Masturbatory "Design" semantics

Every design commentator, author, critic or blogger must at sometime pose the question “What is design?” and then give us his personal answer. It’s like the discovery of masturbation: everybody does it at some point (some later to the game than others), and everybody thinks they’re the world’s first. How amazing! Only most people have the good taste to not talk about masturbation in public.

But the the answers to the question “What is design?” are pure intellectual wanking.

The answers typically contain some fluff about communication, communication, effectiveness, and context. Solving problems. Fulfilling needs.

I call Bull. And shit.

These are explanations that are founded in insecurity. These are the justifications of someone who knows his job looks very much like “applying the pretty”—superficial, unnecessary, un-elemental, subservient. These are a pathetic attempt to cover up the giant chip on one’s shoulder with a beautiful, but practical and durable and eco-friendly and free-trade, handmade alpaca wool scarf.

But that’s not design. That’s defensive waffling.

Design is not some lackey to be bossed about by problems. Design is not for communicating effectively what nobody wants to hear anyway. Design is not about conservative incrementalism. Design is not about fulfilling needs, because in Western society today, what needs go truly unfulfilled?

What need did the iPod fulfill? What burning thirst did it slake?


What does the famous Starck juicer communicate?


The beautiful things in your life, or that you want to have in your life, are they effective? Contextual? Do we not love both beautiful things that don’t work, and ugly things that do?

Design is not a list of enterprise-friendly attributes delineated in a consulting brochure.

Design is the art of possibility. Design is the art of asking what can be.

Then listening, very carefully, to the small, quiet answers.

And the screaming, deafening ones.


  1. rallendorf says:

    I love that you challenge the cookie-cutter creative brief dissertations about design. Keep it up!

    However, I respectfully disagree and feel you are confusing design with creativity and concept. Here are some disjointed reasons why I feel this way:

    Creativity is the art of possibility. Design is the by-product of taming possibility to create/communicate/solve ~something~.

    Successful doesn’t have to be beautiful, ethical, grassroots, inexpensive, or whatever quality jives with ‘us’ as individuals. It jut has to leverage meaningful creative thinking. Even the Dada movement, despite it’s mission, was based on a meaningful creative thought.

    The iPod as a concept solved many needs – reduction of technology, portability of personal entertainment, reinvigorating a corporation’s product line. We might not buy into that, but that doesn’t discount the creative effort behind it or the design choices that were made. The juicer absolutely communicates ‘here is what I do best and here is how you get me to do this’. That’s a design snd it’s social relevance is not the design.

    You can’t have design without that feeling of infinite possibility and asking what can be. But without a reason or cause for being, even if that is just beauty, it IS all self-gratification… which is fine as long as you call it what it is.

    I’m out of steam. Looking forward to your thoughts!


  2. rallendorf says:

    P.S. yes, I took the bait. But despite the olive of irony at the bottom of the drink, it is a good topic to kick around a bit.

  3. jledwell says:

    When you started this post it was all anger and tension, but it came out well at the end.

  4. Lame says:

    What a lame analogy. People think they are being intellectual when they find a way to incorporate vulgarity into their essays.

  5. Right on. Very nice post. As a big fan of George Carlin and his "Seven words you can’t say on TV" I don’t mind judicious use of all words the language offers. It was definitely appropriate in this case.

  6. Arik Jones says:

    Design is not a philosophical science as you have so eloquently painted with this post.

    Possibilities and asking of the unknown are all great. However, some people actually insist on creating, developing and executing design. What you describe as design is only a fraction of the picture.

    You can reminiscence about the beauties and splendors of design all day if you so please, but design in and of itself is pointless without tangible execution. If design was ONLY what you described it as, well, that would be boring as hell.

  7. Amy says:

    rallendorf, your answer for the iPod doesn’t make sense. Those weren’t needs at the time, they are only in hindsight. People were happy with the MP3 players of the time and everyone in the press / community – including me! – was saying what a big fuckup the iPod would be, what a waste, not worth it, not enough storage compared to the Creative Jukebox, crappy battery life compared to a Rio, and so so so much money and plus what kind of stupid awful name is iPod anyway?

    Those things you described weren’t needs because people were happy without what they had because it was State of the Art — people couldn’t even IMAGINE something being better.

    I’m not proud to admit I was one of those wankers too, but I was. I remember it clearly – more importantly I have journalistic evidence because I wrote an article about it on my old Mac news site. Everybody KNEW it was going to be a flop.

    That taught me something important.

    And Arik, I disagree. Have you heard of "design thinking"? It’s a concept exactly what I’m talking about, I just pretty much left off the "thinking" part because I think that the concept has too great a primacy to the field of design to be followed by a weak hyphenated term.

    I hope you’re not backhandedly suggesting that I’m a philosophical wanker while other people go out and execute. I execute. More importantly, I apply the crap I talked about to what I execute. I do things that are different. And not a "5×5 foot canvas painted entirely white but for a speck of black" different, but things that are different and loved.

    It’s not that hard.

    And because I do it, and it’s NOT that hard, I’m so pissed off by the rampant diseases of me-tooism and incrementalism in the web sphere.

    It pisses me off every time I see somebody who’s spent a YEAR "designing" something like a ticketing system or a project management app that, in reality, is the same goddamn flawed concept as all the other existing ones but just with the text laid out different and prettier colors.

    They are THE SAME but for superficial differences, and everybody calls that design. That’s me-tooism and incrementalism together, in the same product!

    So who cares if the information layout is pretty if the whole software model fails?

    It pissed me off looking at the competitors for freckle and finding that every damn one of them has the same critical mistakes in DESIGN. Not in the colors, not in the form layout, in the very concept. They all rely on the same exact model. They aren’t designing, they’re mimicking!

    I am personally offended. I really am. It doesn’t take so much effort to do something different, so why don’t people bother?

    People think they’re going to go "solve a problem" and then they have an "idea" that they think is a flash of insight but which is actually just a brainfart of familiarity. Like when somebody compliments a friend’s photo by saying "that looks like a postcard." Postcards are all well and good but that’s the equivalent of saying "That must be good because I’ve seen lots of stuff like it." It’s reflexive pattern matching, not aesthetic judgment. It’s comfort, it’s familiarity. That’s not the same as actually being good.

    Don’t confuse this with me looking down my nose and sniffing, "Oh, how DERIVATIVE." Everything in the world is derivative and I know it.

    But I am sick and tired of all the software that’s exactly the same, and more importantly about everyone being so excited about the next big social bookmarking network. Puh-leeze.

    And, for that matter, why have email clients hardly evolved in 20+ years?

    These people need some Design Thinking books, stat.

    They need the kind of Design I’m talking about.

  8. lol says:

    I like how you took a shot at other people for writing about what design is, and then did exactly the same thing yourself (only not as well).

  9. Arik Jones says:

    <em>"It pissed me off looking at the competitors for freckle and finding that every damn one of them has the same critical mistakes in DESIGN"</em>

    They are mistakes according to who? The end-user? Or your bull-shit perspective on design? Time-tracking is simple, I admit, but some people need more than just 3 form fields and some snarky copy before their time-tracking problem is solved.

    <em>"They are THE SAME but for superficial differences, and everybody calls that design. That’s me-tooism and incrementalism together, in the same product!"</em>

    Freckle is also me-tooism. Did you really think that leaving out some features would make your product superior in the realm of "design thinking"? Freckle is 30% of Harvest (which I assume is a direct competitor. That’s not design thinking, that’s mimicking the "Getting real" philosophy of 37signals.

  10. Amy says:

    Arik, freckle is not me-tooism except in the sense that it’s for tracking time.

    37Sigals didn’t invent "less is more," and moreover, we didn’t just take away features. freckle is not just "less." Have you tried it?

    We don’t view ourselves as a direct competitor to Harvest because Harvest is designed for top-down control structures: managers who create projects and tasks and approve time sheets made by employees who track time. freckle is for the flat organization.

    To log time for a new project in Harvest, you must first configure a client, a project, and tasks. Then you must use select lists when entering time.

    You have to do everything on the screen which they have decided is appropriate.

    It doesn’t do billing increment rounding.

    It doesn’t let people differentiate between billable and non-billable hours.

    There are no "macros" for common reporting time ranges.

    And we have some really killer stuff we haven’t launched yet, that nobody else is doing.

    Just like our rethinking of the time entry needs and preconfiguration steps that every other solution requires.

  11. smoofles says:

    First, I admit that I’m biased.

    But I think there’s neither a reason to call every of the other time-tracking solutions badly designed nor one to be upset about freckle’s (admittedly "loud") copy and self confidence.

    Basically there are two kinds of time tracking approaches:

    The dominant one until now was the approach that fills the needs of executives by providing them a false sense of security by letting them spend time on organizing teams and projects, assigning roles, tracking progress, setting milestones and what not. It’s not inheretly bad design to make an (web)app that covers these needs, it just has to be clear who the actually target audience it: the managers who based on their need for security loosen up the dollars for such a product so they can obsess over it. Because that market looks so tempting, there’s a bunch of software solutions that want and try to cover it. If you want to get scared, take a look at what I had to use at my last job: – and that piece of shit ain’t cheap!

    The less dominant one (and even thought there might be others, I can only think of freckle of the top off my head) is the kind that tries to work well for the person entering time, putting all "reporting" stuff to the back.

    Now, personally, if I were to pick software, I’d rather pick one that costs my employees as little time as possible and lets me do some basic checking, but I know most managers don’t think like that. So I’d say that freckle is designed well for the approach it takes and the approach it takes is not a me-tooism. And it’s damn well design thinking if you take a problem and approach it differently as a whole (from the side of the user entering time and not the user checking the logs).

  12. Arik Jones says:

    Freckle struck me as a tool for one-man operations with just enough flexibility to manage more if necessary. There just aren’t enough tools around that work well for individual professional.

  13. Charlie Flowers says:

    Hey, great post. Thank you for reminding me of something I know, but at times forget. You are ABSOLUTELY right. Design is about BEAUTY, which we humans adore. We adore it even if it serves no practical purpose, because … well, it is beautiful. It touches something inside us. If you want to create beauty, you have to turn a deaf ear to all the mundane pressures of practicality and be willing to follow those quiet voices. You don’t know what you’re going to end up with, but you know you’re on the right track, and at the end you know you have something special. People think this can be reduced to a series of rational steps … which is ridiculous and is what you were railing against.

  14. Berthold says:

    Hate to disagree, but from where I stand, art is asking what can be, is about exploring. Design is, as you say not “putting on the pretty”, but it definitely is an act of delayed communication. A Porsche may not have a mouth, yet it still manages to say to a certain group of people “hey man, don’t worry about your tiny dick. Sitting at my steering wheel, you can show them all”. And the way a car building largely on the same concept as a Honda Civic can do that, all boils down to design. And it’s not just flashy brochures and phallic chassis either. Did you know there are engineers working solely on making the engine, the turn signal, the bloody doors sound right? Whisper sweet bullshit into people’s ears?

    Because I can fully agree on your assessment of design being largely that. Bullshit. But once in a blue moon, there is a contract where your language will make a natural extension of the product you’re designing for, and you will sell authenticity.

    You don’t need design to be authentic. But you need authenticity to really design. That’s why me-toos annoy you so much. Because you know they didn’t come up with the stuff they’re trying to sell, but they don’t say that. Well, a few of them do, and only when they have seriously innovated the concept in their own right. The rest of them just copy&paste, concept, design, target audience, everything. I hate twitter for instance, I really do, but what I hate even more is the hundreds of me-toos that have tried and failed miserably to steal the concept (jaiku got picked up by google at least, but pownce, plugged by kevin rose of all people, is dead and gone).

    The fact that we’re having these rants is due to the fact that even in our line of work, most people don’t get what design is all about. Heck, if you hit my boss over the head with it, he wouldn’t recognise it. The only solace I can take is that the few of us who know and utilise design properly shall prevail, because only we can create remarkable extensions of remarkable products. And that’s all I really care about.

  15. Fernando Bezerra Santa Rosa says:

    “An image worths a thousand words” – well, try to express this with a piece of paper and a pencil. And about the jargon language used by most of so-called designers and techies, visit – – The Bullshit Generator. Is funny.

  16. Rohit says:

    Lol. What a funny but practical title you gave?

  17. Madison says:

    A good alternative to freckle is ClickTime. It is more used by midsized companies that need to track time.

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