Bruce Nussbaum: Are Designers The Enemy Of Design?

Friday, July 27th, 2007

I quoted Bruce Nussbaum’s thoughts on ‘idiot designers’ the other day. Here’s a speech he gave recently that, he says, is “designed to provoke design management students.”

There’s a lot I agree with here…

In the name of provocation, let me start by saying that DESIGNERS SUCK. I’m sorry. It’s true. DESIGNERS SUCK. There’s a big backlash against design going on today and it’s because designers suck.

So let me tell you why. Designers suck because they are arrogant. The blogs and websites are full of designers shouting how awful it is that now, thanks to Macs, Web 2.0, even YouTube, EVERYONE is a designer. Core 77 recently ran an article on this backlash and so did we on our Innovation & Design site. Designers are saying that Design is everywhere, done by everyone. So Design is debased, eroded, insulted. The subtext, of course, is that Real design can only be done by great star designers.

This is simply not true. Design Democracy is the wave of the future. Exceptional design may only be done by great star designers. But the design of our music experiences, the design of our MySpace pages, the design of our blogs, the design of our clothes, the design of our online community chats, the design of our Class of ’95 brochures, the design of our screens, the design of the designs on our bodies—We are all designing more of our lives. And with more and more tools, we, the masses, want to design anything that touches us on the journey, the big journey through life. People want to participate in the design of their lives. They insist on being part of the conversation about their lives.

So Lesson One here is that the process of design, the management of the design process, is changing radically. Egos and silos are coming down, participation is expanding, tools are widespread and everyone wants to play. People want to be in the design sandbox so you have to figure out how to get them in and do design with them. This is a huge challenge.

Let’s talk about the arrogance of architects. When I began covering architecture a decade ago for Business Week, we launched an annual contest with Architectural Record. When we were about to publish pictures of the first winners, I looked at all the fancy architecture magazines. None had any pictures of people inside buildings. The buildings were all devoid of people. And most still are. We put people inside the spaces they inhabit. We inserted people into the conversation of their lives. Now, smart architects engage the masses in their designs. They hire firms who do social geography, showing how people really interact in organizations, not what their titles suggest. Informed with this information, they design spaces.

So one Big Design Management Challenge is how do you switch gears from designing for to designing with? Maybe the object of design is not a finished product but a set of tools that allow people to design their experiences for themselves. Think iPod and iTunes. Think TiVo. Starbucks. Fortunately, design has tremendous tools. In fact, design has evolved from a simple practice to a powerful methodology of Design Thinking that, I believe, can transform society. By that I mean Design, with a capital D, can move beyond fashion, graphics, products, services into education, transportation, economics and politics. Design can become powerful enough to be an approach to life, a philosophy of life. But it can do so only when Design by Ego ends and Design by Conversation begins. More on that later.

Back to the backlash against design. Designers suck because they are also IGNORANT, especially about sustainability. The rap against designers is that they design CRAP that hurts the planet. That’s the argument. Let’s take your favorite toy, designed by one of today’s design gods, Jonathan Ive and his team at Apple—the iPod. Apple does fantastic things with materials. Amazing things. And it has recycling programs for its products. But what it doesn’t do is prioritize cradle-to-cradle design. It doesn’t design a long-cycle product that you can open and upgrade over time. It doesn’t design a process that encourages the reuse materials again and again. It doesn’t demand sustainability.

So ask yourselves if you demand sustainability in your laptops, your iPods, cell phones, cars, or houses. There are mountains of computers and iPods and cell phones and stuff—your old stuff—building up in India and Chinas, leaking toxic chemicals. Greenpeace has launched a Green My Apple campaign. Europe tipped green in the 90s. The U.S. tipped green just last year.

I actually think that of all the designers in the US design professions, architects are the greenest. Architects are the leaders in terms of sustainability. Building according to LEED specs is the norm for big corporations. Bank of America is putting up an incredibly green building near Bryant Park. One wonderful green trick– it uses cheap electricity at night to make ice in the basement to cool the skyscraper in the morning. Bring back the ice box.

The broad new paradigm for design—the paradigm you will all work within for the rest of your lives—is sustainability. When you have venture capitalists at the latest TED conference in Monterrey crying, literally crying onstage, about the planet, sustainability is hot, hot, hot. So the iPod is cool but…..

Challenge Your Assumptions. Think about the mink coat. It is beyond cool. It’s sustainable. You feed those little rat-y things with garbage that you throw out or food you grow, you create something that is comfortable, beautiful and gives you warmth for your entire life, you pass it along to another generation or recycle it or simply let it disintegrate. It’s organic, after all.

All you folks in fashion, try and rethink materials. Fashion is one of the most creative of the design fields—obviously. But what does it mean to design fashion within a sustainable context. I think it means changing materials. How can you fashion a fashion process, that focuses on bringing a new line out twice a year, that allows materials to be reused again and again in different ways? Or should designers try and design clothes that last far longer than one season or two? And why are organic materials, bamboo and cotton, so expensive? And how do you price for all of this. Hard questions.

Let me stop and make a suggestion. Skip your next trip to Milan or Miami and head, instead, for the reservation. Visit the Navajo and Hopi, the Pueblo Indians, the Souix and the Cheyenne. These folks lived a sustainable lifestyle long before it became both fashionable and necessary. There’s a lot left to their eco-culture. Learn from them—their contemporary artists in weaving, pottery, painting and jewelry are among the most innovative and creative in the world.

Take the Navajo Hogan, a simple six-sided building. Hogans sit lightly on the land—no 10,000 or 20,000 square foot McMansions for the Navajo. Hogan are easy to assemble, use little energy to keep people warm, and have strong spiritual meaning to the families who inhabit them. Today’s modern hogans are trailors and they are all over the rez. Now think about trailors. They, too, sit lightly on the land, are kind of prefab, and use little energy. In a world focused on sustainability, is the trailor worse than a cool building designed by Rem Koolhass or Frank Gehry?

We need to live the lives we design. Take Al Gore, one of my heroes. Does a great movie on global warming but does he walk the talk with a 20-room mansion and private jets? What is his real carbon footprint? Yes, he buys all kinds of carbon offsets, you know pay peasants in the Amazon to grow trees. But is that living a sustainable life. Can you buy your way to a carbon-free life there if you are rich? Both Davos and the Oscars were full of rich folks flying in on private jets leaving a big fat carbon footprint. Yet both conferences were allegedly CARBON-FREE. What’s up with that?

OK, enough. Now that I’ve insulted designers, allow me to insult myself. In the 90’s, I was the editorial page editor of Business Week. I was the VOICE OF AUTHORITY. Truly, they had an ad campaign revolving around the voice of authority. I did design as a journalistic afterthought, at nights or the weekend. I wrote about design being a force within the business culture. I had a small following.

That changed a few years back. The commoditization of manufacturing and knowledge and its outsourcing to Asia, left US companies unable to compete to make profits. When you can’t compete on the basis of cost or quality, you have a problem. So the business community embraced the notion of innovation. Driving revenue and profits by turning out a continuous series of new things, be they products or services or even experiences.

Wowie. But how do people who’ve spent a lifetime using their left-brain, suddenly shift to using both their left and their right? How do people used to deconstructing old problems into their parts and squeezing answers out of each of them then learn to see problems with fresh eyes and integrate parts of many solutions into one new one. Enter design and design thinking. Over the past decade, design has evolved to become an articulated, formalized method of solving problems that can be widely used in business—and in civil society. Design’s focus on observing consumer/patient/student—human behavior, it’s emphasis on iteration and speed, its ability to construct, not destruct, its search for new options and opportunities, its ability to connect to powerful emotions, its optimism, made converts out of tough CEOs. AG Lafely at P&G, Immelt at GE and many others embraced design. Now Mayor Daley of Chicago and Mayor Livingstone of London are embracing it.

And so am I. I dropped the edit page and launched the Innovation & Design site online two years ago. It’s a huge success. We open-source it and have many partners, including Core77, Dwell, ID magazine and Metropolis. We have the top thinkers and practitioners of design to write columns for us. I blog. We have built a global community around the ongoing conversation of design and innovation (20% of our traffic is from outside the US). And then we did something weird, we launched a new magazine off the website, because we found that many senior managers don’t go online. Surprise. The new magazine is IN, Inside Innovation.

Today, I kind of coach a team of about 8 people, 6 women in their early 30’s, one guy in his thirties, and a women in her twenties (she’s Canadian and a generation ahead of the 30-something sisters in technology). Our process is totally different from the hierarchical way of writing and editing we had just a few years ago. We all write for both platforms—online and print, and do a little TV on the side. Our job today as journalists is to curate conversations among groups within our audience, with Jessi Hempel doing social networking and philanthropy, Reena Jana doing fashion and gaming culture, Matt Vella doing cars and green technology, Aili McConon doing sustainability and motion technology such as wii. We design stories with our audience. As John Battelle said recently, the conversation now is the content. It’s not about the finished story but about the ongoing story. It’s the conversation. And since most conversations don’t have a conclusion, they are ongoing. We live a life in beta.

A final point on language: Innovation and Design. Business men and women don’t like the term ‘design.’ I think they think it implies drapes or dresses. Even top CEOs who embrace design don’t want to call it that. They want to call it ‘Innovation.’ That has a manly right to it. It’s strong, techie. These folks are perfectly willing to use the word ‘vision,’ whatever the heck ‘vision’ is. They like ‘Imagination,’ whatever the heck that is. But they don’t like ‘design.’ Go figure.

I solve this problem by calling it all a banana. Innovation, design, eco-imagination, just call it whatever they want to call it and do your design thing. Because your design thing is a glorious thing that has the potential of changing our lives in a myriad of ways in a myriad of places.”

Incidentally, Nussbaum’s articles on design for Business Week are available here: and there’s an RSS/Atom feed avalable too.

2 comments on “Bruce Nussbaum: Are Designers The Enemy Of Design?

  1. Anonymous says:

    As much as I have to agree with some of the things you mentioned saying that everyone calls them a designer but I have to disagree that they are arrogant, ignorant and so forth. I think the REAL designers who have background & know what they’re doing are the ones who keep it real and they act a differnt way. A good example is, if you watch the new season of “Design Star” those designers are down to earth and just staright hilarious instead of being cocky or ignornant. They also have great ideas that they brought out to the table. Do you watch that show? If not, check it out… it airs on HGTV every Sunday @ 9pm and you’ll see that not all designers are as bad as you say they are. And even after the show, you think that they’re bad… then play their game & win some prizes & maybe it’ll help you see them in a different way.

  2. Jonathan says:

    We don’t get it in the UK I’m afraid. But these aren’t my comments, they’re Bruce Nussbaum’s – follow the link in the post to get to his original blog entry at Business Week and read some of the comments there…But as Bruce says, he’s being provocative, painting a broad picture to get a reaction. Of course not all designers are like this, but sadly many are (and many prominent ones too, the so called ‘industry leaders’), and that damages us all.

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