16 July 2010

Essential Reading

The whole infuriating so-called debate over "Design Imperialism" has annoyed me to the point where I've had to try and stop paying attention. (and no - I'm not linking to any of the drivel on the subject - feel free to use Google).

That said... I have no choice but to vent a little - but then also suggest a solution to my issues.


This whole design imperialism argument illustrates one of the things about "design thinking" as practiced that I find most irritating. Just as with almost all "design thinkers" the folks in this pissing match demonstrate a sense of arrogance and entitelment that is infuriating. It seems like almost none of the people involved feel like they need to bother to learn.

I'll be specific... they all seem to feel like learning about Design is all that is needed - as if all the problems would be solved if everyone else learned about Design. But they seem to feel no need to learn about anything but Design. In some cases, in fact, it's as if they feel that learning about other than Design would be bad.

It's like they cannot even imagine that they might get value from discovering the 50+ years of study, analysis, theory etc that already exists in and around the ideas encapsulated as "Cultural Imperialism."

Anyone who comes from a cultural studies or political science or cultural anthropology or even post-structuralist critical theory background who reads the stuff being written by these folks is going to alternately laugh hysterically and scream with rage.

My guess is that a tiny percentage of the people loudly voicing their strongly held opinions have ever read even the basics like Orientalism and Communication and Cultural Domination. I doubt more than a small handful even know what Theory, Culture and Society is.

And it feels like they don't think that it's an issue that they know nothing about any of this.

This incredibly narrow and bounded perspective is the most significant failing in design today. The lack of any sort of cross-disciplinary learning or perspective does more to balkanize Design than any externally enforced prejudices might.


At the request of good friend Gong Szeto, I've put together the start of a sort of "essential reading list." This is very rough and incomplete at present, but should evolve over time.

Some caveats:
  • This is targeted largely at designers but most of all at "design thinkers" and "design strategists."
  • The single largest hole in the list is in fiction. I'm shocked and saddened by how few designers I've met have read great fiction. You can learn at least as much from great fiction as great non-fiction.
  • These are listed in order of suggested reading - but this ordering is largely informed by the current topic (Design Thinking and "Imperialism").
  • I'm not saying that all these books are "great" or even that I agree with all of them. They're included as source materials to enable people (designers for the most part) to start to develop a broader, more integrated cross-disciplinary view point and understanding.
The books:
  1. Edward Said, Orientalism
  2. Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs
  3. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures
  4. Sun Tzu, The Art of War
  5. Clausewitz, On War
  6. Roland Barthes, S/Z
  7. Edmund Husserl, Experience and Judgement
  8. Peter Schwartz, The Art of the Long View
  9. McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto
  10. Bruce Sterline, Shaping Things
  11. Naomi Klein, No Logo
  12. Jon Steel, Truth, Lies and Advertising
  13. Bogusky and Winsor, Baked In

A basic rule of thumb in dialogue is that is only truly effective and powerful when both parties respect each other and their perspectives; speak a common or shared language, and have bothered to learn about what each other bring to the table, value, etc. If either party doesn't do this while at the same time insisting that they know best - the other party perceives them as both ignorant and arrogant (a fatal combination in any relationship).

It's time for designers to step up to the plate. No more laziness.

07 July 2010

The Problem

There are a lot of problems in the Design / Agency / Consulting world.

Right now one of the big (and growing) ones is what I think of as "the problem of Gaps."

What I mean by this is quite simple really - but it's something no-one talks about.

Right now the "Gaps" I'm speaking of exist in two planes.

First - when we talk about the temporal process that Clients and Agencies go through in creating something new, it's often described something like:
  1. Identify Need / Opportunity,
  2. Define Audience,
  3. Identify Objective / Goals,
  4. Develop Strategy,
  5. Create Plan,
  6. Design Solution,
  7. Execute Solution.
A good client is really good at some of these and less good at others. A good agency is really good at some of these and less good at others. The theory is that you add the two together and you get "really good at all of these."

The truth is that (like most theories) this rarely if ever translates to reality. What you get instead are two entities with strengths that are partially complementary, and partially incompatible. Instead of a whole greater than the sum of its parts - you get two parts that refuse to sum into a whole. You get Gaps.

And these Gaps is where problems happen. Everyone who works in an Agency has had the experience of working with a client who is incapable of communicating (or perhaps defining) their Audience or Customers Base. And every Client has had the experience of working with an Agency that cannot accurately turn Business Strategy into Creative Direction.

These Gaps often manifest as communication issues - or incomplete or unsatisfactory deliverables. They're often the result of Definition misunderstandings.

And they're responsible for much of the pain in the Client - Consultancy world.

Second - Agencies are not like Clients. That's obvious, but it's important.

Every (good) account manager and every (good) client point of contact has had the experience of feeling like they're a translator at a disarmament negotiation. Where their jobs end up being the person who not only is translating language, but between cultures.

The Gap between Agencies and Clients is another massive point of failure.

Now... the few of you who have read this far are probably thinking "umm.... Agencies have got Planners, Agencies have got Account Managers, Agencies have got Creative Directors..."

Yeah... firms do have people with those titles.
And in some cases they actually are supposed to do the things I've described (and can in fact deliver on them).

But almost all Account Managers these days are Sales People (who spend some time managing their client). And almost all Planners these days are doing jobs that have been narrowed and "de-strategized" to the point where all they do is run qualitative research, justify direction and write tactical briefs. And Creative Directors either spend most of their time doing Business Development, some of their time doing triage on projects that are off the rails and some of their time speaking or they are actually Design Directors (highly tactical in nature). Even the folks who can do what is needed to bridge these gaps are usually not allowed to (often cloaked as "much too busy").

This situation is a logical result of Agencies following the money - because the money is in tactics. It's not in helping the client with strategy. It's not in the consultative side of the business. It is in Tactical Planning and Execution.

And as a result.... we get Gaps. Gaps where things fall apart. Gaps where projects and programs fail.

Clients hire Agencies and Service firms to help them solve their problems - because Clients don't know how to solve them (otherwise they wouldn't hire these firms). But the Gap between the Client knowing there is a problem and the Agency having a solution - compounded by the Gap between the cultures and languages and values of each creates unacceptable odds of failure.

And these Gaps are getting bigger.

Bridging these Gaps is an increasingly important part of planning for success.