When design becomes a cargo cult

Mark Parnell
Nov 13, 2018 · 8 min read

Or, why process alone isn’t enough for good design.

A brief digression about cults

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to visit Tanna Island, Vanuatu. A sun-drenched speck of land in the South Pacific, the main tourist draw is its ever-rumbling volcano, Mount Yasur. Tempting as it was to use this as an excuse to share some holiday snaps, I wanted to write about one of the volcano’s supposed inhabitants: an American man named John Frum. John Frum, you see, is a man that doesn’t exist.

OK, well I just had to share one holiday snap — Mount Yasur Volcano

During the Second World War, there was an unprecedented surge of outsiders to Tanna as Allied armies passed through for the Pacific campaign. With them came wonders few on the island had seen and in ceaseless quantities — soda, tinned food, radios, trucks. Much of this cargo came down from the sky, flown in on great cargo jets. Whilst the islanders had seen Westerners for hundreds of years (and indeed bristled under British colonial rule) they had never seen mass-produced goods. And then, all too soon, this cargo was gone after the war ended. The appearance — and then disappearance — of these outsiders and their commodities led the Tannese to mix these new experiences with existing beliefs. There was already an anti-colonial “John Frum” cult on the island (the name is thought to be derived from John the Baptist, or “John from(frum) Jesus Christ”), and an indigenous volcano deity, Keraperamun*.

Make that two — traditional dancers, Tanna Island, Vanuatu.

All of which resulted in a syncretic religion that sought to bring the messianic figure of a US airman named John Frum back to the island. Whilst they could contact him in the volcano, they hoped he would return in person, bringing bountiful cargo in ships and planes to the island. How to summon such cargo? They had observed American airmen hailing cargo with radio towers and headsets, planes descending on landing strips, ships docking at piers. It wasn’t unreasonable for them to suppose that through imitation, they too could call down cargo in such a way. To this end, they cleared makeshift landing strips and constructed wooden radar towers. They wore bamboo radio headsets and waved landing signals to call down planes; they constructed wooden piers to summon boats and built ever more control towers.

What they practised was a form of fetishism (not that kind, the other kind) — imbuing objects with magical properties. Moreover, they also imbued rituals with magical properties. The shape of the radio tower and the ritual of speaking into a radio-like object was what called down planes. Of course, the cargo never came but the cult lives on (although as few as 5% of the islanders are still believers) and you can still see the non-violent “John Frum Army” march with bamboo rifles on John Frum Day (February 15th) each year**.

A member of the John Frum Army. Via Alamy Stock Photo.

The term cargo cult predates the John Frum cult, but this was the cult that physicist Richard Feynman was probably referring to when he coined the term cargo cult science and popularised the idea of cargo cults. Feynman said:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head for headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he’s the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Feynman took the central thinking behind each cargo cult — the fetishism of objects and the magical thinking around ritual — and extended it to science. You can go through all the motions of science — conduct research, publish papers — but not really be doing science if, for example, your theoretical underpinnings are shoddy or you work towards an a priori conclusion (I’m looking at you, creationist research institutes). Merely following the process wasn’t enough to bring down the cargo, and it isn’t enough to be doing science . (At least, not good science).

The difference is that you need to understand the how and why of each part of the process — why peer review is important, and how to test a hypothesis. Each step needs to be intentional and not simply imitative. When scientists believe they will gain new knowledge simply by following the process of science — without considering what they are doing and why — it’s unlikely they’ll generate any new knowledge.

Cargo cult thinking in design

All of which got me thinking about design. Now I wouldn’t be the first to link design with cargo cults, though generally people have done so in the sense of imitating an existing design (such as Jeff Veen and Travis LaFleur). Others have linked the creation of requirements or the use of agile to cargo cults, but only a couple of articles I found worried about the design process itself becoming a cargo cult.

All too often, I’ve seen designers treat the fabled design process as a series of rituals that will call down the gods of design: as long as we follow these processes well, good design will happen. So you go from exploration to ideation to refinement, workshops to personas to user journeys. You follow the process with exquisite form, and have all of the stakeholders wowed by the story you tell. Is whatever you produce “good design”?

Maybe. Maybe not.

You can follow all of these rituals and still have a design that sucks, because you made a series of poor design decisions. Following process does not equal good design. Good design is based on the performance of the design in the real world.

You can do all of this and still deliver crap

Design should be intentional — that is, directed towards some purpose. Good design first depends on how well the design achieves this purpose, and ultimately this requires that you measure how a design is used in the real world. Second, it depends on aesthetic taste, which needs hard-won experience to develop. Neither of these can be spirited into being by following a design process. Rather, the process is there to provide a series of tools that can help you, depending on what you’re trying to do. But, they may not help you. Personas may not be appropriate, workshops may not be needed, principles superfluous — depending on what you’re looking to achieve. You need to choose which of these tools are appropriate, based on your goals and timelines.

Even if you do choose an appropriate set of these tools, they may not help you. You could lose sight of your goals or not quite understand how a design sprint can help you. Your personas could be perfect but then fail to drive any real innovation. You may simply make bad decisions. Again, you can follow the rituals and still create a disappointing result.

Avoiding cargo cult thinking

Good designers, it seems to me, are able to synthesise multiple inputs — user needs, their own experiences, science, technical limits, business constraints — and then use critical thinking to deliver something that helps people, moves a business metric, and (ideally) looks nice. This may or may not follow the design process, and will make judicious use of only the most appropriate tools. If you’re engaging in any design activities — or producing any documentation — purely because that’s just what designers must do, you’re engaging in cargo cult thinking.

John Frum has at least inspired a brand of rum, so there’s that.

A corollary of this is that good ideas can come from anywhere. Your role as a designer is not to go and perform the design rituals and then come down the mountain with the tablets of design wisdom, but to synthesise inputs. You need to weigh up a multitude of ideas, and these can come from anywhere — from a dream a developer had, the tea leaves in the product manager’s cup to, yes, the classic design process.

At times I’ve seen designers be suspicious of ideas that weren’t generated by the design team — not simply out of defensiveness, but out of a feeling that ideas had to be arrived at the right way to be valid. This too is a form of cargo cult thinking. These could be good ideas — and you need to use your judgment to decide that.

Ideally, we will therefore test ideas — wherever they come from — to ensure that they have some real-world validity. But early signal testing won’t tell you everything, and in-product experiments will only tell you what works and what doesn’t, not what might work better. In the end, your skill as a designer comes down to the quality of the decisions that you make. Whatever the process you could follow as a designer, whatever the tools you use or patterns you copy, the most important skill is critical thinking. Strong critical thinking on a domain takes time to develop, but it’s more valuable than any technique.

What this all means for you

In a previous life as a design manager, I think I over-indexed hiring decisions based on how well designers understood and followed design process. This was a mistake — whilst it’s good to know that designers understand how certain techniques or processes can help them make design decisions, the most important thing is the quality of the decisions they make. So the next time you find yourself having a workshop that isn’t needed, or drafting up some superfluous personas, stop and think: am I engaging in cargo cult thinking?

* The story of how the John Frum cult came to be is both totally fascinating and rather more complicated than I’ve outlined here. I’ve tried my best to avoid telling the story through the overly colonial lens that it’s often told. You can read more here, here and here.

** I do wonder to what degree these “John Frum Army” parades are now put on by believers, and how much of this is a show put on for gawking tourists.

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