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Who Is Rick Poynor And Why Is He Criticizing Bruce Nussbaum, Roger Martin, Larry Keeley, Sohrab Vossoughi, Peter Merholz And Design Thinking?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on April 28, 2008

Once a year, for the past three years I think, the design community gets embroiled in a heated debate about business people stealing the soul of designers. The latest permutation can be found in the May 2008 of ID Magazine (one of my favorites again under editor-in-chief Julie Lasky) in a piece called “Down With Innovation” by Rick Poynor, who is a writer and critic based in London specializing in visual culture. This is important, the visual culture part, because the the source of complaint about loss of control in design is coming out of the graphic design community, not the industrial design folks. This is important, I believe, because

industrial design has always had a powerful user-centric focus ("human factors" being a core competency taught in most ID programs). This design begins with a method of understanding people--consumers, patients, whatever. And it is this methodology--this anthropological/sociological base--that is being deconstructed and reassembled as a general tool box for all organizations, beginning with corporations but fast spreading to health care and education. This is what Roger and Larry and Sohrab and Patrick Whitney and Tim Brown call Design Thinking. Others call it Innovation. The smart industrial designers are retaining their form-making abilities because they are so powerful--and beauty remains as important as ease-of-use to many people. But the methodology is what is spreading design into management courses.

The discipline of graphic design (Michael Beirut, tell me if I'm wrong here), does not start this way and does not have this kind of methodology. It is much more visual and visceral, more aesthetic. And harder to codify into a system, into a methodology.

Yikes, I've got to run to a dinner with Pentagram's Michael Beirut. We're both speaking at the @Issue Design Conference tomorrow and there's a dinner tonight. The conference is Design Thinking In A Down Economy. More later.

Reader Comments


April 29, 2008 3:05 AM

Reading this, I couldn't help but notice the irony of the closing line. Hmmmm...Down Thinking in a Design Economy? Funny, that.

Jon Campbell

April 29, 2008 5:44 AM

I'm amazed at the drama that follows the word design. This is the same argument that keeps coming up and another great reason to move away from using the term design, design thinking or any other permutation and stick with innovation. To associate it too closely to the word design offers an opening for the Rick Poynors of the world to pretend they are "owners" and even practitioners.

I'm curious as to Mr. Poynor's use of user-centered research, rapid, iterative prototyping, analysis and synthesis frameworks and platform-level concepts that might provide some guidance to corporations in how to institutionalize an innovation culture, uncover unarticulated user needs and create new offerings that drive value for customers and profits for businesses. His answer may well be that these have nothing to do with visual culture, to which I would respond, "precisely, and for that reason you shouldn't be arguing about this topic in relation to your field."

It's two different practices that share a similar word. Chicken soup and fried chicken are worlds apart but it doesn't mean Colonel Sanders feels Campbell's Soup is encroaching on his domain.

Unless Mr. Poynor has ideas around cloning that allow for each organization to have a Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive or recommendations for moving P&G, T-Mobile, Target and every other company from selling mass-produced products to one-offs such as the gardens of Kyoto or Chartres then his examples confuse me and I think we're all better off spending our time creating instead of arguing.

Here are my thoughts the last time it came up on Bruce's blog -


April 29, 2008 9:43 AM

My colleagues and I found Poynor's article to be highly ignorant of the way design is taught and used.

I for one don't recognise his description of design (he says 'design' but he really means 'graphic design') and his assumption that designers know best, that design comes from some sort of instinctive aesthetic sensibility is about as untrue of the discipline as you could hope. It's also dangerous and helps explain why so many people prefer to do it themselves rather than talk to designers!

He also contradicts himself. See where he condemns design conferences that focus on the aesthetic... He regrets not being at Intersections, for example, but his ID article criticises just about everything that went on there!


April 29, 2008 6:22 PM

Take a look at the work of VSA Partners. It's mostly of a graphic design nature, it's spot-on strategyand looks great. I'm not sure that the two are mutually exclusive.

It's the type of thing that more designers could do if they didn't act like Rick Poyner.

Greg Zimmer

April 29, 2008 9:01 PM

I'd have to agree with your last question / thought to Michael. Not to criticize Graphic Designers, but reinforce your point about the differences in the education of one vs. the other (at least historically). As a design professional that has led branding / package design teams & work for years (P&G and 3M), I find that my education in Industrial Design (not graphics!) has enabled me and my team to develop packaging & products with more appeal because of the consumer-centric based approach taken. I've been successful as a Designer when I've been a passionate stakeholder of the business, and elevated the conversation from subjective opinions on aesthetics (even if I am the expert in the room) to an inclusive dialogue about objective & attribute based communication that connects with consumers hearts & minds.


April 30, 2008 12:02 PM

Poynor's article reveals some relevant observations worth noting. Nussbaum's question can be answered like this...

The invasion, strategic failure and occupation of Iraq by the US military is the perfect metaphor for the design vs design thinking debate. (as well as the state of the global economy)

Design(ers) = Iraq with oil resources that it cannot possibly be trusted with to manage on its own.

Design Thinking = Design(ers) being invaded by a new world order that is able to create a new reality of its own by ignoring design's historical roots and processes. Cleverly broadcasting out to the world via a media that it owns and controls to minds it can reshape and mold in its own new vision. (while a nascent global economy spirals into a recession) Design thinking is out to change the balance of power.

As a product designer and educator of industrial design students, I am well aware of the "design thinking" trend/debate within the field of product design. I try to raise the awareness of my students to this new phenomena of design colonialist. With their armies of anthropologists, psychologists, iterative prototypes, charts, graphs and subterfuge of new language terms, design thinkers are eager to control every aspect of a project's design decision making process. I teach the students in my classes to play nice with these new "design thinking" disciplines in order to grow and advance their own careers when they graduate. The design thinkers build their case like a prosecutor, using research assistants to labor into the wee hours and lunching with judges to secure a predictable verdict.

Imperialism and law metaphors aside, the design thinkers like to call it innovation when presenting to the CEO, but it looks and feels more like aggressive hegemony to the designer.

Its is a bit of turf war on the surface of it, but in a world that is growing smaller everyday, luckily there is enough design to go around for everyone involved. Learning to understand and adapt to the seismic shifts in the field of design is closely related to the survival of your career.

Design thinking must be challenged at every turn (isn't this the nature of design?), but it is also to be recognized for what it is and has contributed to, or taken from the field at the very same time. Good or bad.

Bruce Temkin

April 30, 2008 1:35 PM

Design for the sake of design is a realm for museums and galleries. It's clearly an advancement IN THE BUSINESS WORLD for the art of design to be channeled through "Design Thinking" or whatever it's labeled.

I think there's a clear parallel to be drawn from technology.

Companies have learned over the last decade or so that technology is a great enabler. But you don't develop technology for the sake of technology; it needs to be linked to business and customer requirements. Does that mean that great technology-driven innovations don't play a role? No. Good companies also incubate technology-driven ideas. And companies still cherish great technologists.

So let's think of design as an enabling capability. In this enviornment, there's still a strong need for great designers and great design.

Check out my blog "Customer Experience Matters"

Rob Thompson

April 30, 2008 6:02 PM

I should say first that I know of design from the perspective of an industrial designer. Innovation is the proper way to refer to this type of design to me. I think it is a shame that Poynor would ignore the idea that design processes are the provenance of a few select people. Perhaps there will be a backlash against "design" for the way it is marketed to the business community. I believe this will occur only in the wake of some spectacular failures in the process, and further, that if implemented properly, those failures will not occur. I would like to address Bruce's comment on graphic design not being user centric. Just because you may not need to be grounded in ergonomics to design in graphics doesn't mean there aren't users to center on. Font selection, color choices, layout, print decisions, and the like should all be made for reasons defined by the purpose of the piece being designed, not just aesthetic considerations. Graphic design that is visceral and aesthetic goes by the name "Art." Any "graphic designer" that says otherwise is not focusing on your brand or task at hand.

Rob Thompson

May 2, 2008 4:26 PM

The second sentence in my above quote should read"...would ignore the idea that design processes are NOT the provenance of a few select people." Sorry for that.

Darlene Watkins

May 2, 2008 5:15 PM

Peter Phillips' book "Creating the Perfect Design Brief: How to Manage Design for Strategic Advantage" should be required reading in both design and business schools. Phillips states that an "equal partnership" is formed when the design brief is reviewed and accepted by both designer and client. The brief enables a designer to simultaneously work the aesthetics and the business strategy while staying focused on the business objectives. No matter the design discipline, this methodology enables other phases like envisioning, ideation, storytelling, brainstorming, prototyping, execution, etc. to commence. Phillips does not discriminate design disciplines.

Bruce, all design is graphic. "Graphic design" is on equal-footing with other design disciplines acting as a partner to document the result of finished products or services. The cross-disciplines "talk to each other" by way of instinctively knowing and using some basic Principles of Design like balance, emphasis and focal point, scale and proportion, repetition and rhythm, unity and variety. I'd be happy to send you a syllabus for a design development training course I teach to government senior managers: "Creativity + Design = Innovation". Forget about Rick, it's you we have to work on!


May 12, 2008 11:58 AM

Some of the comments following this article only prove Rick's point that most people simply don't get (Graphic) Design. All design is user centered and Graphic Design is not excluded from that. I think the point that Rick was trying to make is that aesthetics and strategy should be on equal ground. In effective communication there isn't one without the other. At the end of the day regardless of the message or medium we're all (Graphic Designers) working towards effective and engaging communication.


May 21, 2008 5:06 AM

Yes, graphic design can be user-centered, but for the most part, usability and human factors are not central to its methodology. I've never met a graphic designer who's created personas, scenarios, analyzed mental models, and performed usability studies for the design of a poster, letterhead, or brochure.

I think user-centered principles come more into play for graphic design when it is part of a larger whole, like a way-finding system, for example. Or when it's integrated into a physical product, e.g., graphical and typographic elements on screen-based interfaces like the iPod or a car navigation system.


June 2, 2008 3:44 AM

Graphic Design that's not user centered is called Art (Callie). Graphic Designers may not always perform a long list of exhaustive studies but there should always be some degree of research involved in every project they tackle. Their main objective is to meet the needs of the client and reader/user regardless of medium. Usability wasn't invented in the digital age. For instance: If a Graphic Designer created an annual report targeting people in their 40's and 50's using a 7 point font the design will fail because the font size is too small. That designer didn't consider the fact that people in their 40's and 50's tend to struggle at reading smaller fonts while people in their 20's typically have no problem reading a font that small. There are obviously many more factors to consider when designing for a particular demographic but this is a clear example of how usability always plays a part in Graphic Design. Don't you agree?


June 14, 2010 9:41 PM

отлично сделано, интеретсно читать 98)


November 5, 2010 10:30 PM



January 23, 2011 7:43 AM

I disagree with Poynor; it is graphic designers who willingly engage in business because they like the paychecks, then complain when they have to make the logo bigger. If they don't like it, they can always start self-initiated projects on the side. Some of the most prolific designers do this all the time; whether for research, or later for sale, or not...

I also disagree with Nussbaum; the source of complaint also comes from industrial designers. I hear them everyday, usability experts and product designers who work for Philips, TomTom... They just don't have a Poynor.

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