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Are Designers Just Dumb Blonds Or Society's Saviors?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on September 10, 2007

The Yin and Yang of Design is tearing at me. I had lunch with John Kao, author of the new book, Innovation Nation, and talked about how design thinking needs to be deployed to save America from sinking into a third world country (and who is the best innovation Presidential candidate for 08). A fascinating, happy discussion that led to an agreement to try and get all the candidates together online to talk about their innovation agendas.

Then I returned to the office to read a beautifully written post on Design Observer by Pentagram’s Michael Bierut on why it’s ok to be a dumb blond—why it’s ok for designers just to design beautiful things. Why its OK to be stylists, not strategists. His riff is pegged off the revelation that Miss Teen South Carolina, the very blond and beatiful Lauren Caitlin Upton, who appeared to pretend to be stupid was, in fact, not and was going to major in graphic design.

Beneath his sweet, funny but serious attack on designers for wanting to be strategists, is a long thread of comments, mostly by people who agree with him. Bierut mocks those who want a seat at the corporate table and he has lots of people who agree with him. Most appear to be graphic designers but I’m not sure.

Michael and I have kind of been battling about this for two years now and it’s a very serious debate. Maybe because I believe in social service (an old Peace Corps background) or maybe because I believe in the power of the design process or maybe because I am not a designer but a design observer, but I’d like those designers who have the skills to try and use them to help solve our communal messes in health, education, transportation, and yes, even our political process. I am just so amazed at the evolution of design into a sophisticated way of solving problems that I can’t imagine NOT using design thinking to come up with a better health care system.

But I am still the guy who came up with the term “product lust.” I still love beautiful things and experiences and expect designers to keep creating things of beauty. To me, this isn’t an either-or choice. Why should it be?

What I can’t figure out is why it’s so important to so many graphic designers to insist on only being a Dumb Blond. Industrial designers don’t seem to have this compulsion. Do architects?

Reader Comments

Michael Bierut

September 11, 2007 4:04 AM

Bruce, I end my article by saying "Designers, you don't have to be dumb. Just don't be so afraid of being beautiful." Not an either-or choice.

By the way, if you can't think of at least half a dozen Dumb Blonde industrial designers and a dozen equally Dumb architects right off the top of your head, you aren't trying.

Pete Mortensen

September 11, 2007 5:44 AM

It's definitely not an either/or. There is plenty of need for designers primarily concerned with aesthetics. Their work can be moving and even life-changing, depending on the moment.

On the other hand, design strategists can offer much more actionable plans for growth than traditional management consultants typically do. But the answer isn't that every designer should become involved in strategy, nor that every designer should only make pretty things. People should follow their passions and make maximum impact where they can.


September 11, 2007 7:25 AM

As a student of Industrial Design (almost finished my Master), I'm a bit torn about this as well.

I agree with you about the power of the design process for solving all kinds of problems, but the trouble is that this design thinking seems to be replacing a big part of actual design skills and know-how in curriculi at design schools (such as mine, the Delft University of Technology).

This has led (in my humble opinion of course) to lots of people here being very good at neither. So maybe the lesson here should be that as the field of design expands, we need to make new distinctions between sub-fields.

Then again, I am afraid that might lead to the "design-thinkers" being viewed as superiors to the "dumb-blond" people, which is what Michael Beirut is arguing against (and I wholeheartedly agree with him on that one).

Bruce Nussbaum

September 11, 2007 1:28 PM

Let's push this discussion a bit further. I know a bit more about industrial designer and industrial designers than graphic designers just because we started out, by accident really, with the IDSA, not AIGA. So forgive me if I am overstating it.

Whenever I go to Art Center, RISD, IID, Parsons, Pratt, Stanford, CCA and other schools and talk to the students, they invariably emphasize using their design skills to help people in rural African and Asian villages or the aging population or our own decrepit health and education systems. They want a place at the table, often a big, strategic place. This is also true of many designers at Smart, Continuum, Ziba and a million other design shops.
Is this true of schools teaching graphic design? Are graphic designers somehow more like your Dumb Blonds than industrial designers?
Yes, I can find lots of Dumb Blond industrial designers and architects, but what is the overall trend?


September 11, 2007 1:43 PM

Wanting begets wanting.

If you deserve a seat at the table, any table, big or small, you will receive a seat at the table. What's all this childish bellyaching about being entitled to a seat at the table?

Stop wanting. Start being. Good motives followed by good acts will be rewarded with good seats. That's what I read between the lines of Mr. Bierut's piece. Not that there's an either-or choice here, but an obligation to do instead of whine.

Then again, I could easily be editorializing. Oh well, either way, I'm happy.

Chris Conley

September 12, 2007 1:06 AM

I'm crashing the party a little late, I see! All the beautiful-dumb and smart-ugly people are taken!

I think one issue to tease apart is the separation of individuals and profession. Like Michael, I tire of designers at conferences (and in graduate classes) arguing for the profession AS A WHOLE for strategic roles and respect. I assume they figure that if the whole profession has more respect, THEY will get more respect. But it doesn't really work that way. No matter how repsected the field of medicine, each of you will change doctors when having a bad experience. This is why some comments argue for focusing on your own work, doing good acts, and building your reputation. I couldn't agree more.

I am always troubled when the conversation off roads into a debate of whether designers should be involved in strategy or not. Or whether they should be making things beautiful. This is senseless debate. Our profession is expanding and different designers will apply their talents in different ways to different problems in different contexts. None of these paths define the profession as a whole. It is now too diverse to do so. But it is still small enough to get caught in these navel-gazing rat holes!

Finally, this angst of respect and professional role is not limited to design. I spend enough time at other disciplines' conferences to realize ALL professions are concerned with their seat at the table, their professional worth, and the roles they should or shouldn't be playing. It is a human foible.

Yes, there are some disciplines with more clear career paths into senior management than others. But ALL disciplines have practitioners who may find their way into so called strategic roles. But this is a personal journey, not a profession-as-a-whole one. There is no pure "strategy" or "seat at the table" discipline -- just individuals deciding to try and make their way there.

No one can lay claim to this role for a discipline in part or in whole.

Josh Silverman

September 12, 2007 6:56 PM

bruce: it's yin and yang (not "ying").
-not dumb and not blonde, but still a designer

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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