The Fallacy of Novelty

Design and Punishment
Design and Punishment

Recently I was having a discussion with Angela about how design sometimes misses the mark when it comes to supplying elegant solutions to complex problems. Too often designers come up with overly elaborate or contrived solutions to issues that could stand to use a more mundane and commonplace approach (either for purposes of simplicity, cost, or implementation). Users have seen countless examples of poor interface design that was subordinate to flashy graphics and artistic intros. Or information design that was more about sticking to a clever metaphor than getting the point across. Every industry has its examples. Unique for the sake of uniqueness is even more typical in design schools. As is often the case, you have many capable and creative students working towards a common design problem—perhaps even the same one that a series of previous semesters' students tackled as well. How is it possible to stand out in a crowd when most approaches to the problem have been touched on, if not delved into to a ridiculous degree? The honest answer is, you can't. But what is lost in the pursuit of one-upping the competition so to speak, is the lesson that being novel isn't necessarily a goal in good design. I'm not advocating that designers not attempt to build remarkable and unusual solutions to design problems, because they often will be required to. However, the imperative for new approaches should be driven by research into the needs of the users, and not merely an abstract sense of differentiation. It just may be that the solution that will most address the design problem will not be one that breaks convention and will more likely build on typical or past solutions. Any designer worth their salt will explore the potential of all avenues, including both conservative and innovative approaches.

But designers are encouraged and praised by their peers and professors for originality—sometimes over and above the fit for purpose. And that is a shame. Often times the most elegant solution will be the simplest and easiest to implement. It won't require a new model or experience map for the user. New technologies won't need to be created and organisational structures can remain relatively untouched. But those kinds of solutions are un-sexy and seem to show a complete lack of the "creative" skills designers are known for and so proud of. And it isn't just in school that designers are encouraged to put avant-garde ideas ahead of practical ones. Design firms, design publications, and other designers often admire and praise those who are breaking ground (or "shifting paradigms") over those who are simply getting things done. To be sure, this isn't a rampant problem in the real world, but it is enough of an issue that the design industry should be more self policing.

As an example of our lack of enthusiasm for relevant design, we celebrate the Ferrari but have disdain for the Corolla (which, with over 35 million cars manufactured to date, is the best selling car of all time). Of course there is a place for high end sports cars, and Ferrari's are wonderful examples of form vs. function. But the Corolla was just as effective a design solution, and had a positive effect on an exponentially greater group of people. Why celebrate the design of the Enzo as a higher form of achievement? Because it is sexy and sexy design is rewarding to the aesthetic sensibility and our egos. That's a really poor aspiration to be encouraging in designers, in my opinion. If you are designing a million dollar sports car, you can play all you want. If you are designing the next "peoples car" you have to consider the cost of manufacturing, economy of materials, localization, usability across a range of needs, longevity, sustainability, ease of repair, customization, and a host of other issue that likely will not be focused on "make it fast and make it pretty".

But it would be duplicitous of me to put the blame for this only on peer pressure and design school dynamics. Most businesses are not set up to let designers participate in the complete life of a product or service they develop. This is usually seen as an efficiency of skills within an organization (designers design and operations manage). The reality is that it doesn't allow for the needed experience on seeing what works and what fails. This kind of experience is what builds the judgments necessary for understanding the best solution; novel or otherwise. Perhaps part of the problem is that while designers are correctly taught to take a design past its current limits, most design students are not taught how to elegantly bring the design back to conform with the constraints imposed. In school, students are allowed and even encouraged to leave their solutions "out there". Or they are taught that it's OK to sacrifice one or more criteria, so that you begin moving away from a complete solution in favor of a novel one.

Students typically don't get to see the effect of their ideas in the real world and are not challenged to anticipate them either. As a design manager I've seen plenty of portfolios from outstanding graduates who are oblivious to the limits of their work. Why wouldn't they be? Who has taken the time to challenge them? The better designers quickly begin to understand how to work in the real world, but it is difficult to break the new graduate's habit of designing to their own sense of "cool" rather than focusing more on the best solution. And that's assuming their boss, manager, mentor is helping them make that transition. Of course on the flip side, in a business setting, simple and elegant solutions often look deceptively easy to reach, which makes it hard for designers to command value for what they do. A complicated solution is perhaps more likely to be respected as an extension of rarified knowledge, whereas a simple solution might be merely regarded as the product of common sense that anyone could have produced.

Final thoughts:

I'd like to reemphasize that I am not advocating that designers avoid pushing boundaries, conventions, or the status quo. In fact, the opposite is true. The best advances in technology, products, and services have come from truly original thinking. The important lesson that has been inadvertently lost in this process of creating great ideas is the need to make appropriate judgments and not strive for original and unique just for the sake of novelty. When designers play and explore as extensively as they can, it only helps to build their repertoire of solutions to a problem. Great judgment allows them the ability to focus on the idea(s) that are best suited to the problem—even if those ideas seem unexciting. The strong designer knows when to leave the wondrous stuff on the drafting table and when to pursue it with vigor.

We do ourselves a great disservice by not catching our own hubris early in the process and verify that we've not made something more complex or unusable than we could have just to be novel. To continue broadening the scope of design into other areas such as business management, social services, and service design, the desire to be unique needs to be tempered with the drive to be relevant.

Photo credit: Design and Punishment, by Ben Cunningham, from the Arts Institute at Bournemouth’s 2007 Three Dimensional Design graduate directory.