What John Maeda And His Opponents Get Wrong About Design

The debate about the role of design has been supercharged.

On social media, I’ve seen business leaders, professional designers, and everyone in between reacting to John Maeda’s recent powder keg of an interview. Apparently, he now believes that design, in reality, is not all that important. By making designers the boss, he says, the community develops a ‘mentality…to [create] what he calls a “microworld of aesthetic high-fives”’. Maeda argues:

“Designers should focus on being good teammates rather than leaders. Worrying too much about whether design has enough influence over a product or a company distracts from the real vision: making great products that solve people’s problems.”

As you might have expected, his words caused some blowback. Over the last couple of years, the design and innovation space has made especially ardent strides in organizational power all over the world, and these words could potentially become halt its progress. One especially fervent designer, Timothy Bardlavens, argues that Maeda doesn’t carry the perspective of true design practitioners. To him:

We don’t ship features or aesthetic, we ship holistic thoughtful products for our users, not for the sake of design. We do not have the “I’m the boss” mentality, we have the “include me” and “is this best for the user?” mentality.

Design has recently been through these type of debates before. I remember when professionals discussed if design thinking is bullshit, or if the field should still be defended, regardless of its many emergent issues. Each of these debates represents a new opportunity for its professionals to jockey for power, in the form of attention, institutionalization, funding, or decision-making capacity.

The field is still in its evolutionary stages; it’s clear that the debate about its role in society will continue to change. What I believe, however, is that the field shouldn’t reach a rigid consensus anytime soon.

Why should you care what I have to say?

There’s one mistake people have made in this debate. They haven’t discussed how their perspective influences their views. The debaters have wholly framed their arguments with what design is instead of how they see design. Instead, to counter this trend, I’m going to describe my own lens through which I’ve viewed our field.

I’m not an esteemed decades-involved product design practitioner. Nor am I a C-level manager of a company. Nor did I go to decades of training at a prestigious graphic design or architectural school.

I’m a design researcher — specifically, I’ve researched the field of design. I’ve spent my early career studying the dynamic, evolving, and misunderstood nature and limits of innovation practice over roughly the past decade. My expertise is in studying the intersection of design and innovation, evaluation, and international development. My recent work is available includes a systematic literature review of human-centered design. For the traditional designer that learns about the field from a few in-depth experiences from their experiences, their colleagues, and maybe their mentors, the analyses I’ve adopted offers dozens of design experiences from a bird’s eye perspective.

Another recent project, spoken about at length in other posts, is an ethnographic evaluation study of the Botswana innovation ecosystem. Through a mixed-method, two-year long study, I asked: how do innovators evaluate? By engaging productively with a plethora of innovation stakeholders through interviews, content analysis, facilitation workshops, and direct observation of innovation activities, I evolved the study into a series of systemic innovation narratives that unpack the tensions of directing such a massive economic transition.

I’ve had the unique experience to construct an outside perspective that reveals how innovation practice is integrated into the solutions we make for our world, with varying results. Among the many insights, I’ve learned what it’s like to see a profession being created in real-time.

I’d like to share some of those insights. The more you understand this perspective, the more you might understand why Maeda’s debate with design might be the diagnosis the field needed.

All disciplines began with a level of infighting. My Ph.D. specializes in interdisciplinarity. The esteemed professors and students have made careers out of lively discussions combining ecology, policy, economics, anthropology, and every discipline in between, to understand the more complex issues of our age. While furthering the studying of combining disciplines, we also study how disciplines (and professions) are made in the first place.

One of the best books on this topic, published in 1962, is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn.

By looking through history, Kuhn reframes science history as one rife with crises. Instead of progressing rationally through stages of understanding, instead ‘normal science’ has been disrupted by ‘paradigm shifts’ through society, where competing views about the state of the world are thrown into flux. People disagree on how science should be conducted, who should practice it, and how its findings should affect societies we inhabit. If the conflicts are radical enough, sometimes new paradigms begin to take shape in place of the old. Though the book offers many examples, an especially powerful one is the well-known Copernican Revolution, which argued the earth moved around the sun instead of the sun moving around the earth. At first, Copernicus’ original book was banned by the Catholic Church for over 200 years, but a litany of scientists built the scientific foundations for these methods for years after his death.

The book doesn’t only talk about how the science shifts, but how people at the core of the debate deal with the shift in real time. When trying to understand how the world works, the experts of different schools of thought cleave into groups, each jockeying for what they believe is the right view of the world. During this point, the different groups can become so deeply involved in their understandings of the world that they rationalize differently from each other. Group A and B don’t just have different beliefs, they have different logic. Who wins over time, then, isn’t simply a question of who is right, but whose values are politically valid.

Countless fields have matured through these cleavings. Like the natural sciences, anthropology, economics, business, and many others develop new values, ideals, logic, and behavior, the communities who belong to these disciplines advocate for the role of the field — and their expertise in it — to be a part of the powerful institutions in society.

Sound familiar?

The debate about where designers belong in companies is a microcosm of this larger debate about design’s role in the world. People with different lived experiences of the field’s limits and various values about how organizations should be managed are bound to debate design’s role in society. This doesn’t mean, however, that power is a zero-sum game; just that it’s a natural outcome of the field’s growing popularity and utility.

So, why do I think design is different?

The field sits on the edge of the possible. When the world changes, the field must change as a result.

It is design’s very nature to create the new world. The most direct and vocal way it does so is by holistically including the stakeholders it serves; and today, those stakeholders are changing faster than ever. So is the world they’re a part of, and how they see themselves inside it.

I wrote at length about how difficult it is to reliably draw a boundary around design. It’s because the field of design constantly changes — and should change as the world changes. I also wrote at length about how design, in its best form, offers different lenses through which to see our world: the problems we see, and the solutions we’re a part of, are impossibly tangled by the experiences we have in our lives.

What does this mean? Some see design as the ultimate toolkit for navigating complexity, others will see the field as a community interested in aesthetics. At times, they’re both right. And they both need to be right.

The field needs checks and balances, its stakeholders can’t all hold the same perspectives, because the field needs to evolve with the needs of our society. If designers intend to serve the needs of institutions, customers, and (hopefully) the whole world, they need the words from Maeda, Bardlavens, and everyone else who has worthy contributions to keep it on its toes.

What designers might not realize, is hidden in Maeda’s judgment is a useful critique of the culture of design. His words are an opportunity for the field’s practitioners to revisit the values and practices of the field as a whole. Though designers might abhor a critique, we must also use its insights to better the product.

If we don’t, a field of another name will surely rise up and take its place. We have too many problems to believe otherwise.

Design has made epistemic relativism commercial.

(This is what I mean by epistemic relativism.)

People on both sides of this debate can be more than right; they can make a living off their opinions, develop effective consensus, and even incite change in the field as a result.

What also matters, however, is that the debate is useful to our field’s growth. For us confederacy of designers, we must make sure the debate remains productive. Here are a few things we can do keep it that way.

Start with your perspective.

What I did at the beginning of the article is what John Maeda and all other debaters should have done during their press briefings. Each of these people with power has true lived experience, but they can’t assume that their experience is the objective truth. As we’ve seen, design isn’t helpful to anyone that believes their truth is the single, unchanging reality. Make your experience known, and others can more productively engage with your views and how to reconcile them.

A community’s culture must reflect its values.

Designers, at their best, aim to do some revolutionary things: (1) be holistic advocates of the user, (2) develop unique collaborative spaces, (3) spread their field to the far reaches of society, and (4) redefine our future.

At their worst, they live in their own micro-world of aesthetic modifications. I believe most designers operate somewhere between the two. Moving forward, I’d argue current designers should use their values to better define their practices and culture. If they don’t, they unknowingly contribute to design’s extinction.

The lines of communication must always be open.

There will always be many sides to the debate of design. What matters is that the debate continues to bring the best ideas to the fore to shape the direction of the profession. Voices must be heard, and readily considered, to ensure the marketplace of values and ideas is laid before our professional democracy.

Debates like these are golden opportunities. Will we waste them?

I deeply appreciate you making it this far.

I know I’m a small voice in the Internet’s cacophony of voices. So, If you want to keep the conversation going, let’s find a time to talk. Let’s find a way to help each other.

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A digital space that spreads the limits of design and…

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