Rick Poynor | Essays

From the Archive: Down with Innovation

The stone garden at the Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan. Photograph by Tedmoseby. Source: Wikipedia 

In the 1980s, when I began to write about design, its appeal seemed fairly obvious. Things that had received the attention of good designers tended to look better than their more routine counterparts. This improvement was layered with all kinds of meanings tied up with the question of how and why something looked better. Nor could visual appeal be dissociated from the function of an object, graphic, or interior design. If the designer’s visual concerns got in the way of the design’s intended use, then this was naturally a problem. But the crucial point was still that the designed object was attractive and provided a more pleasurable and engaging experience than undesigned or less-designed versions of the same experience.

Even then, some observers worried that designers saw their work as little more than decoration. Style was regularly denigrated for being superficial and empty-headed, usually by designers themselves. Yet the visual nature of design was not seriously challenged and designers continued to argue, as they had argued for decades, that “good design is good business.” By improving the design quality of their products, companies would sell more than competitors that hadn’t seen the light. Still, plenty of companies didn’t seem to get it. In defiance of common sense, or maybe because their leaders lacked a visual education and just didn’t know how to look at things, they really weren’t comfortable with designers or design.

But designers were right. By the 1990s, almost everyone was getting the message. Design had turned out to be as important as designers always insisted, and it was the force of their commitment, imagination, and creativity, as an expression of public need and desire — designers are people, not a breed apart — that had made it so. Design is now so important, it seems, that designers can no longer be trusted with it, and to make it absolutely clear that control has moved into someone else’s hands, design needs to be given a fancy new name. Call it design thinking. Call it innovation. “Everyone loves design but no one wants to call it design,” BusinessWeek’s Bruce Nussbaum informed the readers of Design Observer in a comment. “Top CEOs and managers want to call design something else — innovation. Innovation, that they are comfortable with. Design, well, it’s a little too wild and crazy for them.” Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, offers this prescription: “Businesspeople don’t just need to understand designers better — they need to become designers.”

The first step in the process of disempowering designers is to insinuate that, despite all that time at design school followed by years of doing the job, they have an incomplete grasp of design. They are so preoccupied with fussing over the details and their need to “make things pretty” — tantamount, it’s always implied, to a character flaw — that the big picture passes them by. “Designers like the shiny-shiny,” writes Peter Merholz, president of the design and consulting firm Adaptive Path. “That’s often why they got into design.” Merholz has apparently spent his career “fighting small-minded design thought, particularly in the world of graphic design where the cool, novel, and stylish is lauded over the useful, usable, and truly engaging.” Enough of those pesky design stars with an overinflated belief in their own creative vision! “Design is getting a lot more humble, and that is a very good thing,” says Adam Greenfield, who teaches in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. “I take my inspiration from guys like Jasper Morrison or Naoto Fukasawa, who very consciously try to step out of the role of godhead or genius or expert.” Never mind that Morrison, however mild his manner, has been a highly publicized design luminary for the better part of 20 years.

Having written off designers as mere stylists with insufferable egos, whose sole aim is to impose their impractical excesses on long-suffering consumers whom they never trouble to consult, the way is clear for a new breed of intermediary to step up and take business’s hand. They might once have called themselves design consultants — the rhetoric is not so different — but today they are known as design thinkers and innovation experts. For these design-ovators, everything is subordinate to strategy. Design is one small cog in an elaborate analytical machine intended to dazzle prospective clients into believing that they are dealing with rigorous professionals who work with precise methodologies and defined, quantifiable outcomes. “The great news for designers about the rise of corporate interest in innovation is that it recognizes, more than ever before, the strategic contribution of design to product, service, information, and environmental offerings,” says Larry Keeley, co-founder of the “innovation strategy” firm Doblin. Doblin has an impressive chart detailing 10 types of innovation it addresses in the areas of finance, process, offering, and delivery. In the explanations of “business model,” “networking,” “product performance,” “customer experience,” and so on, the word “design” doesn’t occur once.

Design thinkers are masterly at weaving a dense web of plausible-sounding words around their analysis — just read their blogs — and this is where they win out against designers, who generally speak most eloquently through their work. But if we leave aside the self-serving patter aimed at building a would-be design thinker’s reputation and wooing clients, what are the innovationists saying? Let’s hear from Ziba, highly regarded in innovation circles, explaining its approach to experience design, in 2008, on its website: “Customers seek beautiful everyday experiences. To be moved. To grow. Laugh. Cry. Discover. Move beyond their basic needs. Surprise them — maybe throw in a bit of suspense . . . inspire, educate, involve and entertain. The right combination creates insane loyalty.” Whether Ziba clients such as Pepsi, Dell, Black & Decker, Starbucks, and Frito-Lay do any or all of this for you is a matter of taste (for me, it’s a “’fraid not”). But let’s be clear that the big conclusion about “insane loyalty” is pure marketing hogwash.

If a continuous cycle of vital innovation is going on, why do the mission statements sound so trite and patronizing? And, actually, which is more patronizing: to create something you believe in because you think other people might like it too, and just put it out there? (The old, design, way.) Or to study every facet of consumers’ behavior with the intention of filling them with feelings of “insane loyalty” for your client’s products? (The new, innovation, way.) Lest there be any doubt about the ultimate goal of all this higher-grade design thinking, Fast Company magazine has the lowdown: “It’s taken years of slogging through Design = high style to bring us full circle to the simple truth about design thinking. That it is a most powerful tool and, when used effectively, can be the foundation for driving a brand or business forward.” In other words, good design is still good business. While this view of design remains as limited as it ever was — what else might good design be? — it is becoming harder and harder to keep sight of what is wrong with a culture mediated largely by commercial forces pursuing their own ends. But it comes down to this: Is an encounter with an everyday brand — a bottle of soda, a power tool, a packet of snacks — the place to go if you want to be moved, to seek education, or to grow as a person, and aren’t there better places to find those kinds of experiences?

This brings us back to design’s visual qualities. It is hardly surprising that designers try to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the accusation that they are hung up on making things look pretty. Belittling language of this kind suggests that the visual is inherently trivial, easy to do, and beneath consideration, that form is not a powerful medium of expression and carries no meaning for the viewer. Design thinkers like to talk as though we have somehow passed beyond the stage where the way things look needs to be a primary concern, and designers, browbeaten and demoralized, half seem to believe them. They have been too ready to accept the caricature of themselves as airheaded stylists who care about insignificant niceties of no concern to anyone else. At the very point when designers most need to mount a spirited defense of the visual, many seem to have lost their nerve and fallen silent.

Yet the rhetorical reduction of design to frivolous prettification reveals a willful blindness to the power of expressive form-making, if not a deep, philistine ignorance of the history of design and visual culture. The scale of the oversight is so colossal, and frankly baffling, one hardly knows where to start. Are the great cathedrals of Europe — Reims, Lincoln, Chartres — merely pretty? Are the gardens of Kyoto? Is Alvar Aalto’s Paimio armchair? Was Alexey Brodovitch’s Portfolio magazine? How about Leica cameras? The patterns on Moorish ceramic tiles? Or the PowerBook and the iPod? There is surely no need to go on.

A moment ago I used the word culture, a notoriously awkward concept. According to the critic Raymond Williams writing in Keywords, his classic lexicon, culture is used in two crucial senses. In cultural anthropology — now there’s a word the innovators love to bat around — it refers primarily to material production, while in history and cultural studies it refers primarily to signifying or symbolic systems. Combining these usages, we might conclude that culture is about things (which have a look) and meanings (conveyed by how they look). Whichever way you look at them — so long as you do actually look — these products of our culture tell us who we are. There is bound to be a relationship between impoverished ways of (design) thinking and impoverished visual form.

Design thinkers set great store by business targets, by driving the enterprise forward, because it is exactly what their clients want to hear and it gets them work. Seen from outside the cozy bond of service provider and client, this is a severely limited way of viewing design, and the total domination of current design discussion by this kind of commercial rhetoric is a worrying trend. Michael Bierut is one of the few designers to call out the design thinkers and question their nostrums, so I asked him whether design has a cultural value beyond its business uses and functional purposes. “The business use — the specific goal that motivated the client or sponsor to initially fund the work — often fades away, sometimes quickly,” he says. “In some ways, you might argue that aesthetic value — for an enduring design, at least — is the only lasting value, since over time functional needs can change and business moves on to the next goal.” Approaching heresy at a time when aesthetic quality is the last thing we are supposed to consider, Bierut goes so far as to modestly propose that “just making something look nicer” or “replacing something ugly with something not so ugly” is an admirable goal for designers.

That probably sounds woefully simplistic to design thinkers. Where is the system? Where are the charts and diagrams, the Capitalized Concepts, the new ways of thinking uniquely suited to market conditions now? To understand why it isn’t at all simple, to appreciate how hard it is to create something special, of lasting quality, you need to know a little about design.

The problem that designers face now is the same problem they have faced all along: how to communicate with clients who lack a basic grounding in the visual arts and don’t seem to think it matters. Businesspeople don’t need to become designers. They need to learn that there are types of awareness and understanding expressed through visual form that even a team of the finest poets would be hard-pressed to summarize as a list of handy PowerPoint bullets. Music, dance, and the visual arts operate on a different plane from words. As Dori Tunstall, design teacher and anthropologist, says: “There is an inherent intelligence to beauty, which is about the depth and passion we feel for the world.” Design thinkers like to wax lyrical about the elegance of their strategic thinking as a form of design in its own right, as though this could ever be a substitute. They can keep it — in a hundred years, if there are museums then, no one will queue to see a strategy. Give me something tangible, something brilliant and extraordinary that illuminates our perception of what human life can be. For that, we still need designers.

This essay was first published in I.D., May 2008. It is no longer available on the I.D. website and is republished here, with minor updates, under the magazine’s original title.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business

Comments [7]

Great article and explains what I have always felt to be instinctively true. Corbusier's buildings aren't great because of his theories, which often seem like puff pieces and nonsense, they are great because of the buildings themselves, which transcend explanation. I can't remember which photographer said about teaching photography, (a paraphrase): "It's ironic, what's important about it, I can't teach."
Doug C.

Well put, Doug.

What fascinates me is the propensity to see design, business and culture as a zero sum game. For one to grow, the others need to be diminished. An alternative way to look at reconciling these disciplines is to consider each a discrete layer, much like a Photoshop layer. Each layer is important in and of itself, either by virtue of being beautiful, insightful, efficient or profitable. Sometimes by combining layers you can create something more beautiful, insightful, efficient or profitable. It isn't a requirement but it is an opportunity.
Frank Muscara

I was at an agency that changed their formal title from " __ Design" to "__ Strategic Branding and Design" to "__ Brand Consulting" in a matter of a few years. They would say they were just responding to clients' perception of the word "design" but they were in fact feeding into that perception by continually diminishing its importance. Plus, the biggest insult I took from it was the implication that strategy was not part of design – that the "strategy team" would handle the big thinking and then hand it off to the designers to make it look pretty in the computer. There's not one project in my career that didn't start off with an analysis the core problem, the audience and the functional parameters. Good design IS good business. Unfortunately, it's said much more by designers than by businesses.

It's easy to dislike some of the "design thinkers" mentioned here. Many are shameless self-promotors with big claims of creative expertise and little substance. But unlike Beirut's light-hearted jabs, this article reflects a more fundamental disdain and otherness ascribed to such a role if "real" designers feel they have more in common 13th century French masons. The fact is, there is a very real void between business and design that some people move in to fill. Oftentimes this role (by various names) is not replacing a visual designer, but dealing with factors that bridge design to business, technology, the law, consumers, etc. that visual designers are often extremely uninterested in. It's more of a broad/shallow focus than a narrow/deep one and can actually help facilitate, expose, and enable better designers. It's akin to how musicians work with distributors, managers, bookers, and marketers in order to focus on what they do and make money doing it. Of course you can avoid all of that and live the life a poor but pure artist. Or you can also take on the other roles to maximize control and earnings. But this article seems to place designers in some obnoxious in-between - expect to be paid, understood, and appreciated for doing important work without stooping to listen to or understand the people you're working for.

As with the 'First Things First' manifesto, this sounds like more of a condemnation of capitalism expressed via judgement of other designers who 'play the game'. The immediate reaction might be an ego boost and feeling of solidarity for those who also don't like the game, but it just leads to a feeling of impotence or identity confusion - especially if one is unemployed. Exacerbating tension between designers at different places or skill levels on the continuum between art and commerce does more damage than good. With this separation, visual designers remain proudly ignorant about factors that can better their work or careers thus getting marginalized further, academics become more out of touch with the most visible and powerful parts of industry, and practicing professionals lose any connection to art and criticism and their original inspiration.

I think Mr. Poynor makes his argument perfectly clearly — the best design is done by designers — period. Not by people who think about design, write about it, or talk about it, but by people that make it. The same can be said about art, dance, music, fashion, or really anything for that matter.

"Good design" and "innovation" are presented here as the same thing, or perhaps two sides of the same coin. But a lot of bad design has come from a primary emphasis on innovation, which has been going on for at least a century and a quarter (think Frank Lloyd Wright).
John Massengale

I am so interested in this blog because I as an artist go through so much. My cousin and I seem to go through the same things based on the fact that we are the only ones in our immediate family to understand what it is to design something. As an artist/designer/photographer/sketch artist, we deal with so many ill taught minds that it gets us frustrated when we are asked to do things. I really love this quote, "As Dori Tunstall, design teacher and anthropologist, says: “There is an inherent intelligence to beauty, which is about the depth and passion we feel for the world.” Design thinkers like to wax lyrical about the elegance of their strategic thinking as a form of design in its own right, as though this could ever be a substitute. They can keep it — in a hundred years, if there are museums then, no one will queue to see a strategy. Give me something tangible, something brilliant and extraordinary that illuminates our perception of what human life can be. For that, we still need designers".
Robert Glover

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