Saturday, January 3, 2009

Do your dinner guests quiver in excitement...or in fear?

Can you cook? I mean really cook? I mean your friends and family love it when you host the dinner party and your appetizer is the first one attacked at the potluck. If so, chances are that the word recipe has significance similar to "guidelines" or even "suggestions" rather than "rules" or "the straight and narrow". Design is like cooking. And as with cooking, there are those who generate joy and delight during the creation and consumption, there are those who get a job done, and there are those who really ought to re-examine the color of their parachute.

As I was contemplating writing this post and using this metaphor, I came across this from Bill Buxton (in his wonderful book Sketching User Experiences, also linked to earlier): "(L)isting ingredients is always risky. Just because I give you flour, milk, yeast, eggs, and an oven does not mean that you know how to make bread at all, much less the multitude of variations that you might find in a good bakery." This is exactly the sort of analogy I had been thinking about. Just because someone knows the design process and a pattern or two and what the end product is generally supposed to be like does not mean that that person is a designer. He goes on to discuss the complexities and content of designing, but let me make sure this is clear. Neither I, nor he, are drawing a parallel to needing more unrestrained creativity in design. In other words, the parameters of cooking are typically a little larger and looser than the design we practice, and I am not stating that designers should practice wild creativity, though it can be a good thing. I am saying that far too many people calling themselves designers are at best good only at finding and following a recipe and at worst are burning toast. Now, I don't mean most, but simply too many. But that condition has been true for many years and has led to many of the problems that we have with consumer rejection of our interface product. All who call themselves designers need to frequently examine whether they are truly performing a service in the best sense of that word. I have come to believe that there is an element of morality in the design profession, similar to being a physician or a law enforcement official. Which means that practicing design simply to earn a buck or have something to do is lacking ethically and morally. It does a disservice and may even cause harm greater than the negative economic consequences it leads to.

So, if you cannot claim to be even a recipe follower, then I encourage to do some self-examination and consult people you trust about changing careers. If you are a recipe follower, I encourage you to seek the path of becoming a chef. And if you are a chef, I implore you most strongly and even charge you with the responsibility of exercising ethics and morality in your design practice:

Always practice the best design possible.

Always point out when design compromise will lead to intolerable consequences.

Be bold in identifying bad design.


We simply must change the role of design from creating specifications to improving life.

Make 2009 the Year of Good Design.

Happy New year!