Why Designers Have an Attitude

November 15, 2006

Now we got it black on white: Colbert is more powerful than Rove, Borat more explosive than Rumsfeld, Roberto Benigni politically more influential than the president of Italy. Title and attitude alone just doesn’t do it anymore. If you lack humor, you’re done.

Picasso They say he had a pretty bad attitude. No problem. Picasso was an artist.

You need to take care of your audience. You need to connect. If attitude alone doesn’t work anymore, why do most of my communication colleagues, brand consultants, marketers, designers and tech people still act so cocky? Aren’t we supposed to be a sort of avant-garde, thus be ahead of time?

Branding and Usability

The more you care about what you do the more you can see it happening in the very field you’re working in. I am working in an especially geeky field, but like everyone that loves his job, I feel that my geeky thing—interfaces, branding, usability—is the center of gravity.

Branding community still widely ignores the sign of the times

Unfortunately the branding community still widely ignores what online branding means. It’s refreshing to see a usability experts becoming online brand experts. And it is concering at the same time.

It’s a shame that branding experts don’t talk to people that define online experience (and thus an important part of today’s brand experience). Hooking up with whom exactly? With the web designers? The Photoshop and Fireworks cracks? No, not only. I am talking about the information designers, information architects, and usability consultants.

Branding is not…

There is still a lot of misconception out there, what branding is: Branding is not “a logo”, branding is not “an expensive manual”, branding is not marketing, branding is not superficial, branding is not nice, and branding is not a trick, branding is not multimedia. Branding is shaping the interface. Branding has turned into the discipline of shaping the interface between you and your customer and make the interaction as pleasurable and memorable and real as possible.

And why do you think that the notion of branding is usually such a fuzzy one? Because it’s a secret. Because some old school thinkers believe they can manipulate us better if we don’t know what’s going on. How childish. If you hide, we stop trusting you. Stop trying to manipulate. It doesn’t work anymore. You just give branding a bad name like that.

Online branding is not…

As a particularily annoying consequence this catch me if you can brand philosophy leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of online branding. Back in 1999 I got in serious trouble in my second week at Interbrand, because I dared to challenge a board member’s understanding of online branding.

It was a brain storming session and I was brought into the team for my interactive know how. He was very happy to have me there, and looked like a really cool guy. At first. Now, what he “had in mind” for an online brand identity of a web only client was a “decent grey in grey, with a spinning logo”, nice colorful movies and airplanes flying over the screen.

The guy was and is one of the best designers I worked with, but he just had no clue about the medium. What he heard was to most straight forward speech he ever heard from a freshman: “With all due respect, online branding is not…” – What I got was the verbal middle finger of a design star with a subliminal threat that I might loose my new job. Wow, I thought, university is over.

Why brand designers have an attitude

Designers have an attitude. Brand designers have a big attitude. Sometimes attitude helps. It is impossible to explain good taste to someone that has bad taste. Sometimes it’s better to use a super star outfit and make people understand: “Don’t waste my time, don’t mess with me, I am a magician, if you doubt me, I’ll put a spell on you”.

Design teachers keep teaching arrogance

The terrible spell of the style wizzard. It’s an efficient way to deal with clients. It saves time. It’s not exactly my way, but it sure works. (I wonder for how long though). As long as design teachers keep on paradigming that arrogance to their students, it’s sure not going to get any better in our domain.

The best designers have no attitude. Art directors are no artists. One thing is for sure: If you use that attitude when dealing with another designer, you better make sure you’re a 100% solid super star. If you’re Saul Bass, Max Bill, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Massimo Vignelli, Arne Jakobsen, Le Corbusier, Herzog or DeMeuron you might give it a try. Funny enough, the best designers I met didn’t have that attitude at all. They understand themselves as workers, not artists.

Old school designers: Super attitude

Now when it comes to online branding, old school designers still have a super attitude. You know, that little shock followed by the sovereign smile, when you say CSS. That little smile that says: “You don’t know the power of the real design, computer kid.” This used to drive me nuts. In the mean time, the numbers speak for the computer kids.

At least in terms of exposure, websites have become a more important customer interface than letterheads and pylons. So when I get this obnoxious smile, I obnoxiously smile back, thinking: “Maybe I don’t, but I know that your done, Mr. Dinosaur.”

The big picture: What is going on?

Philosophically, I don’t intend to have an attitude. It just sometimes gets to me, when I get mad. I don’t mean to be top-down. The top down attitude is not just obsolete but actually distructive and stupid.

You have probably noticed, that we are living in a time where the quality to listen and switch perspective is a core value in personal and professional ethics, a time where titles, diplomas and other stamped recognition have become practically irrelevant.

  1. It doesn’t matter if you’re right, where it’s more important that you’re understandable.
  2. Authority goes back to provable know-how, relevant experience and the ability to communicate both.
  3. Teachers learn from pupils, vendors from clients and learning is fun.
  4. Respect is necessarily mutual (just like the word suggests).
  5. Good manners and openness synergize.
  6. Humor is stronger than fear.
  7. All communication should be mutual and enjoyable for the vendor as well as for the client.
  8. The best marketing is a good product.

Why I still have an attitude

It’s a paradox, I know, but just because I have these strong beliefs, I can get quite wild, when I encounter old world disrespect. If you think I’m doing something wrong, tell me what and why and how I can improve. Don’t just put a grade on my words or work. Talk to me.

That’s me, 30 years ago. I guess I haven’t changed too much…Olo 30 years ago

Of course I have my weaknesses. I get pretty harsh, when I hear people fantasizing about the Internet to be this weird crossing between a brochure and a nineties TV-spot that will lead people directly into their virtual shop. Internet is not TV and it’s not a shop and it’s not a brochure. For heaven’s sake.

Linear is over. Hierarchy is falling apart.

If there is any connection between Internet, shop, brochures and TV, then it’s this: Internet is devouring all of them. Especially TV. Linear is over. Hierarchy is falling apart. We don’t need no Bill’O’Reillys, we don’t need no thought control. No dark sarcasm… Techsnobs, Billos, old professors and cocky designers they all just take themselves too seriously. They need to get over themselves. In short: What they need is humor:

Looks like Nietzsche, acts like Nietsche. Is Borat an Uebermensch? Borat linke Nietzsche: Uebermensch

Get over yourself – become an Uebermensch

Wikipedia is not a great reference for philosophical concepts, but at least it’s understandable What we see right now is the Uebermensch taking over. Yeah, the Uebermensch. Uebermensch is of course, not what most people think it is. The “super human” is not one superman with supernatural powers, smarter and stronger than everyone else. That’s old school, old world. World 1.0.

And it’s not even quite what Nietzsche had in mind, but it’s very close to Wikipedia’s interpretation. According to Wikipedia “a man can become an �bermensch (homo superior; equivalent English: ‘super-human'; see below) through the following steps:”

  1. By using his will to power destructively, in the rejection of, and rebellion against, societal ideals and moral codes (like Borat)
  2. By using his will to power creatively, in overcoming nihilism and re-evaluating old ideals or creating new ones (like Roberto Benigni)
  3. By a continual process of self-overcoming (like Larry David)

Like I said, that’s Wikipedia. So don’t go and argue with a Philosophy professor on how accurate that is. As long time Nietzsche reader i’d certainly say that Wikipedia’s interpretation is in accordance to Nietzsches spirit.

Would he agree that Uebermensch is not a single person, but a collective? More Metaman than Superman? Nietzsche thinking 1882

Now my world 2.0 interpretation of his idea is: The Uebermensch is the persona that appears when different minds focus, connect and work together. The Uebermensch requires a person able to overcome his own “human all too human” personal competitive setup, a person that is able to connect and grow with and trough others, a person that is able to transcend his innate “will to power” in the interest of his interpersonal goal. A person that knows: Nothing makes you feel better than knowing that you can make people feel good. More Metaman than Superman. Next to Charles Chaplin the human with the highest percentage of meta-humanity is this guy:

69% Uebermensch: Roberto Benigni’s spontaneous poem on genitals. Think I’m exagerating? Check this and then this (with subtitles)

The philosophy student: “The relationship between reading and writing in Nietsches Philosophy” Today I’d say: “Nietzsches understanding of communication” My my final theses on Nietzsches understanding of communication was one long treatise on how to read Nietzsche. Eventhough I was well aware of the irony and Nietsches anti-antisemitism, there was one term I didn’t really get. The �bermensch. That one term sort of gave me the creeps. the �bermensch still reminded me of Hitlers Arier. But only here in Japan I started to understand how to read one of his most central notions. I realized that the �bermensch is not one person. I now believe that the Japanese have good cards to become the first Uebermenschen. Japanese culture teaches you from child on to not take yourself too seriously.

In Japan there is no doubt that group produces better products than the individual, as long as it’s an intelligent group. And they sure were successful with their method so far.

What is uberdesign?

Of course designing in groups is not a new design method. I am very familiar with the downside of Japanese group thinking and their blind respect for authorities. Blind respect for authorities in the East is as obsolete as our autistic individualism in the West. They both have the same roots anyway: Lack of humor.

Before I get more into details of what I understand by uberdesign, I should make one thing clear: I am not talking about democratic design. Radical democratic design is no design. If the public decided upon the new design for the Porsche, The new Porsche wouldn’t have a design, it would be one shapeless boredom. If you look at the new AudiTT, you probably know what I mean. It’s supposed to be one of the designiest cars around. Is that the best car designers can do nowadays? Or is it the marketing department?

Nice. But imagine what it could be if good designers worked together more openly and marketing and CEOs would sit back… It would probably look more like James Bond’s Aston Martin in Goldfinger. Audi TT sport  Is that the best we can do nowadays?

Imagine the general public decides which art should be bought by museums. Do you seriously believe we’d have Picassos, Goyas, Klee in our museums? What we have presently is not much better though. It’s often internal politics, the CEO or even worse: The marketing department deciding which design to go for (that’s why nowadays all cars look the same). The marketing department deciding which design to go for is almost as bad as radical democratic design. Why? Imagine the general public decides which art should be bought by museums. Do you seriously believe we’d have Picassos, Goyas, Klee in our museums? So why not hire a CEO with good taste, and let him decide. Because hope is not a method.

What is an Ueberdesign strategy? What I am talking about is this: It’s not about collective intelligence against the Nobel price winner. It’s not Toyota against Picasso. It’s both. And it’s not new. It’s classic. I am talking about synergy. I am talking about the open active mind that connects. So my method for excellence in car design, or any design for that matter is to connect car designers’ minds. The main designer comes up with an initial sketch, and the other designers help him developing it. The new thing is that we have a fantastic tool for that: The Internet.

What about car usability? But the car, you might still say, is not primarily used by designers, it is used by the wide public, so it’s only fair to say that they should decide how it looks. Yes and no. Look: In the end the engineer has to decide how to build the engine. Same thing applies to the designer. He should decide how to shape it in order to achieve the desired effect. The enduser doesn’t need to understand or even agree with the designer’s choice. He doesn’t need to agree or understand the engineer’s or a pilot’s choice either. But if a design is broken he should be able to give feedback and be heard. And if the pilot flies horizontal loops with his Boeing, someone else should take over.

Good designer also have better eyes. They see more. Like wine tasters: The have trained noses and tongues, thus: They smell and taste more. Designer is a profession that needs as much skill and training as engineering, hairdressing, making shoes. Even though everyone has a perfect right to his or her taste, not everyone is a designer. The bad news is: Good designers have better taste. Something nobody doubts when it comes to wine. Winemasters taste more and sharper. Good designer also have better eyes. They see more. Like wine tasters: The have trained noses and tongues, thus: They smell and taste more.

The public’s opinion

I think the car customers should help improving how cars work. We should ask the public what they think about cars. That’s what car websites should be all about. Not those fake hyperstylish pictures and movies of cars that don’t exist in landscapes that nobody goes to, with shallow beautiful people smiling behind the wheel. Who gives a flying **** about another shiny Mercedes rushing through wind and rain and sunny skies through a green field towards the romantic infinity? Noone. Whom are you trying to fool with this nonsense?

How many customers do I have: 10, 12? How many customers does VW have? Why don’t VW clients visit the VW site? Maybe I have an attitude, but if you ask me, some people are not doing their job there. iA vs cars

What car websites should be like

Car websites should be communities where people can openly talk about their model, give feedback to engineers (and designers for that matter). Car websites should tell the story how the car was built and who built it and why the steering wheel looks like it is and what the main engineering problems were, and tell how the designer came up with the main idea and let people react to it. Openly. Of course the car companies would need to get over themselves first. They need wits and humor. Mainly they have to stop underestimating their clients. Wake up, old school marketing guy. We are all much smarter than you think. We don’t fall for your old tricks anymore.

You know that only idiots program by themselves

But here we go. I’m loosing it again. I get so excited about these things, yet no one even cares. To whom am I talking? Computer kids just like me. You all know that anyway. Especially if you are a programmer. You know that only idiots program all by themselves. You know the power of the force. You feel it; you use it. You know that the magic you use is not some weird geeky demon; you know that it comes from collective intelligence. It’s the board members that have the saying not you. We should get to the board members. I don’t know how, but I know we will. We are the customers after all.

In the mean time, I’ll try my best to get the message across to my people, you guys, my dear nerds and designers. Sorry, if I gave you too much of an attitude, and sorry for being so wordy. Every time I tell myself: next time it’s 200 words only, but then I get carried away… Maybe designers shouldn’t write. Please tell me how to improve.



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