Bumper sticker design

It’s fun to re-tweet nifty design phrases we come across while surfing around. Hey, I do it all the time! We find nice  zingers or deep maxims that seem to speak to something we individually or collectively behold. Some aspirational phrase by Jony Ive or stern admonition by Paul Rand. But it’s another thing to actually use that as the basis of design decision-making and trumpeting it as dogma back at the office (or within a design community), with little understanding to the historical context and motivation for that phrase…like “form follows function” (Louis Sullivan, written in 1896 essay stating his views on Modernist architecture as a departure from organic decoration, in the context of new technologies enabling the skyscraper’s advent) or “good design is little design as possible” (Dieter Rams, proclaimed as part of his 10 Principles of Good Design, which interrelate and integrate, shouldn’t be cherry-picked just to use one or two for when it’s convenient). These are popular ones often thrown about in arguments with designers and engineers as credos and laws. Another favorite is “design should be invisible”. Really? Is that why you noticed the beautiful interface of Path 2.0 iOS app or Flipboard’s elegant origami-esque UI pattern? Oops, gotcha! 

Now, it’s not horribly bad to throw around platitudes, but the big risk is that ill-informed or inexperienced designers take these things literally, even blindly, potentially negating their design work & credibility…possibly harming client relationships. It’s a problem that I call “bumper sticker design”, tossing about fun platitudes that are not well-considered for their initial purpose or relevance, nor deliberated for their applicable extent of value and consequence (which takes judgment and experience). There’s a tendency to accept such a platitude as fiat (Hey, Eames said it, so it’s gotta be right all the time, right??) and apply it as such. An absolute law. Just like political bumper sticker slogans that simplistically–yes, I mean that phrase, not “simply”– distill a campaign position into some fun, pithy catchphrase that becomes a sensational buzz, bypassing any substantive discourse, exploration of exceptions/parallels, and thus useful decision-making…like, who should I really vote for and what policies and principles are really at stake? But I digress. 

Let’s do our part as serious designers and avoid simplistic use of such catchphrases & platitudes as weapons in design arguments or laws thrown at a design problem (or worse, at an unknowing non-design stakeholder to whom you’re just trying to appear “smart”, but merely badly worn condescension). If we come across something that we think is meaningful, resonates with a value we hold, let’s explore it further, dig deeper into its origins, apply that learning and yield a more enriched understanding that enables a productive dialogue and decision-making, particularly amongst non-designers. 

Oh and I’ll still keep re-tweeting interesting design quotes and phrases of course ;-) Helps add to our knowledge. But debating and questioning adds to our understanding and effective use over time. 

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