Michael Bierut | Essays

You're So Intelligent

Lauren Caitlin Upton, Miss Teen South Carolina 2007

Baxter, the protagonist in John Cheever's short story "The Chaste Clarissa," is vacationing on a Cape Cod island. He discovers to his pleasure that a nearby house is to be looked after all summer by his neighbor's extraordinarily beautiful but stupid new wife — the Clarissa of the story's title — while his neighbor is in Europe. Baxter, a practiced seducer, sets his sights on Clarissa, but to no avail. He tries everything, flattery, chivalry, presents, but Clarissa responds coldly. Until, by accident, responding absently to still another of her inane offhand remarks, he murmurs, "You're so intelligent."

You don't mean that, she answers. He assures her that he does. "I can't be intelligent," she says. "No one ever takes me seriously until they get their arms around me." Baxter assures her that, no, he finds her ideas fascinating and would love to hear more of her opinions. And as she spills them out, he knows he has her, and that's how the story ends. "'You're very intelligent,' he said, now and then. 'You're so intelligent.' It was as simple as that."

Which brings me to today's theme. Designers of the world, it's as simple as that. You're so intelligent!

I thought of the Chaste Clarissa last week while we were all distracting ourselves with one of those perfect end of summer bits of nonsense, the public meltdown of Miss South Carolina, Lauren Caitlin Upton, during the essay question section of the Miss Teen USA competition. Like many others who had spent our high school years being essentially invisible to the cheerleading squad, I found it reassuring to note once again how seldom beauty and intelligence seem to coexist. Yet, in a way I cannot explain, I sensed what was coming when Ms. Upton revealed several days later to the sympathetic hosts of the Today show that she was not, in fact, dumb, but would be attending football powerhouse Appalachian State University where she would be studying, yes, graphic design.

Perhaps design is the field of mindless prettiness. But hasn't it always been so? After all, most of us entered the profession not because we've determined after long thought that it represented a more effective way of influencing the course of world events than, say, law or medicine. Instead, somewhere along the way, we discovered we liked making things look good, and that we were better at it than other people.

Yet in all the years I was involved with the AIGA, I heard the members demand one thing over and over again, and from this I got a pretty clear idea of what designers want. And it wasn't to be better designers; interestingly, almost every designer I've ever met has been serenely confident in his or her ability to make things look good, thank you very much. No, what designers wanted then and want now, more than anything else, is respect. Respect from clients. Respect from the general public. Respect from — let's go right to the cliché — our moms. We want to be seen as more than mere stylists, we want to set the agenda, to be involved earlier in the strategic process, to be granted a place at the table. In short, just like the Chaste Clarissa, we want to be taken seriously.

Like many designers, for years I used a tried-and-true tactic to hoist my way up the respect ladder, a technique I will here call Problem Definition Escalation. If you've listened carefully to the lyrics to "Gee, Officer Krupke" in West Side Story you already know how this works. The client asks you to design a business card. You respond that the problem is really the client's logo. The client asks you to design a logo. You say the problem is the entire identity system. The client asks you to design the identity. You say that the problem is the client's business plan. And so forth. One or two steps later, you can claim whole industries and vast historical forces as your purview. The problem isn't making something look pretty, you fool, it's world hunger!

I'm not sure when I got tired of this. The first few times I was asked to offer my opinion about my client's business strategy, I was flattered. I was even more pleased when my advice seemed to be — a dream come true — taken seriously. But I noticed I was spending more and more of my time in meetings, volunteering ideas about things that I wasn't any more qualified to put forward than a lot of the people in those same meetings were offering about my design work. Finally, I found myself at a design conference listening to still another demand that clients give us designers that coveted place at that legendary table where all the big decisions are made. Sitting next to me was one of my favorite clients, someone I treasure for her levelheadedness and good humor. "I've spent hours at that table," she whispered to me. "It's not that great, you know."

I forget the theme of that particular conference, but like so many others, it may as well have been Designers: You're So Intelligent. Like Clarissa, designers yearn to be respected for our minds. Like Clarissa, we take our real gifts — our miraculous fluency with beauty, our ability to manipulate form in a way that can touch people's hearts — for granted. Those are the gifts that matter, and the paths through which we create things that truly endure.

You can take anything I say with a grain of salt. After all, it's coming from someone who put out a design book with 75,000 words and not a single picture. But here's my advice. Designers, you don't have to be dumb. Just don't be so afraid of being beautiful.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design

Comments [71]


Insightful as usual.

The trouble is that in some places doing "strategic thinking" is taking precedence over (developing) design skills. So you end up with people that aren't very good at either...

I'd be very interested to hear what some people at "design thinking"-oriented schools or businesses think about all this.

Perhaps design is the field of mindless prettiness. But hasn't it always been so? After all, most of us entered the profession not because we've determined after long thought that it represented a more effective way of influencing the course of world events than, say, law or medicine. Instead, somewhere along the way, we discovered we liked making things look good, and that we were better at it than other people.

Maybe for some people...but then some people get into medicine or law for the money, and not to help people. Some will always have alterior motives. Personally I got into design because a) I enjoy it, b) I'm good at it, c) it is flexible, varied, every day can be different!

I don't think of my career as 'making things look pretty', and although I do sometimes run into people who seem to think of design that way (mostly people who have no experience with it!) I can help them to see that actually, design is about answering a particular problem. Visual communication is vital, and 'pretty' things that don't fulfill their function are useless.

I don't feel I have anything to prove about design or designers being intelligent to be honest - there are people in all careers who are gifted, and others who really make you wonder how they even manage to dress themselves in the morning! There are some less academic people (or less verbally intelligent like our poor Miss Teen) who can turn out to be excellent designers, and I also know some amazingly intellectual people without any design, artistic or creative talent whatsoever.

I know I am mostly respected (there will always be someone idiotic enough to refuse to see how anything creative is actually a job) and that is because I approach my work strategically, and with purpose - NOT just to make things 'mindlessly pretty'.

I think the most capable, sensible and talented designers can command respect from anyone by their very nature, but there will always be someone to let down the group. (Sadly, the verbally constipated seem to be the first ones the media like to interview these days.)

OK, good one. But, isn't advancement part of any profession? Lack of that means, stagnation or death. Being creative, we look to advance. Right or wrong.
That "table" is pretty boring and often has trouble taking risk. I'd rather do design any day. The problem is we need to assign more value to what we do. That is, charge more!

I think there's an element of designers wanting to have a little more control over the process they're involved in. The attempted expansion of the territory of design as a profession is in one sense a reaction to the feeling of ground being lost to professions such as marketing or usability.

However, I do believe that most designers would do better to stick to what they're best at, rather than becoming the amorphous professional executive types they are reacting against.

i have often considered the work designers produce to be spark plugs in one sense or another. they can be social spark plugs that can get the engines of social movements going, and they can spark the interest of everyone around them, and give an otherwise mundane project a little bit of life and excitement.

although a creative idea can spark from anyone, regardless of position, i feel like designers are truly meant to be the ones in charge of communicating that idea, whether it's theirs or not. designers, in my eyes are a great liaison between an idea and a successful implementation of it. That being said, I feel like a designer can inadvertently destroy a good idea for selfish reasons or because of a lack of understanding.

i also feel like design is so much more than just "making things pretty." it's also "making things better."

as a communicator, you are trying to make things better, stronger, faster, and more reliable (whether it's an idea, a product, or a mission).

yes, ms. south carolina is mindlessly pretty, but has she done anything to make the image of beauty any better? has she done anything to make south carolina or anywhere better?
ed mckim

There are only a handful of professions that command respect right off the bat, and then only because they historically have paid the most money or demand a knowledge of an area in which the general public is not well versed. Doctors, lawyers, and stock brokers (but only if they're with one of the big firms)just about cover it. But even then, there is a level of resentment towards these same professions.

The idea that graphic designers should get more respect is self-serving. If we were to automatically get more respect, then so would authors, painters, carpenters, contractors, printers, developers, et al. All of these create something that serves both client and, in some cases, the greater good, but are usually thankless. It goes with the territory.

But there is certainly a way to gain respect, and that is the good ol' "earn it" method. There are certainly designers in the world who are universally respected. They have proven their talents to be exceptional, and put in the time and energy to create great things. But ask them candidly if they feel respected by clients, and the most positive answer I bet you'll get is, "Some of them."
Sean Flanagan

This was possibly the funniest thing I saw on youtube for a while... perhaps my next vacation will be to places like uh suchas.

My name is Kate.
I like to make pretty things....

Thanks, Michael, for another great article. In recent work for a local client, I've been struggling with my personal interest in creating a sexy piece of design, and the client's real, and very simple, need to move beyond the ugliness that has been populating their printed materials.

I honestly believe that on some level simply saying the client doesn't need a new strategy, or a new identity, or a new system, only a new brochure is a good thing for all involved. When they see how much prettier (and how much better it communicates their goals) it is than their previous work, they'll be grateful and happy. And I think, the world, in some small way, is prettier and better off for it.

Pretty is good.
Kate LaMere

In order to maximize the results of what we design, designers needs to be considered at the "table." As designers we are constantly baffled by what comes down to us from upper management. We get frustrated because we don't feel that they understand what we do. We don't simply make things pretty, we are not a glorified internal kinkos. We are creative problem-solvers, that can build-up business on a multi-disciplinary level. The thing is, while we are well versed in design and aesthetics, we are not fluent in the language of business. I think that designers have an important roll to play at the business level, but we need to educate ourselves if we want to be taken seriously at the "table." We need to be able to translate our ideas into language that businesses will understand and in turn depend on. Otherwise, when we have the opportunity to collaborate on a business plan, they'll respond as we often do to their design input, "where do they get off."
Richard Gordon-Smith

Richard, while I agree wholeheartedly with your statement, I can also see how "upper management" might look at the scenario you describe. The designer you speak of, capable of dealing with form as well as business processes is extremely rare - at least in my own experience this has been the case. The people I've known who could pull this off with integrity (and style!) have invariably entered the design field after achieving mastery in another (allegedly non-creative) domain, such as engineering, business school and so forth.

Design education itself doesn't concern itself with the same issues the people at the "table" do concern themselves with. It can take some time working with clients to understand what these issues really are.

Gary R Boodhoo

A note on talent portion in these shows, which has largely been eliminated.

IN the seventies, I would watch these competitions and often wonder a bit to enter the ones that offered academic scholarships for the likes of my proven ability. However, not playing the piano or performing dance or any talent that was applicable on stage, I wouldn't dare.

I mean my talent was design, fabric and clothing. How does that display on a TV screen? It's a talent as good as music, isn't it? In a pinch I know that anyone of these girls on stage would have given me the world to alter an evening gown to perfect fit in 10 minutes, if need be, and it would be more useful than a song and dance routine, or even baton throwing. Okay, nowadays, I think back in that I had the ability to turn a tune by pulling out my elna lotus, a little background music, and comic relief to maybe get one awe from a judge, but that is now, this was then.

I actually quit taking higher math because I needed design and sewing classes (which were redundant as I homeschooled myself in these daily) on a high school transcript to better be accepted to a 4-year college in the midwest who wrote the bibles in fabric draping and flat pattern methods. Why go to the artsy New York schools, when the engineering and mechanics of dress design was offered along with art in the state next store without the glitz? And well, because you were afraid of that beautiful avenue crowd only understanding sketchy ideas and not understanding visual geometry ? Maybe I was intelligent, and not just talented.


To every 13year old girl who watches these things, and wishes to be beautiful, talented, and answer all the right questions, 35 years later if you are still thinking:

I could have been a contender.
Just be glad that you don't have to be a pretender.

Note of interest: In the Miss Teen America Contest (not Miss Teen USA, in which Miss SC competed) the rules state for the PSA-SPEECH portion of the competion:

Rhyming is also prohibited.


the biggest problem i have with being "at the table" is: what gives graphic designers more of a right to be "at the table" than anyone else who takes orders from above?

The reason I say this is because designers have a very narrow scope of what they do (make things pretty in most cases), just like salesmen only think in terms of sales, where as the people who belong at "the table" have to have a much broader scope of what the company has to do now, has done in the past, what it needs and wants to do, for itself and it's stockholders, and satisfy as many employees as possible in doing so.

Maybe these strange requests that they make are because of particular insights that upper management can and have to make, that in a lot of cases are more important than if it's pretty or not. I am sure every employee at every level and in every company wants a seat at the table to advance their own personal comforts or convenience.
ed mckim

I love the issue that this post wrestles with, because I constantly wrestle with it myself.

It's worth remembering that at one time, "commercial artists" really didn't have a seat at the creative table, let alone the strategic one. ("This is how it should look. Now go do it. No thinking necessary, thankyouverymuch.")

Design is still a young and evolving area of work and study. Boundaries are continually being rearranged by the forces of technology, by the marketplace, and by individual, innovative talents. And some of that individual talent will find one way or another to sit at a variety of tables if they're capable, and it furthers the ability to do effective work.

I agree that designers should continue to leverage their unique skills in addressing the visual needs of a project. I get frustrated whenever I hear those skills being devalued by designers themselves. However, I also believe it's far too limiting to define a designer's contribution by a single model. Otherwise, we'd still all be "layout men" in the bullpen.
Daniel Green

great piece. thankyou!
Yvette Madelaine

if design is the bling of capitalism, then beirut is the p. diddy of design for saying so.
Gong Szeto

I don't think the point is for designers to become business managers and to be sitting at 'the table'. Let one do what one can do best and leave it at that.

The point is: we need business managers that understand the value of and can be the support for design at the table (hence the relative recent trend of design education, though limited, that happens in business schools and media); at the same time, designers who can talk the language of business can give a more appropiate voice to their design.

As the profession of design matures, we will find increasingly the need for a new type of position, of the, for the lack of a better term: 'design ambassador' who is capable of both: sitting at the business table and observing in the design studio.

Sean: There are only a handful of professions that command respect right off the bat, and then only because they historically have paid the most money or demand a knowledge of an area in which the general public is not well versed...

An excellent point Sean, and I think the key problem there is that with the proliferation of software and computers these days, we meet way too many people who think they can do it themselves. Why respect a graphic designer's talent, their years of training and experience, when you can mess about in a stolen copy of Photoshop and 'design' with Comic Sans, some clip art and web graphics in hand? Because the vast majority of non-designers don't understand the whole design process, and therefore the long hard work that goes into it, they assume it's easy, or even worse that the computer does the work! You rarely find someone reading a first aid book and proclaiming to be a doctor, and I think that if people honestly knew what goes into professional design, they wouldn't try and claim to be a designer.

Ed: The reason I say this is because designers have a very narrow scope of what they do (make things pretty in most cases), just like salesmen only think in terms of sales...

I don't agree with this in full. A lot of designers probably do have a very narrow scope, and a lot of salespeople probably do too - but this is not the case for everyone, whatever their profession. There are many excellent designers with a thorough knowledge of the entire process, of business, marketing, etc. There are undoubtedly designers who just 'make things pretty', and they fail when it comes to tackling a big design project, or something that hinges on usability.

I am currently working on branding for a major broadcasting group - it is nothing whatsoever to do with making anything 'look pretty' (also it was a project my managing director grossly misunderestimated. Why? Because he assumed he knew how to do it - in that instance my position at the table was more useful than his!) There was a lot of research involved prior to even starting the project - consider the target market, the staff using the brand elements, how this fits in with their structure, how does this impact future publications, print, web, ambient media, everything. The design and its subsequent branding must WORK. It is a strategic project that when carried out correctly can have an enormous impact on a company and their public perception, and thus their profits. That is the whole point, and impact of good design.

I totally agree:

Making = ideating, creating, planning, managing, inspiring, inventing, compiling, generating, conceptualizing...

Things = products, services, communications, projects, events, processes, goals...

Pretty = technologically viable, culturally acceptable, usable, sellable, profitable, answer needs, solve problems...

*(pick one of each group to build your own definition of design)

And it is true, the big table is quite boring, but pays off better.

Given the amount of talk over the last few years about getting plumbers involved earlier in the decision making process, its a question that goes right to the core of what the future of plumbing will be. This past April's UA (United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters; http://www.ua.org ) featured a keynote talk by the President of PlumPro, specifically on this potential: by leveraging the current association between plumbers, architects and property developers, he posits, we can establish ourselves as a potent decision making entity independent of our traditional caretakers in the architecture, urban planning or property development departments. Such a call to action is perfectly in line with articles, talking heads and BusinessWeek covers of the past decade, arguing for an ever increasing role in real estate development for plumbers.
Smart Plumber

I think many designers need to start realise that they should at the very least look the part, or walk the talk.

Of cause content and substance always comes first but a little self-branding goes a long way. Of all the professions design and designers need the most of "Brand You" love. It inspires confidence and we know what to do when it comes to dealing with beautiful things.

Great post.

Smart Plumber, although humorous your analogy does not quite mirror that of design-unless you take a purely pragmatic position, in which case you will need to supply supporting thought.
Unlike the material and engineering requirements of plumbing, design exists at a border: between inter-subjective desires (making things look pretty) and the transmission of normative procedures (making things work). Much confusion arises when a hierarchical emphasis is placed on one or the other (universal versus particular, or legibile versus radical, for example).
The point that's worth making is however alive in your comment. Design is a process dictated by procedures and requirements out of the designers control. Thus, to become a designer worthy of their profession (or shall we pursue a larger vision and say citizenship) it will be necessary to understand not only creativity (creativity as 'resisting the present') but the wider social and political regimes that dictate what creativity can be. That can be said for all creatives-including smart plumbers.

You write very well and I can understand the frustration that you express. Enough is enough! But global warming is only an excuse to frighten the politicians and lay public and poverty is for the third world to worry about and we will not mention the Project M story. What can design do about all this nonsense? We have heard all this before, havent we? Papanek, Fuller, Stafford Beer....all gone.

However, I do believe that we do have problems and opportunities that cannot be wished away by making pretty things nor by running away from the "table". Is this for design and designers?

Design is changing and in my view the challange is to face up to this reality and here in India we have our own brand of problems with lack of recognition and a great need for design to be available for as many as 230 sectors of our economy. I am sure that your post will be repeated many times by our top management with glee.

There are schools of design addressing just these issues but they may not look like design schools to many. Take a look at my comments on the Kaos Pilots in Denmark, the NextD in New York and the Rotmans School of Management in Toronto at the blog called Design for India

Perhaps you will have a counterpoint to consider there.

Prof M P Ranjan

Great post. Insightful and so well written. I am considering the purchase of Bierut´s book, even though I am pretty sure I have already read all of the essays.
radar estudio

Just like women copying the male executive dressing style... fortunately they found their own vision later on.

But the key point is decision power. If we're not trained in business we shouldn't try to apologise for that, but try to gain credibility in communication matters instead.
But it's also true that to go beyond "I like it" designers should know everything about the company, just like accountants should be aware of what's happening in the design department.

exellent article, Michael!
Pau de Riba

The search for obeisance is incarcerated in a self designated category-respect will only come on leaving this myth behind.

Dumbsigners are not intelligent. Neither are they artistic. Not even human. Dumbsigners are nothing more than a manifestation of popular opinion, laughing at the mediated misfortunes of misguided ego. Halt. Strip bare and turn that panoptic gaze upon yourselves. Witness the plethora of stupefying banality you call discourse. Dumbsigners are a verification to the glorification of brand, of an allegiance to tired old doctrines. Fall over your flailing assertions of misread platonisms, lift the piles of frumpy surfaces you parade as the 'political'. Why do you quiver so? All too afraid to step out into polis and declare your allegiance to the necessary, urgent, and required? Then remain. Huddle in confirmation of your lofty superiority via the denigration and humiliation of others. You are, after all, Dumbsigners, and were created to be dumb-constricted and controlled by vectorial procedures. And so, you are and will remain an infinity away from ever understanding beauty...and for that, I Love You.

Designers navel-gazing about their own perceived importance and/or relevance? *Shocking*.
Christian in NYC

Heh... "football powerhouse."

Supposedly a fifth of Americans are unable to locate their own country on a map...perhaps that would explain why six nuclear warheads were mistakenly flown over the U.S.A last month. Designers, you don't have to be dumb. Just be afraid of B-52's.

Why is it that as designers we want to pretend to be more intelligent than what we are? Why do we want to pretend we are experts at everything and pose as something we are not? Sure, other professions try to play 'designer,' and when we see that we role our collective condescending eyes. So think how others perceive us when we try to become something we are not? We need to stick to what we know best. Form, beautifully executed form that speaks to our intelligence. Mr. Bierut sums this up with a well written comment, "we take our real gifts — our miraculous fluency with beauty, our ability to manipulate form in a way that can touch people's hearts — for granted. Those are the gifts that matter, and the paths through which we create things that truly endure." Form can tell stories, it can help you get where you need to go, it can truly make the world a better place.

I'm happy to make a difference in this world by just being a shape shifter and proud of it.

read full response

Thanks Mr. Bierut.
michael hersrud

I would rather be beautiful than respected. Great piece!

Why is it that as designers we want to avoid to be more involved than what we are? Why do we want to pretend we are incapable at anything other than prettification and pose as something so inane? Sure, other people try hard and are 'concerned,' and when we see that we roll on our collective back and play dead for our master. So think how others perceive us when we remain exactly as we are? We need to stick to what we we're told to do. Ignore those beautiful people who are executed by employing rants, incoherent jibberish, told by our instructor. Mr. Babbleroot sums this up with a well written comment, "we take our real gifts — our miraculous fluency with beauty, our ability to manipulate form in a way that can touch people's hearts — for granted. Those are the gifts that matter, and the paths through which we create things that truly endure." Form can tell lies, it can't help you get where you need to go, it can only make the world a better place if it is part of a larger socio-political program.

I'm happy to make no difference in this world by just being a waste of space and proud of it.
Dominic James

Ok, so let me get this straight.

The issue here is that have designers here who want more responsibility? They want to span the entire business. They want to create shapes, make nice designs, apply what they learned in design school, but also do strategy, business planning, consulting and also be the ethnographers, sociologists and psychologists that do design research. They want to be masters-of-it-all. And if someone says "wait a minute, you studied -design-", then designers make sarcastic remarks that they should stay put because "oh we're complete idiots", which is a juvenile response by the way.
The bottom line is: designers studied design. Most design schools don't go in-depth in other fields. But designers are starting to realize that these days aesthetics are not the main focus. That in the business world, commercial success in innovation is applauded. Design for Design is only masturbation material for designers. Like Ad awards for the Advertising world. They're not based on success to the clients. Kudos, Designer, if you think you can do it all, or are some of the rare individuals who also has good business stragetic sense. Even most MBAs know jack sh*t about strategy, but you come and claim you should be there at the strategy table. Why wouldn't we have the MBA-types start designing, too? Let's turn this whole conversation around in a MBA-type Web site, change articles with "Consultants" (like one did with plumbers) and see the reaction.
Good luck, superstar.
Objective Advocate

Great post - really liked this one!

But...every problem is a design problem. Not necessarily a *graphic* design problem, though.

Want to solve more than graphical problems? Add skills!


After reading all the responses to Mr. Bierut's post it seems to me there are a few ways to look at this topic:

Why do designers want to be at the table?
It appears for one reason only; to get what they interpret is respect.

Why do designers need to be at the table?
To speak to the decision makers, to get a clear understanding of the purpose of the work first hand so they can offer something meaningful (designers often have a lot to offer), and to have the opportunity to learn through discussion with the people running the organisation, which is how everyone at the table gets a little bit (or a lot) smarter.

In terms of the discussions on pretty:

Why do designers want to make things pretty?
Because they can't help it. And they often assume the pressure (from themselves, awards and other designers) that they must make things pretty, which is understandable since crafting is part of the role.

Why do designers need to make things pretty?
They don't. They need to make things appropriate, which might include a version of pretty.

The tricky thing is that Pretty is pretty subjective. And to echo what has been mentioned in an earlier post, Respect has to be earned. Each of us are individuals before we are designers.

As for making the world a better place this is also slightly subjective. Being nice to your neighbour can make the world a better place.

With regard intelligence, I guess it depends on who one is comparing oneself with and for what reasons.

Alas, if, from the very beginning, people could have just respected us for making things look pretty, we wouldn't be having this discussion, this endless re-examining of and doubt about our worth.

Great original post, Mr. Beirut.
Rob Henning

Doubt is what we need more of-all profound thought is based on it. Doubt denounces the possibilty of remaining heads down, buried in heads up displays, shirking the social in favour of flavouring (ac)counting. Doubt is the cause for pause, of reflection and discussion. Designers, don't be afraid to desolve being pretty dumb. "Sapre Aude!" - Have the courage to use your own intelligence!

I doubt that anybody ever sees the humor in my comments. But I'll keep trying.
Rob Henning

So will I...

Grating post, Mr. Beirut.

I am remiss because I don't have the time to respond fully to this thoughtful (as always) post by Michael. That said, I would like to share a few thoughts.

First, I would argue that the post (regardless of the title) isn't really about intelligence but about the role of the specialist versus that of the generalist (or liberal artist if you will). Those who have their work and values driven by a small and single discipline-based set of knowledge will invariably be limited in strategic or leadership roles--they are focused on the details. Conversely, those who take the time to educate themselves and challenge their own orthodoxies (as Michael has) can be more successful working at these higher levels. This is equally true of any individual regardless of their starting or named profession.

Second, the discipline of design is in crisis. Are we stylists or strategists? Form-givers or social scientists? Information architects or analysts? But this state of crisis is not unique to design--most disciplines are in crisis as well. Think about how many unique strains of engineering, business, design, law, the medical professions, social sciences, economics, philosophy there are! There is probably someone in the world today working from a feminist-canine perspective focused on kitchen design in the United States. I'm only being partially facetious here. We've become so goddamn specialized that the only way to make a name for oneself in academia (and much of the professional world) in recent decades was to carve out ever smaller pieces of the pie--to go deeper and become more differentiated almost to the point of being meaningless. The problem is we've pushed so deep and know so much but it hasn't really "helped" with our current problems. Furthermore, disciplines are starting to overlap each other as they differentiate within themselves. Taylor's factory model is crashing down around us.

It has become clear that specialist driven fragmentation is causing us to lose a sense of the big picture. Both society and organizations are suffering because there are so few people with a broad enough based perspective to make informed strategic decisions. The larger issue is that so few people even try to broaden their perspectives. Drucker identified that managers and leaders need to be generalists, yet they are rarely so. That said, it is clear that the best strategists and leaders are exactly that--think Lou Gerstner or Steve Jobs. Liberal knowledge is also more relevant today because our problems and the world have been so inextricably linked through communication (read "the Internet"), easier modes of transportation, and the other forces of globalization. They require us to consider more than ever.

Third and finally, why is this relevant to design? As Michael points out, it is true that designers have had some serious self-esteem issues. Design is the Rodney Dangerfield of professional disciplines. We pine for more "respect" than we have traditionally received. (We always thought our impact was greater than it actually was.) At the same time, the purpose and nature of the discipline--as force of synthesis--makes it uniquely powerful in this fragmented world. Designers are used to taking incomplete inputs and producing complete wholes. We are used to using others' methods (drawing from art, prototyping from engineering, research from social sciences, etc.) in our process. How the best designers think--in an integrative fashion--is exactly what society and organizations need, thus, the current pre-occupation with "Design Thinking."

There will be those who wish to continue to focus on "making things beautiful." I thank them because I appreciate beauty. On the other hand, the elegance found in "Design Thinking" should and will be applied at a strategic level. It is the type of design I do and its elegance is apparant. Just know that to be effective at this level, you need to know a lot more than what you learned at design school. (Michael, sorry for not being short and to the point...)
Zachary Jean Paradis

hey michael, you're so intelligent.
big deal. now go do some real work.
john mccreevey

I thought the original post presented a rather positive point: We should be happy with and proud of our ability to make things beautiful. It's okay to make things beautiful. The fact that Michael Beirut took the coincidence of Miss South Carolina's career path to make this point seems terribly witty. I wish I'd thought of it.

I happen to think that design can (and possibly should) be more than just making things beautiful. I imagine most everyone here would agree.

But, the endless examination of whether or not design is worthwhile does make me wonder if design as a profession attracts a disproportionate number of people who are insecure, full of self doubt, and suffering low self esteem. Sure, I've met my share of unbelievably confident designers, but they are often just masking some massive insecurity. On the other hand, most lawyers, architects and doctors I know seem to be supremely confident individuals. And those seem to be well-respected professions which don't routinely question their own self worth.

I can only speak of my own experience here. But, it seems to me that the acknowledgment of worth and value comes from one's work. If I help a worthy charitable organization communicate its message, and if they are happy with the work I do, then I feel pretty darn pleased. If I happen to advise that same client on some strategic issue, great. Even better if they apreciate and take my advice. Possible best of all they actually pay me to do this for them--so I can eat and keep a roof over my head.

The results are twofold. First, I find that my clients completely respect and apreciate the work I do for them--because I do it for them.
Second, I am certain my work is worthwhile, valued and respected--even if I am not winning design awards (I'm not), even if I am not producing the most gorgeous design out there (I'm not). Of course, the second result is helped along by the first.

Incidentally, the vast majority of my work IS helping a charitable cause communicate its message. I happen to feel they are a worthwhile charity. And I am humbled by the opportunity to work for them--they are doing the real work, not me.

I just say that if you are looking for respect, go find it. Make it. Do your work with integrity. Develop self esteem. Want a place at the table? Get the necessary skills to earn a place and then fill that place well. Doesn't matter whether you're doing this for a little local non-profit, or for a massive multinational corporation--as long as you know why you're doing it. Don't look for your profession to automatically hand respect to you on a silver platter. And, please, stop whining endlessly about the lack of respect--it's just boring. Embrace what you do, even if it is "only" making things beautiful.

Rob Henning

Would you say that certain types of designers are more suited to "sit at the table" and more appropriate to employ "problem definition escalation"?

I notice a lot of comments writing and thinking from graphic design point of view, which I admire and envy in terms of skillset in contrast to what I know from interaction design (AKA use experience design and a ton of other names also mentioned in some comments).

It seems perfectly logical to me that interaction designer types be part of strategy and innovation, given that the work is driven primarliy by functional purpose. Or at least that it would make perfect sense if interaction designers were given a UI to make and ended up changing the entire feature, functionality, or product.

Am I missing something here? Is there less difference between interaction designers and graphic designers (in regards to this article) than I am imagining?

A prime example of this is Bruce Mau.
smarty pants

just make your own damn table.

simple design solution.

the ghost of 475


Joe Moran

Great article!

As kids our art was posted on the fridge. We were admired and respected by our parents.

Nothing has really changed.

We still like our art being posted on the fridge and having people admire it and respect our talent.

Von Glitschka

Thank you Micheal for addressing that which I've always wondered about designers: "Why are they not content with being designers (i.e. individuals gifted with the ability to make skilled decisions that transform ideas into tangible forms both appropriate and beautiful)?"

I train design students to become hybrid anthro/design thinkers in order to better cloak themselves in the "respectable" social science and political science discourses and build confidence in their context knowledge to go with their formal skills. This is because in the interdisciplinary contexts in which I practice, we need designers who feel confident enough in their knowledge about political systems or marketing to engage and translate with their colleagues from other disciplines. Even when for me to talk of beauty is enough, I find that designers are not comfortable or feel they don't have anything to say without this contextual knowledge, so I train them to feel more confident.

Yet, I wonder why beauty seems to be so devalued these days. It seems that once upon a time beauty held tremendous power to move people to accomplish great and terrible things. Have we become so "rational" that we are no longer moved by our emotions? Behavioral economics even shows that business decision-making is not ration. Have you ever heard an MBA wax poetic about the beauty of her business case?

So perhaps for designers who are proud of being the makers of beautiful artifacts and don't want to get MBAs or PhDs in anthropology, the next AIGA campaign is to "rebrand" the power of beauty, so that designers can be both "authentically" beautiful and intelligent. There is an inherent intelligence to beauty which is about the depth of passion we feel for the world.

So beautiful and intelligent designers, to thy own self be true.

For a profession that says it wants to make thigns simpler, there sure are a lot of puffed up phrases being tossed around here. Shame, really.

"Words stink up the place" -- Duke Ellington


Mr. Rick Poynor sir, your comment is desperately needed here.

Enough with the cries of respect. It makes these discussions redundant. I suppose they have been going on ad nauseum since the beginning of time.

There is only ONE way to get the coveted respect. EARN IT. Through your work and ideas. If you want to be taken seriously in strategy and ethnography and "thinking". Work at it. Do it. Display it. Earn it.

At that point, you'll find those that are able to recognize and RESPECT an intelligent designer will do so. You should continue to work for them.

The others, who still think we are just picture makers. Sell em a $500 logo and buy an iphone. Just stop whining.

The Ying 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 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 reverlation that Miss Teen South Carolina, the very blond and beatiful Lauren Caitlin Upton, who appeared to pretend to be stupid but was, in fact, majoring in graphic designh.

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. That's one reason why we launched Inside Innovation--to help solve major problems in the world. And it's one reason why Acumen and other non-profits are embracing design thinking in solve water, health and education problems in Asia and Africa.

One of the cutting edge innovators mentioned in IN is Pentagram partner Lisa Strausfeld who led the team that designed the radical animated interface for the One Laptop per Child project. It's a brilliant breakthrough that could help millions of kids in villages in India, China and Africa. This is a bad thing? Should Lisa be a Dumb Blond?

Look, 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?

Bruce Nussbaum

The original article ends:

Designers, you don't have to be dumb. Just don't be so afraid of being beautiful.

I believe this is a both-and rather than either-or suggestion.

Michael Bierut

Hear, hear, nicely done.

And useful, too. Years ago, while I was still shaking the academic baloney out of my head about art, I remember wondering if artists -- not just graphics types -- really have anything on their minds at all. I mean, we're taught to think of artists as impressive creatures. Yet in my experience of the actual fact of artists and visual people, few of them seem to have anything on their minds other than a set of really strong preferences about how things oughta look. They talk theory, they cite philosophy, etc. But as far as I could tell most of them really have little or nothing going on besides 1) strong visual taste, and 2) the skills and talents to do something with it. I checked in with some artist friends of mine about this hunch, and all of them gave a snort and a laugh and basically admitted that that was true. All the "thinking" and "criticism" and "philosophy", they basically admitted, were window dressing.

Funnily enough, my enjoyment and appreciation of the visual world (and of the accomplishments and activities of the visual class) then proceeded to blossom.
Michael Blowhard

I'm crashing the party a little late, I see! All the beautiful dumb 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.
chris conley

I second the both-and. To think of beauty and intelligence as opposites is absurd.

Clients often ask us what we think beyond the pretty not because they're looking for our expertise in what we say, or how our stuff looks, or how we look, but for how we see. Great artists and great designers can share how they see, and help you learn how to see.

This is a kind of specialized (and valuable) intelligence.

And if you want respect for it, don't crap all over every other kind of intelligence. It's amazing how graphic designers feel no shame in doing that. That's just embarrassing. Idiocy is not proof of morality, creativity, or beauty.

Juliette Cezzar

We all like to be patted on the back for our acheivements, whether it is in design or anything else. That is what makes us fit to this job so well. We want to sit at "the table" because we want to feel important, and to feel that we play a key part in what happens in our workplace. We have to have the feeling that the world stops turning without us. I personally always strive to be a better designer. I try to read whatever I can get my hands on. I know deep down that I can never really know everything; that's just wishful thinking. No matter what I know about design, my company just doesn't care. I don't make enough to pay my bills and take care of my family, and I want to start my own local business, but Knoxville, TN is a touch and go place for design. I'm not sure if the struggle is worth it in some cases. Especially in my case, where we print in black and white and don't get much respect. It's a shame because design is my passion, but it is not supporting me financially.I make $11 an hour, and health insurance comes out of that. You wonder why as designer's we don't get the recognition we deserve.

In most people's case, the proof is in the pay.
James George

I think the lack-of-respect (and lack of advancement / pay) angle comes from a somewhat self-imposed air of mystery. Come on, when was the last time that any of your non-designer friends could accurately describe what you do for a living?

If we were to handwave away carpenters, HVAC people, electricians, masons, bricklayers, sheet-metal workers, plumbers, backhoe operators et al, under the very general term of "Housebuilders," might we not assume, given enough watching of HGTV, that with some rented tools and lumber we can build a house just as well as the pros?

The analogy is apt. There are UI people and back-end coders, graphic designers and printing technicians, typographers and typesetters. Maybe if we started defining and using more specific terms to describe what we do, people would start to see the inherent value in it, just as much as people respect master electricians.

And that is furthermore a step to defining better job descriptions, pay scales, advancement stages, professional certification, and unions. (eek!)

Which brings up a parallel discussion - when professionals design a public building, they have to ensure that it meets all national and local building codes. I think after years of studying usability, legibility, effective layout techniques for different purposes etc, we could start putting together a 'Graphic Code'. Then it's easier to point to sloppy amateur work and describe exactly why it's wrong. Maybe design even needs permits, inspectors and a zoning board with citizen representation...ok, maybe not.


The author has a specific point of view. But I don't really see today's designers in the same point of view. I think the mindset of today's designers is very different. Today, it is a universally accepted fact that design is/ can be a vital component of strategy as well as a driver of business value. So, communicating business cases for design initiatives has almost become a necessity. It is not because designers want to prove something to people across the table. A perfect example is Deborah Adler's Target ClearRx prescription system. Earlier, a decade ago, companies looked at investing in design as a risky business and it was always business driving design (except for companies such as Apple). That trend seems to be reversing today and design seems to affect everything....which is why designers are more eager to contribute and work across different domains.

It makes me rather sad that most of the commentors have missed the point of the article.

This conversation has gotten really interesting.

As Chris Conley reminds us, other professions have their own complexities and insecurities. But the transition we are finally facing is that design has become a profession, not an isolated craft. Only twenty years ago, one could still describe the designer in craft terms, and the role and the product was pretty clear.

Today design is everything from Dwell to Log, Martha Stewart to Dot Dot Dot, Business Week's IN to Design Issues. Design is both part of the public's general vocabulary and now has its own PhD programs. A product need not just be communicated, but may be created by the designer. The product may be an experience, a space, or in the new field of service design, be everything from the experience to the products used to the architecture to the users and providers process of engagement. Even talking about "strategy" generically is a gross over simplification of a myriad of possible roles.

The tension is that many designers, like architects or maybe surgeons, still want to associate themselves with their heritage as a craft — and often to be the craftsperson doing the work, the making, their fingers inside the chest. Dori Tunstall's suggestion that the next AIGA campaign should "rebrand the power of beauty" taps into this vein. (Meanwhile, she teaches in a design program that explores design anthropology against real world urban and policy issues.) But even the surgeon analogy is loaded: aren't dentists also craftspeople?

Aren't all these new possibilities and complexities exciting? Messy and confusing at times, but fundamentally exciting? The either-or dialogue is self-defeating, and ultimately not very interesting: the spectrum from craftsperson to strategist has a lot of nooks and crannies. The problem is that when we talk about design we increasingly mean many things. We accept that medicine encompasses everything from dentistry to neurosurgery, health plan managers to nurse practitioners, micro biologists to medical historians. Why cannot we not allow our own profession to have the same richness and variety of talent?

The artist cloaked in the language of theory that Michael Blowhard refers to is not necessarily the same thing as a designer cloaked in the language of strategy — although both can be pretty deadly in the wrong hands. Artists, even while operating in a commercial marketplace, do not maintain commercial practices like designers, and the engagement with clients or products is a fundamentally different form of creative activity. The goals of such clients or products may be referred to as "strategy," or something else, but there typically will be a set of objectives which are quite different from those of the artist. As Chris Conley notes, "ALL disciplines have practitioners who may find their way into so-called strategic roles."

Like Michael Bierut, I would hope that we do not "take our real gifts — our miraculous fluency with beauty, our ability to manipulate form in a way that can touch people's hearts — for granted." Not forsaking these gifts, though, should not mean that design cannot play other roles, and operate in other arenas, strategic thinking included. Like Bruce Nussbaum, "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."

A seat at the table? Haven't the world's most successful designers always been there? Aren't there more designers there today than in yesteryear? Doesn't this post simply raise the issue of what designers do once they get there? What values they bring to the party? And, what if some of the designers at the table are NOT surgeons with their fingers inside the chest? What if some of them are simply great design strategists?

Not to out Michael, but this January we will be senior faculty fellows at Yale School of Management teaching together their first design course. (MGT 833b, Designers Designing Design.) The "weekly assignments involve writing design briefs for real-world projects, considering strategic goals, organizational strengths, and consumer and public need." These conversations will undoubtedly have an impact on our thinking about this course, certainly on the dialogue between Michael and me. Thank you.
William Drenttel

Is anyone else keeping score?

MB -- Words: 959, Characters: 5475
WD -- Words: 695, Characters: 4315
ZDP--Words: 667, Characters: 4031
RH--Words: 490, Characters: 2753
BN--Words: 476, Characters: 2683
MLJ--Words: 439, Characters: 2523
MBH--Words: 193, Characters: 1106

Remember a "Spoon Full of Sugar?" Sweet!

Joe Moran

I am slightly offended by this whole idea of designers making things pretty.

I went to a prestigious technical university, I was in honors college and I delivered my commencement address. I am not just someone who makes things look pretty, I am a technical and analytical problem-solver (and have been recognized for it). I also know that I have a lot of room for growth, despite the fact that I graduated at the top of my univeristy.

I chose Graphic Design as my field of study because I had a nack for math and for art, but I didn't want to be an artist, and was afraid I would get bored with math. Graphic design allowed me to use my artistic talent in an analytical way (a practical way). I truly believe that design is about solving problems and communicating effectively... AND NOT about making things look pretty.

I have; however, been disappointed since I entered the industry, I have found that most clients do think design is just making things look pretty and I aspire to the client that lets me do CONCEPTUAL things; to solve more than just layout and appearance problems.

Some of you wanted to hear from someone that came from the "thinking" design schools. That's me, and the "real world" has proved nothing like school.

As my professors used to say, "You can teach anyone to draw and about the principles of design, but you can't teach them how to think or communicate."

Well said, Mr. Drenttel! You captured more of the spirit than I was able.

Good luck with the new course. Michael, consider yourself outed -- a MGT course!!!!

Chris Conley

the journalist Don Marquis said it well, through his invention, the cockroach Archy, who used a typewriter but couldn't hold down the CAPITAL key.
The Hen and the Oriole

... this thought
comes to my mind
because of the earnest
endeavor of a
gentleman to squash me
yesterday afternoon when i
was riding up in the
elevator if i had been a
butterfly he would have
said how did that
beautiful thing happen to
find its way into
these grimy city streets do
not harm the splendid
creature but let it
fly back to its rural
haunts again beauty always
gets the best of
it be beautiful boss
a thing of beauty is a
joy forever
be handsome boss
and let who will be clever is
the sad advice
of your ugly little friend

After having thought about this for a month with retrospective perspective, and with as much as I hate the following dichotomy of American education, I think she would have sounded intelligent and answered the question if she would have just said:

"I am not a verbal person, can i draw you a picture, judges, to explain?"

But with her looking pretty on the stage, and stumbling over words, I think she said that anyway.

I'm a planner by training, not a designer. Applying "design thinking" methods, I can do work with concepts and environments that essentially steals clients away from designers. I can then hire designers to do the scutwork. If I can do that, then why can't designers go the other direction and at least try to steal work from me? Why must they be so pure (and, most of them, so broke)? This is a false controversy, at least in the market.
Bob Jacobson

This is the new golden rule?

I like to steal from others so let them steal from me.

Alas, the poor wretch who waited too long clinging to the old rule, yet wants to profit from the stealing rule too late. Needless suffering. Though maybe she's just a trend setter. Somebody will sing a song about it. Oh wait... Billy Joel did in the eighties. I am sure there must have been some crooner who did so in the fifties, too.

that poor purest who discovered thievery too late.

She can ask for the truth but she'll never believe you,
And she'll take what you give her as long as it's free,
Yeah she steals like a thief but she's always a woman to me.
Oh, she takes care of herself, she can wait if she wants,
She's ahead of her time.


Mr. Bierut! the better and the needful part of the world is with you and still, yada yada yada they (design strategists and thinking designers) go on.

1. Is this entire conversation about designers and design thinking and their changing roles?


2. Graphic designers grabbing and demanding respect (whatever it means to so many designers drowning in false egos here).

Speaking about point2 first...
Why are most designers here so offended by creating good quality visuals. After all, we borrow so much from existing,historical, etc. visual cultures and merely manipulate them into; if you may like to call them design thinking, which are most likely just visual ideas.

It is sad that most graphic designers in this page are offended by the honesty of Mr. Bierut and the necessary humility he reflects of a true (to him/her self and to the rest) "GRAPHIC DESIGNER". A graphic designer that celebrates and puts forth characteristics that canonise a true graphic designer. Do keep in mind in this part of the conversation, the word "graphic".

Now, speaking about point1
Agreed, Design's acceptance in societies is changing and changing far more rapidly than most can imagine. Lets not overlook how we tend use words and images; and how their usage projects magnified images of simpler realities. Today design is a painfully over used word and a mostly an overrated profession. To the extent that most professions seem to be besotted by Design's image or any relation to it. Strategy or strategic thinking is one of them.

Design is so grand now, more vibrant, packs a lot more punch than previous times. It's divine, Applauds, applauds!!! Yet still, we continue to move towards sins of increased consumption, exploitation of natural resources, disparity in societies, diseases, lifestyle induced diseases, etc. The fundamental reasons behind this are greed of private corporations that chase dreams of amassing wealth and chase such dreams at any cost. Usually, the cost being "increased" examples mentioned above.

It is a pity that the so called "design strategists" and other "thinking designers" fail to voice out or worse, imagine (remember creativity and originality?) the benefits of using fundamental tools like creativity, original thinking to change the world positively. Really, it's a pity! Most of them are probably joining the loot of the big private corporations; buying themselves toys, traveling the world on sponsorships and boosting their already inflated, yet brittle egos.

And these guys complain to a man who gave us such joyous images - one for example the "BEAUTY" of "Saks Fifth Avenue" and the "THINKING" that created a possibility to make 98,137,610,226,945,526,221,323,127,451,938,506,431,029,
735,326,490,840,972,261,848,186,538,906,070,058,088,365,083,852,800,000,000,000 images or combinations of them.

Mr. Bierut, why don't you rest your case with offence our fellow designers have taken with your view point?

chandrasekhar K

izmir oto kiralama

Jobs | July 23