Vague Strategy and Strategic Vagueness

There’s a reason designers describe their field in abstract terms.

The most uncomfortable task I have to undertake at a party is explaining to strangers what I do. When asked, I say that I’m studying industrial design, which usually elicits the self-consciously stiff look of an interlocutor staring down impending boredom: “Oh, so . . . you make, like, packaging?”

Yes, that’s part of it, and now I’m screwed.

The smart thing for me to do in this situation would be to explain the specifics of my day-to-day in concrete terms: drawing up plans, building models and prototypes, opaque brainstorming rituals involving ecologically unconscionable quantities of post-it notes, and so forth. But anyone who has attended design school experiences a compulsive urge to describe “design” as designers typically see it, which is as an abstract strategic process completely independent from any specific subfield or practice.

This process is believed to be a unifying feature of all design disciplines — products, graphics, web, fashion, architecture, interiors, branding, landscaping, whatever. It’s bizarrely difficult, however, to articulate what the process actually involves without sounding like you’re just dodging the question, not least when you’re drunk, in which case there’s the added risk of embarrassing yourself with non sequitur usage of terms like “visual language,” “product-service system,” and “innovate.” This will reliably eliminate your potential friend’s fear of boredom and replace it with a suspicion that you are not only out of touch with reality, but a self-promoting sleaze.

My usual response, then, is to panic and mumble nonsense sounds that I pray will be mistaken for speech. By the time of the inevitable “So what do you actually do?” I have stopped listening, my concentration entirely devoted to figuring out whether I’m close enough to discretely pull the fire alarm.

Since word got around about my fire alarm habit people have stopped inviting me to parties, so I’ve had lots of time to reflect on why it’s so hard to answer that basic question. The conclusion I’ve reached: the development of “design” as a concept has been defined in part by efforts to avoid defining it.

Belief and interest in an amorphous design-in-the-abstract — a set of general methods that can be applied to any planning problem, methods that can be taught independently from specific applications — has developed over the past century for particular reasons. Some of those have to do with changes in the modes of production, such as the ongoing rarefaction of divisions of labor and the growth of evermore layers of productive abstraction.

But the trend has also been driven by much more mundane, less recognized causes, including the fact that making your job sound as grandiose and expansive as possible is a good way to stoke your ego and milk clients for cash. Deliberate or not, there’s a tactical benefit to the lofty vagueness with which designers describe their occupation.

This is not to say that design-in-the-abstract is some kind of fraud, a fiction invented by a bunch of unrelated professions as part of a conspiracy to promote their work. On the contrary, designers in many fields today need to be generalists rather than specialists. They need to be skilled in abstract problem solving and integrating knowledge from disparate areas (though the casualty can often be the very craft skills the layperson associates with the word “design”).

In his preface to the influential 1988 anthology Design After Modernism, John Thackara wrote, “Traditional notions of ‘design’ are, both practically and theoretically, defunct. . . . If our new understanding of ‘design’ is too broad to be subsumed into a single word, then that is a separate problem.” Changes in “our” understanding of design are only part of the story however, as the objects of design themselves have also undergone a shift toward the immaterial and conceptual.

As critic Ralph Caplan commented, “What a designer designs today may not be even a symbolic product but a system or part of a system, or a marketing program, or an exhibition on ‘ingenuity,’ or a feasibility study, or an identity program in which the subject identified is so nebulous that all form is arbitrary.”

Indeed, it’s not uncommon for students to spend most of their undergrad years making furniture, then graduate into a job doing “user experience design” or “information architecture.”

But trends in the nature of design work are not always tightly tied to trends in how designers talk publicly about design; the long tradition of designers evangelizing their trade in vague, conceptual language far predates the postmodern epidemic of accelerated abstraction.

From the start, it has been driven by factors that are considerably less grand. Designers and architects, like philosophers and physicists, are prone to egocentric fantasies in which all other disciplines are boring subfields of their own. And frankly it’s no secret that in client work, it’s best to cultivate a certain lack of clarity about the limitations of your expertise.

Over the years, the “What is design?” question has prompted revealingly spacey answers from some of the twentieth century’s most famous designers and critics. Here’s Victor Papanek: “A conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order.” And Herbert Simon: “Devising courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” And Ralph Caplan: “The artful arrangement of materials or circumstances into a planned form.” Bruce Archer, who made great efforts to garner recognition for design as an academic field, offered this mouthful: “The area of human experience, skill, and understanding that reflects man’s concern with the appreciation and adaptation of his surroundings in the light of his material and spiritual needs.”

What all of these definitions have in common is that they contain virtually no information. Each description could encompass the entirety of deliberate human activity. From there, it’s only a short logical leap to the appealing delusion that an expert in design is an expert in everything, and that even if professional designers are perhaps not the people best qualified to do every sort of work, they should at least be paid to oversee it. It’s rare, of course, to meet a designer so full of megalomania and cockiness that he or she would endorse that view explicitly (though I know a couple), but it’s a surprisingly common subtext in situations where designers are employed.

It’s tough to pinpoint the genesis of this disciplinary expansionism, but it probably began at the Bauhaus, in the 1920s, with Walter Gropius and Bruno Taut’s notion of “Total Architecture.” From the standpoint of the present, German modernism had a disturbingly fascist bent, underscored in hindsight by the fact that early-twentieth-century German artists and designers tended to be big fans of Richard Wagner. Total Architecture was a variation on Wagner’s vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, in which all artistic disciplines would be united and synthesized to create an operatic work under the direction of a single composer. Total Architecture, to simplify it grossly, was the idea that architects should be in charge of everything. It’s “a fantasy about control,” as the architect Mark Wigley has described it, “in which the architect is authorized to design everything, from the teaspoon to the city. Architecture is understood to be everywhere. Indeed, it is argued that the influence of the architect has to be felt at every scale, or society would go terribly wrong.”

By the time Gropius resigned as director of the Bauhaus in 1928, the school’s architecture curriculum had been widely adopted internationally. Similarly totalizing conceptions of design quickly spread to other fields, though not always with such high-minded aesthetic motivations. Depression-era manufacturers in the US began investing more heavily in styling, in an attempt to coax money out of thrifty consumers, and industrial designers seized the opportunity to expand their own practices. Since expanding practices is sort of an end in itself, this often involved moving into areas previously unassociated with design.

So went the rise of Raymond Loewy, dubbed the “Father of Industrial Design” and best remembered for his streamlined styling of cars and locomotives. Loewy at least was upfront about his objectives: as he told his publicist in 1941, his goal was to be on the cover of Time. He subsequently grew his studio into a broad consultancy that did everything from store interiors to market research. But when he did make the Time cover in 1949, design was still widely viewed as nothing more than “applied art,” a superficial add-on for boosting product sales. Beneath Loewy’s picture on the cover, the title read, “DESIGNER RAYMOND LOEWY: He streamlines the sales curve.”

Now things are different. Loewy’s model of the multidisciplinary studio that will do anything for a price has been institutionalized in the form of the design consultancy. Firms like IDEO, Frog, and Continuum have made names for themselves by providing an array of services, from typography to management consulting (“business design”), and it’s not unusual for a company’s in-house design team to be involved in top-level planning decisions. Indeed, many business leaders have come to believe that design serves an indispensable function at the highest tiers of management. It’s just not always clear what function.

“Design-led business” is one of this season’s corporate buzz phrases. A few seasons back, it was “design strategy.” Various design associations, and advocacy groups and their lobbyists (yes, there are design lobbyists), will give different definitions of these terms, but they mostly boil down to the idea that designers should be the ones running companies. The UK Design Council boasts, “Our Design Index — an index of 61 design-led businesses — has out-performed the FTSE 100 by more than 200% over the past decade.”

Companies where designers make strategic decisions are likely to have better practices in a lot of areas, but those don’t necessarily require professional design qualifications to implement. They include: unclogging bureaucracy, actively seeking out new opportunities, not making ugly stuff, and paying attention to how people actually use things.

It’s disingenuous to promote the idea that these are the exclusive purview of a single professional group. Professionalized design can have an exploitative character, leveraging its growing institutional status to extract rent from clients by claiming a monopoly on widely needed skills.

Designers themselves offer the most acerbic critiques of the design strategy trend. The British consultancy Mind Design has a satirical strategy arm, “Poopoo Strategy” (slogan: “We know shit.”), which advertises the following:

So far we have been doing design without any thinking at all. Our work had no purpose and no direction, it just miraculously materialised. Things have changed. Now we also offer strategy (!!!) to our clients. We wear nice clean shirts and talk a lot, using all the latest marketing buzzwords (don’t worry if you don’t understand them, we don’t understand them either). We have the biggest flip charts, order new stacks of Post-its on a weekly basis, we organise holistic client workshops, spoil our focus groups with luxurious lunches, produce highly impressive powerpoint presentations, convincing diagrams and technically advanced logo construction drawings. We offer the full programme! Enjoy the ride through our process! 100% boardroom satisfaction guaranteed. Obviously we will charge you for it — shit loads.

The strategists lampooned here are just the latest in a long line of designers who have sought money and status by obscuring and essentializing their work. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a case of sleaziness, but for all the scummy aspects of the new design-industrial complex, I can’t help but see something admirable in it. It’s almost — not really, but almost — well alright, it isn’t at all, but from a certain angle it looks like — a large-scale con of management by labor. Design used to be a form of factory work — just one rung above the assembly line, performed in cramped rooms at long rows of drawing boards by poorly paid draftsmen. In the 1980s, there was even speculation that it could be automated: Thackara writes in Design After Modernism that

The notion that all design and planning in an information society, because it does not involve manual work, is necessarily intellectual and creative, is one eagerly propagated by the ideologues of the information society. But the reality is quite different. . . . The first step in the machine displacement of human professionals (such as designers) is the standardization of their methodology.

Turns out that’s difficult if no one knows quite what you do.