One Designer’s Response to Khoi Vinh’s Complaint

Brandon Dorn
Feb 23, 2018 · 5 min read
“The School of Athens” by Raphael

In his article “Design Discourse Is in a State of Arrested Development,” Khoi Vinh laments that designers aren’t good critics of their craft. It’s hard to disagree. The writing that’s out there tends toward the predictable, a thin soup of tips and tricks, self-help, and case studies for prototyping tools that will be outdated in a month. I’m a designer. I’ve read these articles, maybe I’ve even written some of them. As designers, we’re habitually technique-focused, and much of the technique that we focus on, as Vinh points out, ends up being about maximizing clicks.

I’m careful not to paint with too broad a brush, because I learned many of the skills I have today from people writing about their process and experience. There is a place for discussing technique, for which forums like r/Design, Designer News, and the like are well suited. Yet expecting these platforms to provide insightful, serious critical discussion is like going to McDonald’s for an artisanal sandwich. Sure, they may advertise that, but that’s not really what you’re getting.

Vinh is disappointed in the sandwich he’s getting. He wants to elevate the discussion on these platforms, yet doesn’t implicate the mechanics and biases of the platforms themselves. Anyone can post to Medium and r/Design, and anyone can submit to Designer News and Sidebar, which, as aggregators, survive by publishing new design articles daily. These platforms are functioning as intended: daily blurbs and crowdsourced feeds of design-themed articles and promotions. They may take meaningful steps to improve the quality of what’s published, but the platforms will inherently feature content that’s easily skimmed, straightforward, repetitive, feel-good, ephemeral. I’m not going to visit them looking for a comprehensive analysis of the organizational flaws that have led to the recent rash of security breaches. Someone might post a link to an Intercept article, but it’ll be ranked below the latest design system case study.

Yet my issue with Vinh doesn’t have to do with the production or popularity of insubstantial design articles, but with the whole premise of his complaint. He wants designers to be more critical of their craft. No argument there. But what type of critical discussion does he want? His complaint that changes to Facebook’s newsfeed has “been discussed more as a matter of policy than of design” is telling, because he inadvertently reinforces the bias toward superficiality that he criticizes.

What about the Facebook newsfeed does he want to talk about, then? Design is always a manifestation of policy. Conway’s law posits that “organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” The product always bears the image of its maker. This, of course, is true about any organization’s ethics. They show up in the product. As long as Facebook prioritizes advertising revenue over social consequences, remaining interested mainly in views and clicks at whatever cost, its feed will reinforce users’ prejudices. To talk about the visual design of the Facebook feed, or the navigation, or the microcopy, to talk about any aspect of Facebook’s product design, is to talk about symptoms rather than deeper issues, motivations, processes, and incentives. The whole premise of Facebook’s newsfeed and its tireless algorithms are manifestations of the organization’s policies and values.

It would be like talking about Donald Trump’s website—a critical analysis Vinh suggests—instead of the nature of his political will or lack thereof (a comparison of the 2016 candidate’s websites was done, well, and while an interesting exercise, doesn’t reveal much we didn’t know about the then-candidates). Don Norman’s piece on the Hawaii false missile alert, for example, is a good critique of bad design, but misses the underlying issue: the employee meant to send a real alert. The visual design of the alert interface, poor as it was, was beside the point. The problem was a communication error—and so an organizational error—not a design error. We can talk about design without talking about policy, about politics and organizational structures and business incentives, but then we’re just talking shop, which Vinh wants us to move beyond.

He’s also wrong to point a finger at designers for being unwilling to speak out against their industry out of worry for their career prospects. In his effort to find reasons for the lackluster critical comment among designers, Vinh overlooks the role of employers. If it’s true that “our industry has become smaller and more intimate even as its numbers have grown,” then this is true about every industry. Yet accountants speak out against the accounting industry, journalists against news outlets, doctors against the medical profession, athletes against their organizing bodies. If designers are keeping quiet out of fear of offending potential employers, then employers are to blame. Any organization that a designer might aspire to work for should be cultivating a healthy skepticism toward the industry, to encourage the kind of diversity of thought that will cause meaningful reflection on their broader societal impact. Google should be hiring teams of ethicists, not just an army of moderators.

Ultimately, it’s hard to know what Vinh is after, because he wants design criticism about things that are deeper than design. I finished his article feeling confused, because meaningful critical discussion about design is happening — just not the way Vinh seems to expect it to, despite being a leader in the field. Not a day after his article was published, Zeynep Tufecki wrote a pointed take on the Strava geotracking mishap. Last November, James Bridle documented the trend of disturbing YouTube content targeted at children, which gained enough traction to cause YouTube to respond three days later. Earlier last year, The Intercept began writingabout Palantir’s connections with the NSA and US immigration agencies. Isn’t this the kind of thoughtful design criticism he’s calling for? People who are asking if “what was designed actually is in the long-term interests of its users?” If a design “model[s] healthy or unhealthy interactions and behaviors?” Aren’t the Tufeckis and Bridles and Pavliscaks and Begleys the independent non-designers he’s summoning? Aren’t they already among us?

Vinh rightly exhorts designers to be more judicious about what they choose to read, so that design publications might “follow that lead by applying editorial judgment to what gets shared every day.” Yet we can’t expect Sidebar and Designer News to become platforms for critical dissent. Again, this isn’t to dismiss the type of content that outlets like these tend to feature (I say “tend,” because I’ve encountered well-considered critique on both). There is a place for conversation about technique, process, maybe even self-promotion, the kind of normal, benign, mundane chat around office water cooler. Yet provocative theoretical criticism is going to happen elsewhere, on the margins, over at places like Edge and Real Life Mag and Logic, and it’s ultimately up to designers to travel off the beaten path to find it. The articles that teach us the mechanics of our craft won’t be the articles that teach us how to think critically about our craft. They are distinct — but not incompatible — modes of thought.

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