals, educational primers, need not necessarily to do much more than offer some suggested solutions to common design problems. (Princeton's series of Design Briefs are, I think, among the best of the best of this genre.)

Design education, in short, might and I think more often than not usually does competently accomplish the formal portion of its task without or with only passing reference to cultural concerns. (How many of us can actually explain the meaning of the phrase "form is content" with reference to an actual object?)

Designers, I think, love design more than they love culture. The trouble is, and this is your point, design is culture.




boris
05.10.05
11:08

"Bullshit."?

Bullshit?! Meier had every right to be angry.

Salesmanship, rationale, discussions of process... it's all valid, and it's something we do every day. I am constantly seeing advertisements or whatever and thinking, "wow, I would have liked to have been in the meeting to see how the suit sold that concept".

Hearing the word "bullshit" coming from someone in the fine art world is laughable. What is abstract expressionism? What is dada? Rothko? de Kooning?

How about Robert Irwin's own work? Looking at some of his work ("Mint Condition", off-white stripes on a white field; "Untitled", white boxes on a white wall, etc.) he must be quite a song 'n' dance man himself.
Andrew
05.10.05
11:38

Thanks for a provacative post, Michael. But I do see it as only that. If BS is what designers are needfully selling, then designers are really no different from investment bankers, automotobile dealers, and milk distributors, which both puts us in good company and highlights what designers do best: communicate ideas of value. Your piece was a nicely written, over-rationalized, and under-reasoned argument for design being the equivalent to other fields of sales endeavor.
Andrew Boardman
05.10.05
12:50

What a fun post Michael, some of the dialogue that follows brings me back to Adrian's post last week about IKEA and Ford poking fun at designers taking themselves too seriously.

Your post is probably a little touchy for a lot of designers because we are frequently aware of how BS creeps into our practices, especially at the creative stage. It can be difficult to verbalize why we believe our approach will be the most appropriate and successful for the task at hand, and BS can sometimes be a factor. I try to take a slightly humorous approach to a lot of my (non-identity) work; that seems to help. Humour helps me control egos (mine, clients, whomevers) and tone down the BS factor.

The links in the post are very funny too.
Ben Hagon
05.10.05
01:27

"...If that's the case, then perhaps we don't need all those BAs, BFAs, MAs and MFAs, after all? Maybe the qualification should be a BS?"

Hey, my design degree is a BS!
Anne
05.10.05
01:52

"I think I mastered this facility early because I was always insecure about my intuitive skills, not to mention my then-questionable personal magnetism. Before I could commit to a design decision, I needed to have an intellectual rationale worked out in my mind. I discovered in short order that most clients seemed grateful for the rationale as well."

I found myself in exactly the same position at school. But, as you point out in your story, sometimes it's the best way to cut through more BS. I've spent my time since school trying to keep myself on the line between BS and a well-articulated rationale, otherwise I might start believing myself when I'm alone at my desk in the middle of a design, and that's no way to grow as a designer.

That's my biggest fear: that I start bullshitting myself.

Great article, Mr. Bierut: edifying, encouraging, frightening, and telling.
Chris Rugen
05.10.05
03:17

What is "orthonography"? ("his disregard for the architecture's rigorous orthonography,") I imagine it's something to do with form, but I haven't seen this word before and couldn't find a definition.
Jerome
05.10.05
03:23

Let's not forget that bullshit surfaces the most when the design part is done. Bullshit is one essential part of the selling process, particularly at the stage where we are trying to sell the idea to a client. We are trying to reveal those characteristics that best suit his needs and may be obscure those that do not. Part of it has to do with basic selling technique, and part of it has to do with insecurity. We don't deal ( most of the time) with proof and objectivity. So many design decisions are made based on intuition and creativity and that does not sell well to the corporate suits. So we try to overrationalize our decisions to make them a hard fact and not a product of our professional judgement. Bullshit is the funnel through which we incorporate our creative decisions into the world of facts and rationality. (excuse my rusty english, please)
fgg
05.10.05
08:17

Jerome,

Nice catch. I meant "orthogonality," which is defined as "the quality of lying or intersecting at right angles." I guess I just made up a word that I assumed must exist.

Normally I'd go in and correct the original article, but given the theme, I'll let it stand as a lesson to myself.

Michael

PS Like Anne, my degree actually is a B.S. in Design.
Michael Bierut
05.10.05
09:41

Andrew, Boris and Rick have raised some really interesting issues which, despite the lighthearted tone of my original article, deserve serious comment.

I begin with a disclaimer. I'm afraid my piece has reinforced a widespread, and in my opinion, wrongheaded anti-intellectual strain in design. I know it's popular in some quarters to dismiss talking about design, writing about design, thinking about design — basically anything but actually doing design — as meaningless and self-indulgent, i.e., bullshit. I disagree, or else I wouldn't have spent so much of my life talking, writing and thinking about design.

I want to be clear, however, that after many years of practice I've become convinced that part of what designers do seems to elude analysis. Where this part comes from — and you can call it intuition, taste, genius, whatever you want — truly baffles me. I recently read Annie Murphy's book The Cult of Personality, which traces the unsuccessful attempts to measure or even explain human personality, from classical theories of "the humours" through phrenology through Rorschalk though neurobiology. At some level, she concludes, the source of human personality remains yet unknown.

An individual designer's choices seem equally mysterious. If we return to the original example, let's take Richard Meier's predilection for white buildings. (And let me take this moment to emphasize that I admire Meier and his work, and as a viewer of Concert of Wills, took his side.) In the film, Meier makes two long speeches about why white is a beautiful color, one in which he poetically defines it not as the absence of color, but as the abundance of color, and another in which he extols it as a the perfect signifier of the manmade within the natural environment.

Both speeches are articulate and persuasive. Yet I 'm convinced that neither honestly describe a thought process that Meier went through as he attempted to decide whether or not he liked white. Liking white or not doesn't appear to be a choice for Meier. The reasons he presents are entirely after the fact. Many talented architects, after all, like buildings that aren't white. So the Meier's reasons can't have any universal justification. So why does Meier like white buildings? Who knows?

So I might limit my definition of bullshit (a loaded word, to be sure: it helps to have read Professor Frankfurt's book to appreciate it in this context) as it relates to design to this: Design bullshit is any rationale that is devised to convince a reluctant client to accept a that part of a design recommendation that can not actually be defended through reason. This excludes general categories such as "thought," "ideas," "criticism" as well as much of the give-and-take that enables a designer-client relationship. I would add finally that bullshit is not necessarily bad and can function quite well in the design process until someone decides to call it.

Another Andrew comments above that artist Robert Irwin seems to trade in bullshit as much as any designer. That may be so, but what was striking in the film was the contrast between the artist, who was happily expected to traffic in intuition and strokes of genius requiring no explanation, and the designer, who seemed unable to say just do it this way because I want it this way. Had Irwin been accused of bullshit, he probably just would have smiled, not stammered. He does a lot of smiling in that film anyway.
Michael Bierut
05.10.05
10:22

I wonder whether there are some differences in the colloquial applications of the word "bullshit" between present-day American English and English English? There seems to be a very high tolerance of the idea of bullshit in many of the comments above. We have an educator encouraging his students to bullshit, a former student saying that bullshitting is essential to get through a university course, and Michael defining design bullshit, with immense latitude, as "any rationale that is devised to convince a reluctant client to accept that part of a design recommendation that cannot actually be defended through reason".

My two nearest ordinary dictionaries to hand, both British, define bullshit as "nonsense, rubbish; trivial or insincere talk or writing" (Concise Oxford) and "exaggerated or foolish talk; nonsense" (Collins). Robert Chapman's New Dictionary of American Slang defines it as "nonsense; pretentious talk; bold and deceitful absurdities". Jonathon Green's superb Cassell Dictionary of Slang has "rubbish, nonsense, lies". Bullshit entered the language as a noun with these meanings after 1910. Bullshit was used as a verb ("to confuse with false information" - Green) from the 1920s.

So anyone who is for bullshit is saying that they approve of nonsense, rubbish and even lies. The idea of "design bullshit" couldn't be more misguided and unhelpful for anyone who believes that design has a positive role to play of whatever kind. Equating well-intentioned explanation and analysis with bullshit is the most insidious kind of anti-intellectualism. If educators can't tell the difference between a student making an honest attempt to understand a subject and someone who is bullshitting their way through, then they shouldn't be teaching in a university. What we need is more rigorous thinking and greater clarity, not less.

I can only assume that in current American parlance "bullshit" has acquired a softer, forgiving, almost respectable veneer. If this is so, perhaps it reflects a culture that is giving up on thinking, careful reflection and a commitment to accuracy and truth. On this side of the Atlantic, the last thing you want to be seen as is a bullshitter. It means you are a fool and a fake.
Rick Poynor
05.11.05
05:27

Rick, again, my taking off point for the article was Harry Frankfurt's essay, in which he says at the outset, "we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves...In other words, we have no theory."

The most useful definition Frankfurt can find, and which he uses to ground the first part of his discussion, is a definition not of bullshit but of humbug that he attributes to a Max Black. This is: "deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes."

I was ready to dismiss your comparision of UK and US attitudes toward bullshit as needlessly sweeping and provocative, when I remembered a New York Times story on the recent UK elections headlined "War Takes Higher Toll on Blair Than Bush." Maybe we Americans have a higher tolerance for bullshit after all.

Frankfurt's essay has proven surprisingly popular, and stands in the Times's top ten list of best selling nonfiction books. Part of its appeal, along with the fact that it is handsomely designed and priced to make a nice impulse gift, is that his tone is ambiguously pretentious. You are never certain whether the essay itself is meant to be bullshit.


Michael Bierut
05.11.05
05:53

Michael, I am not being "needlessly provocative". I am trying to understand the ways in which bullshit has been interpreted in the comments generated by your post and I posed a valid question about cultural differences that may explain these differing points of view. If you disagree, what's your counter-argument? That we do use the term in the same way on both sides of the Atlantic? If so, what's your evidence?

You have certainly convinced me to add Frankfurt's book to my reading list, but "bullshit" has an established etymology and the definitions I cite predate anything Frankfurt might have to say on the subject. You have brushed aside my comments, but you haven't answered them.
Rick Poynor
05.11.05
06:20

Rick, in my reference above to the statistical fact that George Bush enjoys a much higher approval rating in our country than Tony Blair does in yours, I am conceding that, in come quarters at least, Americans are "giving up on thinking, careful reflection and a commitment to accuracy and truth." Satisfied?

On a different (less political) level, I note that charlatans have long been viewed with something verging on affection in American culture. Examples include the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn, the Wizard of Oz, and Professor Henry Hill in The Music Man. Does the UK have a comparable tradition? The lack of it would be telling.
Michael Bierut
05.11.05
06:32

Michael, it gives me no satisfaction to conjecture that the British and Americans might have a different attitude to bullshit. I would like to think we were both equally dismissive. I'm basing my speculations on the attitudes revealed in this thread and nothing else. I introduced the question of nationality only because I was trying to account for my own very different interpretation of the word bullshit.

Actually, the word is more commonly used in the US than in the UK. Here, people are more likely to say that someone is talking "bollocks". Hearing someone talk bollocks may be funny -- sitcoms abound with people talking bollocks -- but if Damien Hirst, say, were to tell Norman Foster in a client meeting that he was talking bollocks, their relationship would be unlikely to recover. Bollocks is rubbish pure and simple. The word itself, meaning testicles, sounds ludicrous where bullshit, a dude word -- as in "bullshit artist", a 1960s coinage -- sounds almost cool.
Rick Poynor
05.11.05
07:17

Michael -- your body of writing has a self-effacing quality to it which I always appreciate, but I had difficulty in reacting to this particular post.

Design is a hybrid activity that necessarily involves a scrammbled-egg language of aesthetics, business, markets, media technology, and cultures. All of these matters inform a design, but none of them (even media technology) are exact science. And none of them can adequately act alone in describing a design.

Design is still a young field. We piece together glimmers of understanding regarding our work from the leftover parts of other disciplines, all in hopes of casting a feeble light in the still dark corner of design.

Does this make it all BS? Gosh, I hope not. (I haven't read Frankfurt's book, so I'm somewhat at a disadvantage in relating to your viewpoint.)

Of course, there are those who seek not to enlighten, but to habitually and purposefully obfuscate in order to baffle a client or weary public into submission. I'd certainly call that BS. And your humorous example at the end of your post falls into a grey area that is probably a savvy execution of BS, as well.

But I certainly hope that we, as an evolving profession, can invoke some careful self-discipline in how, when and where we apply the term BS, knowing the debilitating affect it has on a discourse.
Daniel Green
05.11.05
08:19

Rick, I do agree the word is thrown around on these shores with greater abandon, but your conjecture about Hirst and Foster is completely confirmed by the film. Not only is it a truly dramatic moment when Irwin utters the word, but Meier spends the rest of the movie scowling at him, and at one point gazes out over the garden-in-progress and murmurs, "What a disaster." Their relationship is irretrievably broken.

Daniel, to your question "Is it all BS?" I hope it's clear that my answer is no. I do take the warning, though, that this kind of language has a corrosive effect. In the film (which I guess I feel should be required viewing for designers!), after the Meier/Irwin presentation, one of the clients, who has been quite gentlemanly all along, is heard cheerfully dimissing another archtiectural feature (out of Meier's presence) as, "Oh, that's just bullshit." In the movie the word appears to have had a liberating effect, and perhaps not a positive one.
Michael Bierut
05.11.05
09:10

Great post, Michael. The lack of empirical proof of the effect of aesthetic design decisions makes rationales murky and somewhat suspect, but belief in them is probably necessary to keep from despair; just like an academic who seaches for Ultimate Truth, even though it may be a mirage.

But what a low blow Irwin launches when he calls on Meier's bullshit...It's like violating the code of thieves!
Matilda
05.11.05
10:57

I find both sides of this argument hard to understand, because they share an epistemological view which presupposes that aesthetic views are in some way objective. "It's all bullshit and that's okay" and "It's all bullshit and that's not okay" are two sides of the same coin: they depend on there being a reliable way to disentangle fact from fiction, a correct interpretation of cultural objects or a true account of the intentions of their creators. Surely this is not the case? Phrases like "deceptive misrepresentation" or "to habitually and purposefully obfuscate" imply that there are alternatives, correct representations, truths, clear and uncomplicated accounts. Do we need to go back to Saussure and Nietzsche to be reminded of the slipperiness of all interpretations and the arbitrariness of all signs? Do we need to go to law school to be aware that all accounts are situated and vested, and already interpretations? I won't drag Derrida into this just yet...
Momus
05.11.05
10:59

Momus, not sure where I am supposed to be located on the "It's all bullshit and that's okay/It's all bullshit and that's not okay" spectrum because neither represents my position.

You are obviously correct when you say that there are no right or definitive answers when it comes to largely or entirely subjective cultural activities. The complication with design, as Michael makes clear, is that design "solutions" involve a combination of objective (functional) and subjective (aesthetic) factors. The functional side presents fewer problems. Evidence may be required as the basis for a decision, but there is less to argue about. The bullshit comes in, Michael says, and other contributors seem to agree, where justifications have to be offered for aesthetic proposals that boil down to subjective preference, in order to get the client to agree to them.

What designers are arguing for, in essence, is to be permitted to implement their own conception with consistency. They know from experience that when they are allowed to do this the design stands most chance of working. They know that compromises will probably spoil or ruin it. The ideal client would have the sensitivity to trust this process based on an understanding of what the designer has been able to achieve in the past. Such clients, real design aficionados, are rare. All this assumes, of course, that the designers are capable of doing good work and are therefore worth trusting in the first place. And that takes us into the whole question of what constitutes quality in design, an enormous subject that we ought to get into some time on DO.

The argument about bullshit, though, centres on the issue of quality of intention. I think that point has been made clearly enough in some of the comments above. Juggling all those theoretical authorities that Momus reminds us of, it's easy to lose sight of the reality of daily interaction. Yes, we should treat all propositions with scepticism and test them out -- and for what, if not truth value? But we will need to be capable of thinking clearly to even begin to be able to do this and who would you rather give a head start: someone who is struggling to tell the truth, at least as they see it, or to the self-professed bullshitter?
Rick Poynor
05.11.05
12:10

I think Michael is right when he suggests that reading Frankfurt's book helps in putting this post in context. Frankfurt's book is a little gem. I am finding his particular point of view so pervasive in my life (and in design, in particular) that I am currently keeping a copy of the book on my desk as a "warning" to those who visit...

I prefer to think of Frankfurt's definition of bullshit as rather more like "spin." There is no question we are living in an age where spin and soundbytes are the primary source people use to evaluate and understand what is happening in the world around them. That is certainly sad. Having said that, however, I do find that many design clients need the spin factor--as they have very little objective way of assessing what is "good" or "effective" design. Simply presenting the work in a "here it is, what do you think? isn't is great?" kind of way has proven to be reckless, particularly in my line of work (branding and packaging). Giving our clients a "way in" to understand is certainly spin (and conceivably bullshit) but it is a way to connect them to our understanding of whatever process we have undertaken to get to our result. Now if that process is all bullshit, it stands to reason that the explanation will be as well.

But I at least try to think that there is a sound reason for making the design choices we do. It is often difficult to put into words, which is likely why we are so suspicious of it. But perhaps I am just bullshitting myself...

(does bullshitting have two t's???? not sure quite how to spell or even conjugate this word...)
debbie millman
05.11.05
12:45

Thanks for that, Rick. I think I'm hovering mid-Atlantic with my attitude to slickness. I do think that a somewhat baroque pitch is a legitimate part of the creativity of certain artists or designers. Everyone with something to sell has to nurture their own inner P.T. Barnum: "razzle-dazzle 'em," as Michael Jackson once put it.

For instance, I have a soft spot for Jeff Koons, who's an incredibly able self-promoter, managing to present with salesmanlike skill some very far-fetched arguments, and in fact to make them into a whole ideology which he appears to believe in wholeheartedly.

Lest this be seen as capitalist patter, I think Bertolt Brecht had a similar talent. I particularly appreciate people who manage to seem like charlatans, yet totally sincere at the same time. People who have "a system", who turn wrongness into a system, who take positions not based on what's right (so often just a matter of habit and reflex) but on what's interesting, what gets you to an interesting place. And that strange place where deceit and sincerity might be one and the same thing is certainly interesting. I hope to write soon about conceptual design group REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND, who inhabit exactly this kind of murky area. Is it all a big joke? Can they be serious? Why is their rationality so irrational?

I think this kind of thing requires a lot of charm, playfulness and charisma. It requires unreliable narration and the suspension of disbelief. Tibor Kalman had a touch of this kind of magic too. I suppose it's all tied up with the importance of being wrong. "I'm wrong about this, but stick with my wrongness and you'll get somewhere you could never have reached by being right."
Momus
05.11.05
01:03

Brilliantly put, Momus. I think Tibor is a great example. Maybe Neville Brody as well. And Karim. Anybody with a pied-piper like personality, er, charisma can often get away with this "wrongness." And you are right, that wrongness is often a hell of a lot richer. And more fun.
debbie millman
05.11.05
01:11

Good stuff, Momus. But you are mainly talking about people who are unequivocally artists. Can you say a little more about how these ideas play out in design and the more quotidian worlds of publishing, packaging, branding and promotion?

Now if that process is all bullshit, it stands to reason that the explanation will be as well.

You put your finger on it there, Debbie. And this is the issue we seem so reluctant to talk about, preferring to endlessly restate what Michael said at the outset, which doesn't take us very far.
Rick Poynor
05.11.05
01:24

Could it not be that Irwin's comment was aimed at Meier's explaination/rationalization, not at the art itself? Irwin, in a fit of inappropriate juvenile pique, may well have been speaking the truth --that Meier's words were just another layer of rationale. However, Meier's reaction indicated that he clearly interpreted the BS comment as an attack on his art, not his words. And we would have all reacted in exactly the same way. Because in that moment, right there in public, Meier's own insecurities about his intuitive skills were highlighted. It's crushing to hear it from someone else. We all fight that same thing within ourselves. Who amongst us has not looked at a project in the middle of the night and made the same judgement -- "This is bullshit." We all have it in varying degrees--that fear that we'll wake up one morning and no longer be capable of creative thought.

There are two parallel storylines that take place whenever the art goes outside of the artist's head.

One storyline is wordless--it is the pure flash of creativity that we all experience when we create something new. In one moment, there is no idea; in the next moment, the idea is there. It happens in a nanosecond. A series of non-linear connections made at the speed of light. How does one explain that? Where does it come from? What do you tell your client?

That's where the second storyline comes in. It is told with words, ususally describing a linear thought process that starts at point A and logically progresses through points B, C and D until it ends up at the Solution. How else to explain to someone who thinks in a linear way (like a client) that you have come up with this wonderful, elegant solution?

Because we live in the world, not on individual islands, we all must employ the parallel storylines. We have clients and patrons. They all want to know where this stuff comes from. They want to be "in" on it.

The wonderful ideal of the artist working in the garrett with no need to communicate through any medium other than their art is seductive, indeed.
Rick McCleary
05.11.05
01:26

Fascinating, Rick and Michael. Your posts here have been like watching two sides of my own brain turn hyper-articulate, then quarrel. Like Michael, I believe certain aesthetic design decisions are intuitive enough to be fundamentally non-rational - and well beyond the reach of anything like objective reason to provide an airtight rationale for their use. Like Rick, I loathe bullshit - and not just when it's heaved at me personally. It is very much the epitome of disrespect to the listener; usually filled with muddled-thinking and an ugly disregard for clarity, reason or facts. But then again, Bullshit is occasionally very plausible, and sometimes much more coherent and persuasive than the irrational, incoherent truth when we're talking about intuitive aesthetic decisions we've made.

Nobody likes being bullshitted. Or do they? Like Michael, I think some designers might feel BS has a role to play not in constructing a coherent design criticism, but very much in running a business. We've all had clients who feel much more comfortable and secure when our design presentations co-opt the rigorously objective language of science, turning aesthetic choices into impartial, objectively quantifiable Truths. (That is not to say that much or most decisions that go into the creation of a design shouldn't be backed by clear, persuasive reasons - they should - but in being honest with myself, I must admit that I make aesthetic decisions everyday that are - at the time I experiment or implement them - simply non-rational.)

I'm reminded of a scene in the movie Dead Poet's Society, in which an English teacher uses V.S. Pritchett's technique of "objectively quantifying the value" of a poem by plotting out the poem's merits on an X-Y axis. It is a wonderful example of bypassing the tricky, sticky notion of taste through use of pseudo-objective, and pseudo-scientific, bullshit. It's clear in that case bullshit is murder to open critical inquiry. It would seem however that bullshit, as Michael speaks of it here, is about providing a compelling explanation of the more intuitive aspects of the creative process in producing a specific design work for a specific client - not about taking a dump on the notion of critical design inquiry.



Dan Warner
05.11.05
01:38

I once asked a 4 year old how the pyramids were made. He told me all about how old people gathered up the sand together in a big pile, and poured a 'special magic-kinda water' on them that turned the sand hard like stone. I asked if he had built one ever in his sandbox. Nope. He liked making holes more.

I'm also reminded of that insufferably cute show Bill Cosby hosted for a while, "Kids Say the Darndest Things." Which could be more aptly titled "Kids Bullshit" or "Kids Say the Most Obvious Bullshit." (Because, let's be honest - the more obvious the bullshit, the easier it is to detect/tolerate/call harmless/laugh at).

Psychologists say the human brain is wired to seek order, detect pattern, create coherence out of chaos - and kids' creative bullshit explanations are, I think, perhaps happy evidence of that predilection. Creating an explanation that makes sense - any sort of sense at all - of why things are they way the are or happen the way they do - is a deep human drive. Even primitive/tribal explanations of natural phenomena, for example, could be classified as a form of bullshit as well as story-telling or religion.

The worst aspect (or best) of slinging around the word "Bullshit" is that it's a dialogue-killer. Everything grinds to a halt. Critical inquiry can no longer take place. Rick McCleary brought up a great observation above: "Meier's reaction indicated that he clearly interpreted the BS comment as an attack on his art, not his words."

To call an idea or explanation "BULLSHIT!" is to attempt to behead your adversary, not to expose perceived flaws or inaccuracies in an explanation, but stomp the bastard dead. In critical discourse, this sort of shortcut is useless. J'accuse d'Bullshit does nothing more than boil the blood and garner enmity. I propose we flat out stop using the term at all. Let's just skip to exposing precisely how and why and where an idea or explanation is fake or false. Or, I suppose, we could simply sit back and be entertained by the show: Designers and Architects Say the Darndest Things!
Dan Warner
05.11.05
04:05

wow - amazing and pithy - cool!
Joanna D
05.11.05
05:16

...avin sighting.

Dan, I thought I'd mention. In the event you didn't know. The original, "Kids say the Darndest Things" was hosted by Art Linkletter. Renowned television personality.

I trust Design Observer Patrons were not bamboozled by Michael and Rick's Good Cop, Bad Cop Routine. They got it down to a Science. If you believe it you were indeed bullshitted. Sought of like the Abbott and Costello routine. Who's on first ?

It's sweeps month. All about ratings !!!!!

Aestheticism and Funtionalism is an age old argument and can be traced back to Ingre and Eugene Delacroix. Ingre the Academician didn't want to allow Delacroix into the academy. Ingre one of the great draughtsman in history. And Delacroix one of the most flamboyant and charasmatic artist in history. Ingre felt he was upholding the mantra of the academy was extremly jealous of Delacroix in his use of color and ability to sell his work.

This was Tom Wolf's concern referencing all those abstract logos in Michael's wonderful Editorial Commentary, see logogate, Connecticut Commission for the arts. Wolf's assertion was there was no rational for the plethora of abstract Identities. Abstract art in its pure sense was a private joke among artist and receiver.

Design as a profession can be divided into two camps. Functionalism and Formalism. Functionalism is research based Design; Research is the driver. Formalism is Design provided without research. The merit of Design is the driver.

Being able to expound on the virtues of one artistic or Design endeavor does not make one a charlatan. Salesmanship is an art. Some have the ability to shock and awe clientel and others don't. Salemanship is akin to a Gun Owner. Don't blame the gun manufacturer for the crimes committed by misguided individuals.

Long gone are the days when Designers worked directly with the CEO. Today Designers give presentations to Marketing or Interim Corporate Committees. Who often kill our ideas, and are Natural enemies to Designers. Like Meerkats and Snakes. Unlike Meerkats who have a natural defense to snake venom. Informed Designers posses The Gift of Gab. Call it what you will, Dog and Pony Show, Smoke and Mirrors, Charlotan, Game. It is a neccessary evil to be able to pontificate on the virtues of aesthetics and gestalt.

The problem is that many young and uninformed Designers haven't learn to expound of the virtues of Design that are amenable to process. The client should tell you the Design looks good.

Think clients don't like being BULLSHITTED. Look at current Identity Design. Albeit the revitalizations. And the plethora of meaningless devices Designers have used. Did somebody say SWOOSH !!!! Three Dimensional, Post Cereal, Volkswagan, BMW, Ford, O Cedar, UPN, AOL, to name just a few. Any Identity currently in an oval is now or will succumb to 3D. Aesthetically, there's no rationalization for the current trend of 3D Identities except everyone else is doing it.

I'm reminded of a presentation Massimo Vignelli gave many years ago. Where he was Designing a brochure for a client. Massimo selected the color Black for the brochure. The client was outragged. He didn't like Black. He associated Black with Death. Massimo told the client, Think of Black as Elegance. Such as Black Tie. The color choice was approved.

It is the rare Designer that understand the intricacies of playing Good Cop, Bad Cop. Much of it is understanding the clients needs. Ala, Gordon Segal who stated when he started Crate&Barrel in the 1960s his agency at the time was trying to sell him Design. Which he didn't want. Along came Tom Shortlidge who immediately understood his Identity and Branding needs. Wonderful story, please read it in the current issue of Graphis Magazine.

Someone earlier mentioned Tibor, Brody, and Rashid. No greater salesman of Design than Robert Miles Runyan, who invited his clients to his POSH Neo-Victorian Home in Marina Del Rey California and served the finest cuisine and vintage wines and champagne. All from his Roof Top Deck overlooking a Breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean.

Need I mention Mark Kostabi, who Tibor, Brody and Rashid would BOW too in reference to salemanship. Kostabi never bullshitted anybody. He was brutally honest. And emphatically stated. I create my work the same as the Old Masters. "I let others execute my projects and sign my name to it".

In twenty three years of being an Identtiy Designer. I've never asked or said to a client TRUST ME. Reason:

LAWYER JOKE

How does a Lawyer say FUCK YOU ?

TRUST ME.

THE ALPHA MALE
05.12.05
01:24

This all appears to be still be going in circles - Are we still bull shitting?

I think the underlying problem is 'designers' use bullshit as a quick way to explain or rationalise their actions/designs. If more emphasis was put on explaining truthfully why we had designed something - justifying our design, choice of style, shape, size, colour etc (in both industry & education institutes) - instead of using what is being called 'bullshit', designers might get more respect and at the same time gradually educate the un-aesthetic clients that come our way - that supposedly need bull shitting.... If unfortunately we can't critically justify (without bullshit) what we have done (either to our clients in an attempt to help them understand aesthetics or ourselves as designers) we must have made something bullshit....

Regarding Greg Hay's comments; I'd like to believe we only need to bullshit when we don't have a concept, we then talk shit until we have generated one or until we are have convinced ourselves we have justified why we did something. If we have a solid concept I don't see why we would have to resort to bullshit... shouldn't we all be able to explain 'concepts' either clinically or expressively with out such an 'over-glossed, hyped up, radical and bullshit justification !?

dan.newman
05.12.05
01:58

Bullshit = nonsense

Substituting nonsense for bullshit, here are a few things we have been saying about design:

every design presentation is inevitably, at least in part, an exercise in [nonsense]

the best artists are not necessarily the ones with the best talent or work... they are invariably the ones who [talk nonsense] the best.

[nonsense] is one essential part of the selling process, particularly at the stage where we are trying to sell the idea to a client.

Giving our clients a "way in" to understand is certainly spin (and conceivably [nonsense]) but it is a way to connect them to our understanding of whatever process we have undertaken to get to our result. Now if that process is all [nonsense], it stands to reason that the explanation will be as well.

Nobody likes being [subjected to nonsense]. Or do they?

[You] think clients don't like being [subjected to nonsense?] Look at current Identity Design.

And on a more constructive note:

I'd like to believe we only need to [talk nonsense] when we don't have a concept
Rick Poynor
05.12.05
06:17


A quick, though digressive, point about truth and Nietzsche et alia, for Momus...

Nietzsche claims that there is no transcendental Truth, no over-arching, universally applicable Truth guaranteed by God. But this is not the same thing as saying there is no truth, as you claim.

For Nietzsche, truth is something we each invent, it's a meaning and value that we find or create in the objects and experiences of the world. But this too is not to say that we can simply make any claim whatsoever, as you suggest. We don't invent the world as a whole at every moment. Rather, we work within the world as it exists and make incremental changes in its meaning as we go along. Nietzsche calls this "revaluation".

Meaning, in other words, is always embedded in a world, which is to say, a cultural context. Truth is always communal, even in acts of rebellion. We can work (or play) to change the meaning of a given word, image, object, or idea (because signs are arbitrary (Saussure)), but even that work is always caught within a matrix of competing cultural forces (Derrida). Truth here gets a small t, as Rick might say. It's resources are arbitrary but not infinite. To speak of such truths is to speak of the truths of a particular group at a particular time in a particular place. Even if we agree to disagree about the meaning of a given word, the context of our debate never escapes the limits of cultural context.

The laws of physics, significantly, are not arbitrary and do not change. Considerations of optics and physiology ground artistic creation and aesthetic evaluation.

We can evaluate the relative success of art objects based on the relationship between the signs and the cultural context in which they appear (Lyotard). And we access this relationship through formal analysis, i.e. aesthetic criticism.

Criticism can tell us how works function and how good they are. The best criticism tells us the most about a work.

Criticism might not be able to delve deep into that mysterious realm of intuitive creativity that Michael really wanted to talk about here (thanks, by the way for your clarification earlier) but who cares?

Marveling at the mystery of it all is fun, sure, but I'm not sure that will make many of us better artists.

Eisenstein is a great example, on the other hand, of a creator who made things (like films) and then sat down and wrote about both the creative process and about the objects themselves. And then, most interestingly, he used his writing as a tool to further his creative production: if x worked last time, what next?

It's a model for education and, I think, for a lot of us.


boris
05.12.05
10:44

Bullshit = Nonsense (?)

Back to the meaning of the term, as Mr. Poyner has rightly sensed a disparity between how some of us are using the word: Bullshit is, in my understanding, distinct from nonsense or lies - though both may be (and usually are) part of a specific instance of bullshit.

Bullshit carries with it utter disregard for the truth. It's all about (perceived) plausibility. As I've understood it, the bullshitter doesn't care whether or not what he's saying is true - just that the listener believe it so. Well-crafted bullshit, coupled with the listener's ignorance on the matter at hand, equals undetected BS. (An evil astrophysicist, for example, could feed me quite a steaming heap of BS, and I would happily nod and walk away thinking myself better informed).

It would follow that Bullshit CAN be true, and still be BS. For example, if that 4-year-old (in my post above) had told me the pyramids were made by dragging rocks through the sand and carving them and stacking them on top of each other in the desert...he would both be bullshitting me and more or less hitting upon the truth. Though like I said, BS disregards truth-value, it may occasionally hit on a plausible explanation that is also the correct one.

This is of course, no defense of BS, which does much - as plenty of posts above have made clear - to muddle design discourse. Newman's post, I think, is dead on about bad process compelling designer bullshit.

It's very true, as Mr. Poynor points out: nobody likes being subjected to nonsense. I've know some, however, who like being subjected to a coherent, plausible explanation that evokes a compelling rationale for an aesthetic choice which otherwise cannot be supported as the inevitable end-point of a rational thought process. I'm not for bullshitting clients, or anybody. I'm not for sloppy process or artsy irrational 'rationales' in working up design proposals, which need to fulfill very specific requirements and evoke very specific moods. But on occasion, I find myself (for example) trying out a certain hue and it fitting and feeling right...and only after the fact do I come up with a few 'good reasons' for that talking the client into that specific choice over a dozen alternates. I'd be bullshitting myself if I were to pretend otherwise; in a sea of subjectivity and ambiguity, clients sometimes like firm, compelling explanations. I've occasionally uttered some which are much more compelling than the real - but boring, (and on some level ideosyncratic and subjective) - reasons I prefer, for example, a certain hue in a certain instance.

Dan Warner
05.12.05
11:02

On a more Bare Bones level. Without over Philosophizing. Tbe story I'm about to share is spot on to what Michael and Rick are expounding, Functionalism = Rationalization vs Formalism = Aesthetic i.e. Pure Design.

Being an Acolyte and Disciple of BASS; intially I thought the solution was weak. Until I read the hardship, struggle, and determination of this Designer. A heart warming story.

A true David and Goliath Story where Pure Design is the Winner over Slick Marketing and Bullshit.

Please load this link into your browser.

http://www.apple.com/pro/design/davidson/index.html

Many thanks to me Compadre Felix Rising Star Sockwell for sending me the above link.

As Ken Carbone stated within the above referenced current issue of Graphis Magazine featuring Gordon Segal CEO of Crate&Barrel.
Carbone alluded to Edward Tuffe being a Great Salesman of Design, although he has no clients.

When confronted with a Goliath-sized problem, which way do you respond: "He's too big to hit!" or, like David, "He's too big to miss."


THE ALPHA MALE
05.12.05
01:53

I got hold of a copy of On Bullshit today and read it. Doesn't take long. It's just about the shortest text between hard covers I've ever seen.

It left me thinking that its applications for design are extremely limited. Michael interprets the book quite loosely, and other contributors to this thread have taken this as an encouragement to assert that bullshit is okay and has its place. But the book's aim is emphatically not to legitimise bullshit. On Bullshit is elegantly argued but overly abstract, rarely deigning to connect with actual events, though Frankfurt does begin and end by noting the prevalence of bullshit in our culture. (How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen, a British journalist whose bullshit detector is permanently set on maximum alert might make a good companion volume.) Frankfurt has this to say specifically about media and communication:

"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. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who -- with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinon polling, of psychological testing, and so forth -- dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right."

(I think he means you, boys and girls.)

Is it possible to move the discussion in this thread into this wider realm? We have established that some designers think bullshit has its place in client meetings. My suggestion, starting at the other end, outside the meeting room, on the receiving end of design, is that the problem is the bullshit out here in the world and the false and damaging claims this bullshit makes. Can the two phenomena be unconnected?

Frankfurt makes an interesting distinction here between the liar, who is paradoxically committed to the idea of truth, and the bullshitter, who couldn't care less whether something is true or not.

"Through excessive indulgence in [bullshitting], which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person's normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost ... The bullshitter ... does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."



Rick Poynor
05.12.05
04:47

Rick, as a side question, having seen and read the book, I'm curious:

Did you feel in any way that either
(a) Frankfurt himself intended the book as a kind of meta-exercise in b.s. himself (some of his phraseology is awfully convoluted) or
(b) that the design of the book itself , with its big type size, generous margins, and self-consciously "serious" presentation (i.e., hard cover, faux "tipped on" white-on-black title block, etc.) is in itself an example of design-as bullshit?

I agree we've talked a lot about using bullshit to sell design, but not much about when design work itself embodies the characteristic aspects of bullshit. I think the latter is much more damaging. There are worse things than taking a slender essay and fluffing up into a $9.00 gift item, but I did wonder...
Michael Bierut
05.12.05
05:17

Bullshit: the trail of breadcrumbs leading a patron into the dark heart of the forest of art. You like this because I think it's beautiful (and don't feel like changing it). No refunds.

Bullshit: the number of revisions a non-artistically inclined, design-impared holder of purse strings demands of you, culminating in a final product looking quite similar to what they had used previously.

Bullshit: the use of long, confustigating words - when one will do.

Bullshit: Isms for Isms' sake. High Art. Design. Academia. Rinse. Repeat.

Bullshit is everything simplicity isn't.
Kevin
05.12.05
05:20

Michael, I went looking for the book in the philosophy section and found it had been classified under humour. I think it's for real. Notice the way he dedicates it "To Joan, truly". He concludes the book by suggesting that "sincerity itself is bullshit" yet he's at pains in his dedication to insist that here, in a matter of the heart, he is being sincere and truly means it. That simple gesture undercuts all the caveats, qualifications and circumlocutions.

The design does its best to give a semblance of weightiness to something no bigger than an essay.

Just discovered that Frankfurt has been profiled in today's Guardian.
Rick Poynor
05.12.05
05:58

Boy, this is SO true...

You almost have to be half artist, half salesman - something I've always loathed about design and try to avoid whenever possible.

It's nice to have this subject touched upon so nicely.
P.J. Onori
05.12.05
08:00

Is it safe to say that anything is bullshit at this point?
stuart
05.12.05
09:39

I am reminded of Beatrice Arthur and Mel Brooks in History of the World Part I where, as the dole office — which is known in the US as the unemployment office — clerk, she questions Comicus:
"Occupation?"

Comicus:
"Stand up philosopher."

Dole Office Clerk:
"What?"

Comicus:
"Stand up philosopher. I coalesce the 'vapors of human existence' into a viable and meaningful comprehension."

Dole Office Clerk:
"Oh, a BULLSHIT artist!"

Comicus: (visibly upset)...

Dole Office Clerk:
"Have you bullshitted today?"

Comicus:
(still upset) No!

Dole Office Clerk:
"Did you try to bullshit..."

I'm willing to bet that the correction made here 'bullshit artist' was not the first instance the two words were being used together, but it seems that in writing this screenplay he creatively expresses his own views on life, and the role laughter plays in it, with the addition of the words 'stand up' to philosopher. Ever notice the best speakers at our design conferences are usually those able to also make the audience laugh?
Shahla
05.12.05
10:38

If you're a connoisseur of the subject, you may want to check out this website if you haven't already.
Michael Bierut
05.13.05
12:44

Ha! Stock photography choices at Hh? are just right for the copy. On the 'about' page that one guy looks quite like Brando did in Julius Caesar as Marc Antony,

—Empire, Ahm-peere —

And so familiar...
Shahla
05.14.05
11:41

Having been honored by Rick as having written something "about as bullshit-free as you can get" a sensible person would sit back and shut up. Many of you know me well enough to expect much less of me than silence so here goes:

If I understand correctly, Dr. Frankfurt's use of the word that is banned from The New York Times and National Public Radio but not "The Daily Show" or the Guardian has to do with talking without knowing (or, perhaps, even caring to know) or with talking to avoid one's knowledge. Please correct me if I misinterpret (and yes, I do see the irony in writing about the point of a book I haven't read when the point is exposition without knowledge.) Anyway, if I know something and deliberately misstate the facts, that is a lie. If I know something and correctly state the facts, that is the truth (at least in the uncomplicated sense of the word.) Bullshit is neither truthing nor lying. It is eloquence without foundation in either promulgating truth or denying it. It doesn't necessarily circumvent the immediate truth as much as it pretends to be something that could be true but circumvents truth in general. In that sense bullshit is more dangerous than a lie to our collective honoring of the truth because, unlike a lie, it undermines the distinction between truth and lie and devalues the importance of (and, perhaps, the notion of) objective or factual truth.

So if you say something about your design because it seems like you ought to say something and what you say has no relationship with what you believe to be true then that is bullshit. But truth doesn't require having arisen from a rational plan. 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, it is neither lying or abandoning truth to say "the color red does x." Many designers don't think tactically about their decisions until form emerges and they can ask themselves if it fits the client's needs. This doesn't mean disdain for the client's needs any more than Yogi Berra saying "How can you think and bat at the same time?" was a denial of newtonian physics. And discussing the effects of bat velocity later isn't an assault on truth.

My (eleven year old—hard to believe) statement about form making a claim was aimed at complicated graphic design (often promoted with explanations about the complications of culture, truth, and perspective) that was used to communicate simple information. The form was making a claim counter to the nature of the content. Of course problems arise with all sorts of formal claims. Who hasn't been in a beautiful "functionalist" building with the roof leaking rain? If the thing on top of the ladder is, as the label says, not a step, why does it look like a step?

I'm following comments by several facile writers so I don't think anyone here thinks articulate use of language indicates dishonesty but it says something that my friend Alpha Male feels compelled to note that "Being able to expound on the virtues of one artistic or Design endeavor does not make one a charlatan." Many people are suspicious that any statement about the formal nature of something has to be, well, just so much bullshit. Strangely, we rarely use the same description to identify form.

If bullshit in the Frankfurtian sense is a tap dance that disregards or devalues truth, can the same term apply not to our description of design but to our design itself? If design seems to make claims but doesn't do so in a manner that someone can say "That is false," is the design itself bullshit?
Gunnar Swanson
05.14.05
10:09

Is it possible to move the discussion in this thread into this wider realm?

Well, Rick, does this get us into the realm of the other "B" word -- branding?

It seems that, based on past threads here and on Speak Up, that BS is the divide between designers who loathe branding, and designers who embrace it.

For some designers, branding is the ultimate in business BS. They see business spreading this figurative form of bullshit to grow sales like a farmer spreads the literal form to grow crops.

For other designers, branding is a way to systematically avoid BS. For them, it represents a language and process that allows them to design farther upstream in the product and identity development. The farther upstream a designer can work, the less likely they are to face superficial directives to BS and "pretty it up."

I'll stop here momentarily. I realize that I'm clinging precariously to the precipice of a potentially bottomless tangent. This plunge is perhaps best left to another thread.

But - Michael and Rick -- I want to thank you for a good discussion on an elephant in the room that we usually avoid discussing.

And Gunnar -- your ability to cut through the BS is always refreshing.
Daniel Green
05.15.05
03:33

Daniel—Is branding bullshit in any sense other than some "bullshit is something I don't like and I don't like branding so branding is bullshit" syllogism? I'm not clear what the branding/bullshit relationship is for either group of designers you're positing.
Gunnar Swanson
05.16.05
01:20

Gunnar -- sorry for veering off on a road of my own understanding.

First of all, I made the reference to branding upon Rick's suggestion that we move the discussion beyond BS as it applies to a client presentation. It seemed to me to lead to how we deal with BS in our daily projects.

Are requests for spin/BS embedded into requests for design? Are we expected by clients to "make it pretty" despite other realities? Do clients (and consumers) perceive our role to be one of spinning, and ultimately BS? If so, how do we deal with/counter that issue/perception?

That, in turn, lead me to recall past debates on the role of branding and design.

(OK, I see that my course of reasoning may have been a bit convoluted.)

Based on past threads, it seems that some designers view branding as synonymous with BS. They perceive it to be a superficial gloss on corporate behavior or product features. They disassociate themselves with branding because they associate it with corporate spin, if not outright corporate dishonesty.

There are also designers who view branding as a means to avoid the corporate spin-cycle. Branding (at least in some circles) offers a process by which a designer has a voice and presence farther upstream in the development of a product, its identity, and its promotion. Branding offers them an opportunity to define a product/service's real value to a customer, and create better product and identity choices based on that understanding. By engaging in these matters earlier in their development, a designer has a better chance of affecting positive change..and avoid having to spin/BS the customer.

My ultimate point is to not takes sides (though I have my own opinion and experiences), but to relate the larger issue of BS, and its relation to design, to how branding is both perceived and used by designers. I may be biting off an issue too big to chew in one post.

Does that make my intent any more clear, Gunnar?
Daniel Green
05.16.05
10:58

Gunnar, I think Daniel may have a point. If I returned to my original distinction (which of course has been challenged many times on this thread) that design bullshit is specifically a rationalization, often retroactive, of those parts of a design solution that cannot be defended objectively, I would say that few activities I perform are harder to defend logically than logo design (which may or may not be what Daniel means by "branding").

Logo solutions are often nothing but completely intuitive combinations of typefaces, colors and shapes. What makes one any better than another is arguable, especially since the best ones (or the "best ones") acquire their meaning and hence value through use. Getting a client to embrace a new logo usually requires a huge leap of faith. Most identity presentations seem to require all kinds of rhetorical crutches to help the client make the journey.
Michael Bierut
05.16.05
10:59

I was in a NYC cab once and the driver, from a small Egyptian village, told me that he thought different religions were like the tracks of a train, leading to the same place but never meeting.
I sometimes think this about the parallel and surprisingly independent forces of "the work" and "the theory."
The core of pain - and meaning - in this dialogue is recognizing how utterly independent the theory or explanation of a piece can be from the piece.
In art criticism, or design or probably any criticism/explanation that addresses an aesthetic object, the spoken explanation of a work can really be autonomous. The ideas anchor themselves by connecting to previous arguments and theories. Previously *verbalized* arguments and theories.
At the same time, those of us who see the meaning in the graphic piece, or artwork or whatever, the truth Rick is asserting, may make all the connections in a visual, and really non-verbal way.
Language is a rough tool for aesthetics, and in most hands it falls short of its goal. In some cases, the work plus the explanation is greater than the sum of the parts. A cricicism, explanation - here called bullshit - can expand and add to a real truth in a work, giving it more meaning.
In other cases, the words are so off of the mark that both language and work are impovererished by their meeting.
I believe that this essential disjuncture is the basis for this debate. It is a mistake to see it as a battle of those with integrity vs. those without integrity (though that is always the most fun!)
It remains true that often what is good in a piece cannot really be put into words - because it's not verbal, or maybe because it really is new. In those cases, as design is a business, one does what one can in the language department. But that recourse does not mean that the actual value of the piece is diminished.
Victoria Milne
05.16.05
11:21

Oh, what difference does it make if it's bullshit or not? Religions have been doing it for thousands of years so human beings will have some meaning and context to their live's. Architects, designers , artists... do the same thing to give their work meaning and significance - gives the client something to believe in before they sign the check - if you're really good at bullshitting, blah blah blah, someday you might become a design Pope like Bruce Mau and people will travel far and wide to listen to your sermons.

** Rick pops his head up.
** reaches for a wac-a-mole club

Anyhoo, branding is total bullshit. Brand managers keep telling everyone "a brand is a story", it's nonsense. When you look at the golden arches, what story does that tell you? Nobody cares.

All fonts are readable. The Chinese have no problem reading complex characters, so go ahead, set all you text in Chromium One.

zzzzzzzt. beep. buzz. click.
Wretched Liar
05.16.05
11:25

oh boy, this is getting complicated.

okay. true story (and one i repeat with fondness and regularity):

when my my god-daughter Kayla was beginning third grade, we went out shopping for school supplies, etc. i asked her what she was learning about. she replied that she was learning about computers and long division. when she said computers, i got very excited, and asked her to tell me more. she hesitated for a moment, but then launched in to a fairly lengthly monologue that i had trouble not only following, but frankly, even understanding. she started and re-started; she stammered. finally, she stopped. she looked at me with her big chesnut eyes and said:

Debbie. Life is so difficult when you don't know what you are talking about.

I think that just about says it all.
debbie millman
05.16.05
02:50

I fall into Ricks camp on this issue, and I think it comes back to this statement.

I think I would draw my blurry line somewhere at the distinction between justification based on function and justification based on aesthetics.

I disagree with the assumption that function is somehow more important than aesthetic. The aesthetic is the funtion in much of what we do.
Rick mentions our daily experience of the media, and this is where aesthetic becomes as important as form. I might turn the tables and ask what true function most media and "graphic design" has? Is it not just to elicit a response from potential consumers?
There is true value in the aesthetic, and in talking about it. A designer finding the truth in his/her aesthetic is not bullshit, but it is rare. I agree with boris, maybe charisma is more valued than an honest critique, but I'm not going to sacrifice one to the other. We should be comfortable talking about the values of the aesthetic in our industry. It is as valuable to our clients as the funcions we perform, and with Kinko's ability to take care of the function for much cheaper, it's all we have. The bullshit is trying to disguise the importance of our aesthetic solutions by talking about how well they function.
john
05.16.05
03:00

Michael—I asked Daniel for clarification specifically because "brand" is one of those words with so many definitions as to be nearly meaningless and limiting definitions to verb forms doesn't narrow things enough for me to understand.

If your definition is post facto explanation of slippery, subjective stuff then bullshitting doesn't strike me as dishonorable. Such explanations can be real attempts at getting at something that is subjectively true. I don't see that as the same as trying to keep people from noticing a lack of objective truth.

John—I might turn the tables and ask what true function most media and "graphic design" has? Is it not just to elicit a response from potential consumers?

If it is suppose to elicit a response but obscure the lack for reason for a response, isn't it bullshit by Frankfurt's definition?

Is getting a response without providing substance an ethical problem? If I understand what I have heard in interviews, Professor Frankfurt seems to think so. Or is there an "art exception" to the bullshit prohibition where we say that dazzling people who are presumably looking for some truth is wrong but tapping into other ways of knowing or feeling is not the same thing?

Gunnar Swanson
05.16.05
03:51

Gunnar—I think your right, there is an exception.
Visual communication, creates a situation where people feel things that are not considered substance in the traditional sense. (That traditional sense being identified in language?) This happens wether they want to or not, and it is an elicit response. Is this an exact physical science that is documented and researched? Some have tried, but to date it remains very vague; yet dispite being vague the response is real.
The assumption here is that "substance" is a clearly stated representation, right? I think that is what you intend. There is evidence of an elicit response in communication that clearly states its intent and in more "art" driven visual communication that does not. I think the designer who knows, and factors the elicit response into their creation is not a bullshitter.
john
05.16.05
07:29

Very much enjoying the lively discussion. Bravo to all. Side question to all; isn't it a bullshit journalism when the article in the NYT "Styles" section (May 15 "Possesed" by David Colman) extolling wonderful design of Swiss money instead featuring profile of Mr. Jorg Zintzmayer, the designer -- it features extensively Mr. Sagmeister, including his photo, who just happenes to like the bill design itself?
Just because he eloquently prizes the Swiss design? Why not more about the person who deserves it? I consider it a journalistic bullshit. Am I wrong on it? Sorry if I'm venting in the wrong place. Congrats again on the excellent thread.
Andre
05.17.05
02:12

Michael,

Thank you for keeping it real. This is a breath of fresh air. (This reminds me of the post-design justification, ahem BS, given to that hidden arrow in the FedEx logo.)

Ahm-peere indeed!
Joe Pemberton
05.17.05
05:36

In the book An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art (Shambhala, 1988), Roger Lipsey offers a helpful distinction between the Studio and the Marketplace. While the results of each can influence the other, "an 'arm's-length' relationship between the marketplace and the studio offers the best assurance that [the work] will remain substantial." One would hope that the designer's practice in the Studio has rigor and honesty; or lack of what Frankfurt defines as Bullshit.

After that, the requirements of the Marketplace allow for a degree of wiggle in the Bullshit region. The laws of the Studio may be accommodated in the Marketplace, but the opposite is not true.

A feature of the Marketplace is that "the value of new products can be defined and promoted subjectively... In these markets, one cannot really trust words. There may be relatively objective standards by which the quality... can be judged, but buyers are not so often well-versed in applying them, and in any case one can't always be sure... The emperor may have no clothes, but what if he has an excellent figure? The merchant's job is to test his market and to sell. He makes no mistake to extol the virtues of his inventory in glowing terms. Objective measurements can be left to posterity."

I rather like Rick's proposition that the subject is centered on intention; and I would even go further in suggesting the relationship between designer and client be reframed. Actors look at scenes as situations where there's a person who wants something interacting with someone who can either give them what they want or help them get it. Instead of being the person wanting, the designer is the helper. And one of their tools is an empathic language meant to 'help' the client find a level of comfort and/or acceptance — for example, Vignelli's pronunciation of "Ahm-peer".

If, as researchers at the University at Oxford suggest, words influence smells, then it would stand to reason that words can influence how someone perceives a presentation. One could accuse this use of euphemism as being deceptive, but if intentions are honest and considerate; perhaps we're just helping the client get the job done so they can move on to the next one.

Of course, your mileage may vary.
m. kingsley
05.20.05
03:09

"an 'arm's-length' relationship between the marketplace and the studio offers the best assurance that [the work] will remain substantial."
This is a romantic fantasy. We hope studio practice has rigor and honesty, however, if an artist told me he was divorced from the marketplace in the studio ("so, your rent is free, right?"), I'd say he'd bullshitting himself. Based on a lot of time spent in a lot of studios listening to a lot of artists, the "Marketplace" described above is the same as the Studio.
Kenneth FitzGerald
05.20.05
09:24

Kenneth, the point I was making concerned intention; and it seems yours is a bit more cynical than mine. In my experience dealing with clients, I find much less resistance when I'm able to empathize with their needs. Of course people being people, this is easier with some than others.

Like I said... your mileage may vary.
m. kingsley
05.20.05
11:40

As a point of comparison, in order to avoid any talk of bullshit, architects historically have resorted to architectural theory as a complement to their design work. Since Vitruvius, architectural theory before, during and after the design act has outlined the possible directions for design. Of the latter day practitioners for example, one can look at Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York prefiguring much of his later work.

Most of these intellectual architects' work usually gets criticized by their emperical colleagues as bullshit. However much this architectural theory could be spurious justification of architectural form, the works themselves, as pieces of architecture, can not be denigrated.
gökhan karakuş
05.26.05
01:53

I'm delighted to have stumbled upon this exchange. I worked at the Getty throughout the years of design development and construction of the Getty Center, often in the capacity of a consumer of (graphic) design. I agree that Concert of Wills is a remarkable film. While the stakes were admittedly much lower, I nonetheless faced a situation similar to Meier's -- having to come up with a solution that would satisfy a group of clients, each of whom had strong (and differing) opinions about what kind of an institution the Getty was or should be and how it should thus be translated into design. Our early annual reports and brochures had type-only covers because no one could ever agree on a single iconic image that would be acceptable to all concerned; later, we relied on montage and various Photo Shop solutions to get around the problem. In such a context, I was always grateful for whatever bullshit a designer could offer that might help me justify my decisions to higher-ups. With a knowledgeable client, bullshit is never a solution, but when it is backed up by good design it can help a client rationalize "gut feelings" to himself and to others. Of course, all of my colleagues on the client side were fairly deft bullshitters themselves so, in the end, it was often a matter of who was more full of it.

One observation re: the confrontation between Meier & Irwin. The latter's response came after Meier had accused him of being socially irresponsible in his work, a nastier and more gratuitous claim than "bullshit." Meier was right from a design perspective, but he was asking for trouble when he turned it into a moral crusade.

Second, the deck was stacked against Meier from the outset. The real conflict was between Meier and museum director John Walsh, who clerly would have preferred a different architect all along and saw the garden as a tactical victory against Meier. Irwin was a bit player in this drama.

Finally, the Getty Center may be Meier's least successful work, obviously the result of too many compromises -- with both the client and its wealthy NIMBY neighbors. Was that because of too little bullshit on Meier's part, or too much bullshit on everybody's part.
William Hackman
06.02.05
08:12

Perhaps some respondents should read Foucault's The order of things. To comment on Bierut's article on (design) bullshit, briefly the following. During 18 years of design practise, architecture, exhibitions, interiors, furniture etc I have seen and heard a lot of bullshit too. But to refer to design as a means of human expression as bullshit is inappropriate and naive. What if empirical knowledge has a structure. I would like to suggest it has. We don't need to justify everything. What is wrong with design as another means of human expression being fun, playful, outcome of years of accumulative knowledge. So what if every t and stop cannot be scientifically proven or explained ? Science has by no means proven everything either. There exists no logical path in life other than intuition and experience. This is the domain of design ! Perhaps some designers must simply stop trying to explain themselves all the time and just get on with it. There exists no ultimate answers in anything anyway since truth exists only untill the next hypothesis. If it is true that natural phenomenon determines theoretical principles (Pirzig), then designers as observers and facilitators of human interaction with the environment should be allowed to say things like "It does not feel right'" or "I don't think so." How could anyone call this persuit of a better quality of existence bullshit ?
If it makes you laugh or happy, it is real and meaningful.
Raymond Smith
06.13.05
05:22

Three cheers for that blast of good sense, Raymond Smith.
Rick Poynor
06.14.05
05:16

If I understand it correctly ...

Truth and Lies are not opposites, as Love and Hate are not opposites.

Rather, Truth and Bullshit are the real opposites, as Love and Indifference are the real opposites.

Lies hate and defy Truth, but in so doing must inherently care what the Truth is, whereas Bullshit is indifferent to what the Truth is.

In this way, Bullshit is Truth's true enemy (as Gunnar asserts above and Frankfurt asserts in On Bullshit).
Rick Slusher
06.21.05
08:31

A few of us were discussing some of these "bullshit" issues just this morning in the studio, as we designers -- perhaps hypocritically -- vented frustration amongst ourselves about our firm's current discrepancy between what the marketing department has lately seen fit to "sell" to prospective clients (via a healthy dose of bullshit), and what we designers actually do as the creators of what's being sold. It seems that in our office there are two vaguely different ideas afoot as to what exactly it is about our process and product that is desirable or valuable (and therefore what is sellable).

This discrepancy is similar to the one that often exists between designer and client: some degree of disagreement about the priority of the various virtues offered in a design. As discussed above, often the struggle is between aesthetic/intuitive/nebulous virtues versus quantifiable/tested/bottom-line virtues. Designers often use these latter virtues (client-priority) to grease the gears of the approval machine for the former virtues (designer-priority). It's the quasi-guarantee of return-on-investment that we feel compelled to offer. "Take the risk, and here's why you'll get the reward."

In light of this, I would define "design bullshit" as the disingenuous use of measurable principles to validate the unmeasurable virtues of a design. (In short, I agree with Michael's definition above, which I may simply have reworded!)

But I do think the "disingenuous" aspect is essential to identifying any particular design analysis as bullshit. In other words, sincerely-held design rationales are never bullshit, even if they're formulated after the design's completed. At times perhaps sincerity is the only difference between thoughtful analysis and sly snake oil sales. As Rick Poyner and others touch on above, what is design bullshit could simply be a question of the orator's intention and degree of sincerity.
Rick Slusher
06.21.05
08:36

Upon further reflection, is it oversimplifying things to suggest that the existence and use of design bullshit all boils down quite simply to money?

One of my great graphic design professors at the University of Cincinnati referred endlessly in his thick German accent to "ze COOL Factor" as an essential, if ultimately undefinable, ingredient to any successful design. I think ze Cool Factor falls into the category Michael has been referring to as "that which cannot be defended through reason." Some things about a design are just ... right. But this intuition alone never seems to feel like an adequate rationale to comfort a client who is spending big bucks and whose job may be on the line (even bigger bucks). Instead, our budget-conscious, cost-reducing marketplace has made both clients and designers insecure and has taught us that our clients' return-on-investment must be made as explicit, concrete, safe and rational as possible (and thereby easily retold by the clients to their bosses for buy-in, if need be) ... even if some bullshit is needed as a crutch in the dialogue.

This bullshit-by-money theory may also touch on the above debate over US versus UK attitudes toward bullshit. It's been mentioned that American culture has long celebrated swindlers over the years. (Even today's hip-hop music role models are called "hustlers," and that's no insult, fo' shizzle.) Surely this cultural affection for scam artists in America is descended from our capitalist roots. Selling is in our American blood, and the ability to do it well is elusive and admired. We secretly applaud the shrewd skills of deception insofar as they'll complete a transaction! The colloquialism "sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo," for instance, is usually an expression of admiration for the dubious ability to seduce people's money out of their pockets without giving anything of value to them in return.

Therefore the ability to bullshit -- essentially to get something (approval and payment) for nothing (insincere rationale) -- has slowly risen to prominence in this country in virtually every industry, design included ... not to mention in our government!

Kinda depressing, now that I think about it.
Rick Slusher
06.21.05
08:43

In order to effectively call bullshit, one must first assemble an intellectual crap detector... modified for bovine scatology.
Mark
06.28.10
02:46



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