The Cult of Design Dictatorship
A few days ago there was an interesting discussion over at Hacker News about Gnome 3 and how it’s going downhill. The topic isn’t new; you don’t have to look hard to find lots of posts about how Gnome 3 is a mess. I wrote a comment about my interpretation of the deeper problem, and after thinking about it some more I wanted to flesh out my comment a little further in this post.
What struck me about the post is that the main complaint the author seems to have is about a problem that I’ve been thinking about for some time now. It’s a problem that doesn’t just apply to Gnome 3—though Gnome 3 certainly suffers from it. It’s the problem of the Cult of Design Dictatorship.
This cult is insidious. Its two main tenets are:
- The designer is always right.
- If you don’t like what the designer is doing, you’re wrong, and you should go somewhere else.
Doesn’t sound very friendly, does it? The strange thing about this—and why the cult is so insidious—is that its members are typically nice people. They genuinely think they’re doing the right thing, and a very small few of them actually are. But the majority of the cult’s members aren’t doing the right things, even though they don’t mean to.
I blame two actors for the rise of this cult: Steve Jobs and 37 Signals. Steve Jobs made a zillion bucks cramming his design decisions down peoples’ throats. 37 Signals was the developer’s darling for many years, and they were the big early proponent of “opinionated design.” (That’s even the title of a chapter in their book.)
Both of these actors are highly successful. Steve Jobs, the messiah of this cult, took a nearly-bankrupt company that had become a mockery in the industry and turned it into a corporation that at one point held more liquid cash than the entire USA. 37 Signals, the Pope of this cult, made Ruby the popular go-to web language that it is today, made a few popular web products that bring in millions in revenue, and now one of its founders spends his days custom-building and racing F1 cars.
They did all this by being design dictators. Steve Jobs had a vision, and if you didn’t like his vision, you could go home. 37 Signals made its products like it wanted to, and if you didn’t like it, you could suck it.
Then entrepeneurs started using Apple products and getting this notion: Steve Jobs is highly successful, and he did that by not compromising on his vision. Then 37 Signals started blogging—and even writing books—about business, where they said the same thing: be opinionated, don’t compromise on your vision, and you’ll be successful. Job’s position as the industry leader and producer of geek-loved hardware, and 37 Signal’s position as a popularizer of “Web 2.0” and rags-to-riches story, made their teachings that much more influential.
Well, it turns out people loved listening to this advice. That’s because these role models appeal so much to the human ego: “Do what you want. Being opinionated and picky will result in a quality product. You know best!”
When people hear that, they say: “Yeah, Steve Jobs is right! I’m such a great designer, so if I want to make a zillion bucks, I must realize that users are idiots and my beautiful product will make them love their lives again, and if they don’t like it they, can suck it!”
Or, they say: “Yeah, 37 Signals is right! I’m so smart, I can decide what my users want, and if they don’t like my opinion, they can suck it!”
Well, there’s no doubt that those models worked for Steve Jobs and 37 Signals. Both are very successful. But when a regular-Joe developer who lacks superstar talent joins the Cult of Design Dictatorship, what we get are projects like Gnome 3 and Unity. People acting like design dictators—Steve Jobs—but forgetting that he was a once-in-a-century genius. People acting like their opinions are the best and different ones can suck it—37 Signals—but without the special sauce, design talent, and determination that made that team successful.
The Cult of Design Dictatorship is bad because it so easily appeals to every human’s ego, and it give bad designers an excuse to always be right. When bad designers are always right, bad design becomes par for the course.
Folks: You are not Steve Jobs and you are not 37 Signals. With few exceptions the cult of design dictatorship is the worst thing to happen to fledgling software projects in the past decade. Good designers (both graphic and architectural) can and do succeed as dictators, but good designers are few and far between.
Don’t join the cult. It behooves you as a responsible designer to stay humble and listen to what your users are saying. Being opinionated may make you successful, but it can also make you an asshole; and assholes don’t always go that far in life.
But how do we know if we can pull it off?
One of the replies to my comment in HN brought up a good point: How does one know if they have the chops to be a dictator? Doesn’t that mean that everyone should at least try to be one?
My answer is that yes, a product must have some kind of vision, and at the end of the day someone’s got to implement it, regardless of their talent. But humble designers recognize complaints and the needs of their users. Design dictators ignore them, because the dictators are by definition always right.
Well, that’s a bad attitude to have, because most designers aren’t perfect. Most designers haven’t spent the millions of dollars doing UI research or running focus groups to find out what their users really want. Most designers don’t have the time or determination to iterate their pruduct hundreds of times before they find the right combination. Most designers don’t have the humility to admit they might have been wrong.
It’s fun being a dictator, because you can never be wrong—that’s a powerful proposition to a lot of people. But it’s a really bad attitude to have if you want to care about your users.