Baxter, the protagonist in John Cheever's short story "The Chaste Clarissa," is vacationing on a Cape Cod island. He discovers to his pleasure that a nearby house is to be looked after all summer by his neighbor's extraordinarily beautiful but stupid new wife — the Clarissa of the story's title — while his neighbor is in Europe. Baxter, a practiced seducer, sets his sights on Clarissa, but to no avail. He tries everything, flattery, chivalry, presents, but Clarissa responds coldly. Until, by accident, responding absently to still another of her inane offhand remarks, he murmurs, "You're so intelligent."
You don't mean that, she answers. He assures her that he does. "I can't be intelligent," she says. "No one ever takes me seriously until they get their arms around me." Baxter assures her that, no, he finds her ideas fascinating and would love to hear more of her opinions. And as she spills them out, he knows he has her, and that's how the story ends. "'You're very intelligent,' he said, now and then. 'You're so intelligent.' It was as simple as that."
Which brings me to today's theme. Designers of the world, it's as simple as that. You're so intelligent!
I thought of the Chaste Clarissa last week while we were all distracting ourselves with one of those perfect end of summer bits of nonsense, the public meltdown of Miss South Carolina, Lauren Caitlin Upton, during the essay question section of the Miss Teen USA competition. Like many others who had spent our high school years being essentially invisible to the cheerleading squad, I found it reassuring to note once again how seldom beauty and intelligence seem to coexist. Yet, in a way I cannot explain, I sensed what was coming when Ms. Upton revealed several days later to the sympathetic hosts of the Today show that she was not, in fact, dumb, but would be attending football powerhouse Appalachian State University where she would be studying, yes, graphic design.
Perhaps design is the field of mindless prettiness. But hasn't it always been so? After all, most of us entered the profession not because we've determined after long thought that it represented a more effective way of influencing the course of world events than, say, law or medicine. Instead, somewhere along the way, we discovered we liked making things look good, and that we were better at it than other people.
Yet in all the years I was involved with the AIGA, I heard the members demand one thing over and over again, and from this I got a pretty clear idea of what designers want. And it wasn't to be better designers; interestingly, almost every designer I've ever met has been serenely confident in his or her ability to make things look good, thank you very much. No, what designers wanted then and want now, more than anything else, is respect. Respect from clients. Respect from the general public. Respect from — let's go right to the cliché — our moms. We want to be seen as more than mere stylists, we want to set the agenda, to be involved earlier in the strategic process, to be granted a place at the table. In short, just like the Chaste Clarissa, we want to be taken seriously.
Like many designers, for years I used a tried-and-true tactic to hoist my way up the respect ladder, a technique I will here call Problem Definition Escalation. If you've listened carefully to the lyrics to "Gee, Officer Krupke" in West Side Story you already know how this works. The client asks you to design a business card. You respond that the problem is really the client's logo. The client asks you to design a logo. You say the problem is the entire identity system. The client asks you to design the identity. You say that the problem is the client's business plan. And so forth. One or two steps later, you can claim whole industries and vast historical forces as your purview. The problem isn't making something look pretty, you fool, it's world hunger!
I'm not sure when I got tired of this. The first few times I was asked to offer my opinion about my client's business strategy, I was flattered. I was even more pleased when my advice seemed to be — a dream come true — taken seriously. But I noticed I was spending more and more of my time in meetings, volunteering ideas about things that I wasn't any more qualified to put forward than a lot of the people in those same meetings were offering about my design work. Finally, I found myself at a design conference listening to still another demand that clients give us designers that coveted place at that legendary table where all the big decisions are made. Sitting next to me was one of my favorite clients, someone I treasure for her levelheadedness and good humor. "I've spent hours at that table," she whispered to me. "It's not that great, you know."
I forget the theme of that particular conference, but like so many others, it may as well have been Designers: You're So Intelligent. Like Clarissa, designers yearn to be respected for our minds. Like Clarissa, we take our real gifts — our miraculous fluency with beauty, our ability to manipulate form in a way that can touch people's hearts — for granted. Those are the gifts that matter, and the paths through which we create things that truly endure.
You can take anything I say with a grain of salt. After all, it's coming from someone who put out a design book with 75,000 words and not a single picture. But here's my advice. Designers, you don't have to be dumb. Just don't be so afraid of being beautiful.