Just because blog posting is technically effortless doesn’t mean it should be intellectually so. I’m not railing against fluffy posts about trivial matters—I love fluff and trivia. What I am railing against is the all to common practice of posting a thin pretense of insight that crumples under the lightest scrutiny—I’ve labeled these twinkies in an earlier post–and the throngs of praising sheep who eat it up (“oh the emporer’s delicate fabric is beautiful!”). In other words I’m railing against the design world’s vapid blather with delusions of meaning.
For example, Kathy Sierra’s “Does the US suck at design?” offers us the following thesis: a culture of design is about aesthetics and style, and such cultures flourish only outside the US. The corollary to this is that design culture withers in the US.
She demonstrates her thesis with the following 4 points of evidence:
1. Western Europe has good graffiti
2. Barcelona has gorgeous women
3. Architecture outside the US is older
4. And Swiss and New Zealand currency is more colorful
To begin with the foundation of her very premise, that design equals style, is so naïve, so unsophisticated, so misguided that it seems more appropriate coming from an accounting manager whose oatmeal cubicle walls proclaim “Hang in There” with kittens dangling from trees, than someone who positions themselves as some kind of authority on design.
But even if each of these premises were true, they still would not support Sierra’s thesis. Unfortunately this level of reasoning is all too common in the design world. And we designers wonder why we aren’t given the credit we think we deserve—perhaps we are. So, not only is Sierra’s logic incredibly faulty (her conclusion just doesn’t follow from her premises) but her premises are themselves demonstrably wrong (at least to the level of rigor shown in her post). So because I’m in a combative mood and have some time, let’s tackle each one …
Western Europe has good graffiti. Well, since Sierra offers no more than loose personal opinion to demonstrate veracity here’s some counter personal opinion. I too have been to Western Europe (actually only a few select cities, so I can hardly claim expertise over such a large and diverse area). The only place where I was impressed by the graffiti was in Barcelona (many of my pics to the right feature Barcelona’s graffiti). It is more clever, subversive, political, curious, amusing, absurd and smarter than any I’ve seen over here. However in terms of visual aesthetics and style (the metrics Sierra uses) I found it plain and uninspiring, certainly nothing like the Technicolor tag explosions you’ll find adorning some of the less well heeled buildings in such an unassuming city as Dallas.
Barcelona has gorgeous women. I found this particularly funny. My girlfriend and I spent a couple of weeks in Barcelona. We absolutely loved the city (especially its witty graffiti) but were quite surprised by how consistently unattractive the women were physically—and the viral mullets and wrestling boots they all wore at that time didn’t help the matter.
Now, as a heterosexual male in the prime of life with no weird fetishes that would land him jail I can say with absolute certainty that Manhattan may have the highest density of physically attractive women in the world (the world that I’ve seen anyway). And I’m not talking about fake plastic models here; I’m talking about regular women who live in the city going about their daily business. Barcelona ain’t even near that ballpark.
Architecture outside the US is older. Can’t argue with that, but I can make a giant red herring salad out of it.
Swiss and New Zealand currency is more colorful. While also true I could write pages on how facile and misguided this reasoning is, but I’ll opt for brevity instead.
Sierra complains about how dull and similar US dollar bills are. She further complains about how unusable they are, giving them an F. I have used money all of my life, and I have never myself, nor witnessed anyone else, ever having any difficulty using US dollars bills. I hardly think a product with a centuries’ old track record of successful use deserves an F for usability. To be fair, her comment about adding non-visual cues to bills for the blind is probably a great idea.
The greenback’s usability is (the blind notwithstanding) simply not a problem. And John Carroll says one of the greatest mistakes design can make is to solve the wrong problem.
Since design is style in Sierra’s world, let’s dig into the US dollar’s visual design. But let’s avoid the subjectivity trap of aesthetics, and focus on something more stable like semiotics What Sierra calls “dull” is actually quite powerful. The bills’ conservative visual design communicates a strong, unrelenting, historically unbroken continuity with the nation’s fiduciary stability and commitment.
Similar to what the Rock of Gibralter communicates for Prudential, the dollar bill’s visual designs communicates gravity, trust, permanence and importance, the kinds of feelings old banks used to radiate with their marbled floors and Doric columns. They were temples.
Stamps can be all colorful and whimsical, because they are small, insignificant, single-dosage, disposable currency. But money is permanent, money is forever, money is too important, and the US dollar bills look the part. Save the colour for Monopoly.
And those same old dead white guys, the guys who founded the US as both a polity and as revolutionary political idea stand behind that dollar just as they stand behind the constitution, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Its all about trust, trust that this bill is worth something, and will always continue to be worth something. What the hell does a coloured penguin represent?
Stiiiike three–you’re out!
I’m actually not trying to convince you that I’m right on any of these points. Rather I’m trying to show that there are equally (and I think much more) valid opinions that contradict the ones Sierra serves up in her dizzyingly anemic logic.
Oh, and I almost for got my favourite where she says “[t]hen again, all those MySpace pages could be a real setback…” demonstrating a monumental incapacity to see beyond self-reference and betraying an absolute solipsistic miscomprehension of what makes MySpace so incredibly fantastic at what its does. Its like old folks in the 50s complaining about rock-and-roll–its a good sign that culture has left you behind in the loving arms of irrelevance.
Sierra’s ‘evidence’ so rooted in the vicissitudes of personal subjectivity maybe be interesting in a getting-to-know-you sort of way, but it is by no means support for a contentious or meaningful claim. Unfortunately this level or reasoning is epidemic in design and it is killing our profession’s credibility in the business world.
Thanks but no thanks Kathy, you can keep your twinkies.