The Politics of Design

13 Aug 2007 - 2:05pm
692 reads
Andrei Herasimchuk

I read this essay every three or four years. I find it to be the most
accurate expression of what I feel day to day in my chosen
profession. I'm sure many of you will figure out who wrote it very
early on, but try to not skip to the end if you can.

Please forgive the transcription errors. I still am a terrible typist
even after all this time.


The Politics of Design

It is no secret that the real world in which the designer functions
is not the world of art, but the world of buying and selling. For
sales, and not design are the raison d'etre of any business
organization. Unlike the the salesman, however, the designer's
overriding motivation is art: art in the service of business, art
that enhances the quality of life and deepens appreciation of the
familiar world.

Design is a problem-solving activity. It provides a means of
clarifying, synthesizing, and dramatizing a word, a picture, a
product, or an event. A serious barrier to the realization of good
design, however, are the layers of management inherent in any
bureaucratic structure. For aside from the sheer prejudice or simple
unawareness, one is apt to encounter such absurdities as second
guessing, kow-towing, posturing, nit-picking, and jockeying for
position, let alone such buck-passing institutions as the committee
meeting and the task force. At issue, it seems, is neither
malevolence nor stupidity, but human frailty.

The smooth functioning of the design process may be thwarted in other
ways, by the imperceptive executive, who in matters of design
understands neither his proper role nor that of the designer; by the
eager but cautious advertising man whose principal concern is
pleasing his client; and by the insecure client who depends on
informal office surveys and pseudo-scientific research to deal with
questions that are unanswerable and answers that are questionable.

Unless the design function in business bureaucracy is so structured
that direct access to the ultimate decision-maker is possible, trying
to produce good work is very often an exercise in futility. Ignorance
of the history and methodology of design -- how work is conceived,
produced, and reproduced -- adds to the difficulties and
misunderstandings. Design is a way of life, a point of view. It
involves the whole complex of visual communication: talent, creative
ability, manual skill, and technical knowledge. Aesthetics and
economics, technology and psychology are intrinsically relate to the

One of the more common problems which tends to create doubt and
confusion is caused by the inexperienced and anxious executive who
innocently expects, or even demands, to see not one but many
solutions to a problem. These may include a number of visual and/or
verbal concepts, an assortment of layouts, a variety of pictures and
color schemes, as well as a choice of type styles. He needs the
reassurance of numbers and the opportunity to exercise his personal
preferences. He is also most likely to be the one to insist on
endless revisions with unrealistic deadlines, adding to an already
wasteful and time-consuming ritual. Theoretically, a great number of
ideas assures a great number of choices, but such choices are
essentially quantitative. This practice is as bewildering as it is
wasteful. It discourages spontaneity, encourages indifference, and
more often than not produces results which are neither distinguished,
interesting, nor effective. In short, good ideas rarely come in bunches.

The designer who voluntarily presents his client with a batch of
layouts does so not out prolificacy, but out of uncertainty or fear.
He thus encourages the client to assume the role of referee. In the
event of genuine need, however, the skillful designer is able to
produce a reasonable number of good ideas. But quantity by demand is
quite different than quantity by choice. Design is a time-consuming
occupation. Whatever his working habits, the designer fills many a
wastebasket in order to produce one good idea. Advertising agencies
can be especially guilty in this numbers game. Bent on impressing the
client with their ardor, they present a welter of layouts, many of
which are superficial interpretations of potentially good ideas, or
slick renderings of trite ones.

Frequent job reassignments within an active business are additional
impediments about which management is often unaware. Persons
unqualified to make design judgments are frequently shifted into
design-sensitive positions. The position of authority is then used as
evidence of expertise. While most people will graciously accept and
appreciate criticism when it comes from a knowledgeable source, they
will resent it (openly or otherwise) when it derives solely from a
power position, even though the manager may be highly intelligent or
have self-professed "good taste." At issue is not the right, or even
the duty, to question, but the right to make design judgment. Such
misuse of privilege is a disservice to management and
counterproductive to good design. Expertise in business
administration, journalism, accounting, or selling, though necessary
in its place, is not expertise in problems dealing with visual
appearance. The salesman who can sell you the most sophisticated
computer typesetting equipment is rarely one who appreciates fine
typography or elegant proportions. Actually, the plethora of bad
design that we see all around us can probably be attributed as much
to good salesmanship as to bad taste.

Deeply concerned with every aspect of the production process, the
designer must often contend with inexperienced production personnel
and time-consuming purchasing procedures, which stifle enthusiasm,
instinct, and creativity. Though peripherally involved in making
aesthetic judgments (choosing printers, papermakers, typesetters and
other suppliers), purchasing agents are for the most part ignorant of
design practices, insensitive to subtleties that mean quality, and
unaware of marketing needs. Primarily and rightly concerned with cost-
cutting, they mistakenly equate elegance with extravagance and
parsimony with wise business judgement.

These problems are by no means confined to the bureaucratic
corporation. Artists, writers, and others in the fields of
communication and visual arts, in government or private industry, in
schools or churches, must constantly cope with those who do not
understand and are therefore unsympathetic to their ideas. The
designer is especially vulnerable because design is grist for
anybody's mill. "I know what I like" is all the authority one needs
to support one's critical aspirations.

Like the businessman, the designer is amply supplied with his own
frailties. But unlike him, he is often inarticulate, a serious
problem in an arena in which semantic difficulties so often arise.
This is more pertinent in graphic design than in the industrial or
architectural fields, because graphic design is more open to
aesthetic than to functional preferences.

Stubborness may be one of the designer's admirable or notorious
qualities (depending on one's point of view) -- a principled refusal
to compromise, or a means to camouflage inadequacy. Design cliches,
meaningless patterns, stylish illustrations, and predetermined
solutions are signs of such weakness. An understanding of the
significance of modernism and familiarity with the history of design,
painting, architecture, and other disciplines, which distinguish the
educated designer and make his role more meaningful, are not every
designer's strong points.

The designer, however, needs all the support he can muster, for his
is a unique but unenviable position. His work is subject to every
imaginable interpretation and to every piddling piece of fact-
finding. Ironically, he seeks not only the applause off the
connoisseur, but the approbation of the crowd.

A salutary working relationship is not only possible but essential.
Designers are not always intransigent, nor are all purchasing agents
blind to quality. Many responsible advertising agencies are not
unaware of the role that design plays as a communication force. As
for the person who pays the piper, the businessman who is sympathetic
and understanding is not altogether illusory. He is professional,
objective, and alert to new ideas. He places responsibility where it
belongs and does not feel insecure enough to see himself as an expert
in a field other than his own. He is, moreover, able to provide a
harmonious environment in which goodwill, understanding, spontaneity,
and mutual trust -- qualities so essential to the accomplishment of
creative work -- may flourish.

Similarly, the skilled graphic designer is a professional whose world
is divided between lyricism and pragmatism. He is able to distinguish
between trendiness and innovation, between obscurity and originality.
He uses freedom of expression not as a license for abstruse ideas,
and tenacity not as bullheadedness but as evidence of his own
convictions. His is an independent spirit guided more by an "inner
artistic standard of excellence"(1) than by some external influence.
At the same time as he realizes that good design must withstand the
rigors of the marketplace, he believes that without good design the
marketplace is a showcase of visual vulgarity.

The creative arts have always labored under adverse conditions.
Subjectivity emotion, and opinion seem to be concomitants of artistic
questions. The layman feels insecure and awkward about making design
judgments, even though he pretends to make them with a certain
measure of know-how. But, like it or not, business conditions compel
many to get inextricably involved with problems in which design plays
some role.

For the most part, the creation or effects of design, unlike science,
are neither measurable nor predictable, nor are the results
necessarily repeatable. If there is any assurance, besides faith, a
businessman can have, it is in choosing talented, competent, and
experienced designers.

Meaningful design, design of quality and wit, is no small
achievement, even in an environment in which good design is
understood, appreciated, and ardently accepted, and in which profit
is not the only motive. At best, work that has any claim to
distinction is the exception, even under the most ideal
circumstances. After all, our epoch can boast of only one A.M.

- Paul Rand
from "A Designer's Art"

(1) Anthony Storr, "The Dynamics of Creation", (New York, 1972), 189.


Rand was speaking about a career in graphic design, but he's
abstracted the issues facing designers more broadly to make it
relevant to most regardless of their specific design discipline. Even
to those in our field, which while influenced by the kind of work
designers of his stature produced before us, have largely grown past
the confines of print.

Design is communication. That is something we are all taught and
accept as truth. And yet now with the work we do and the evolution of
technology, design has become even more. Design is now evolving into
a fully formed conversation, since those for whom we design now
actively play a role in the final product like they had not in the
past due to the limits of what was possible. This compounds the
problems Rand speaks of in this essay a thousand fold, and sets us up
against an even larger wall to scale and cross over.

But as with all evolution, it will happen whether we accept it or not.

Andrei Herasimchuk

Principal, Involution Studios
innovating the digital world

e. andrei at
c. +1 408 306 6422

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