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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:

  1. The designer is always right.
  2. 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.


  1. Mark Rendle

    Nice post, and I agree with your central premise. I do think you have to walk a line, though. The more users you have, the more conflict you get between what they want, and you have the choice of trying to support all of them (e.g. with configuration points and plug-in modules), or letting some of them go. Finding the balance is what’s difficult.

  2. Miguel de Icaza

    Excellent post, I wish I had written this.

    “stay humble and listen to what your users are saying” should be on everyone’s wall posed.

  3. Anonymous

    Speaking of design dictatorship, I think you should change your name from red to white. It looks better.

  4. Anonymous

    Not compromising on vision doesn’t mean you have to ignore users. Both can happen. I understand the main point here and it’s good, but when it’s pushed this hard using uninspired case studies (and with typos)

  5. Anonymous

    It’s a pity there is not only design dictatorship. There is also for example adhere-to-standard dictatorship. I encountered that lately when transip.nl did not want to think of a solution to redirect one of my root domains because of (unspecified) RFCs. I have now solved it by using wwwizer.com, a party who will in the end of profit of this type of behaviour.

  6. Anonymous

    Give me a break. Designers have been marginalized and ignored by developers and engineers for far too long. From a design centric perspective, you could quite easily search and replace ‘designer’ with ‘developer’ in your article and make the same (invalid) points.

    Designers are routinely ignored by Engineers who feel they understand a users needs well enough to go it alone despite a designer having solid historical work experience or an advanced degree in design, human factors, etc…

    The difference between 2013 and 2008 in a software or product life cycle is poor design choices made by people like you (developers and engineers) are finally reflecting a hit to the bottom line because a competitor did user testing, hired a visual designer, or other design activities that improved the product.

  7. Mel

    There’s so much truth in this post especially in this era of “design design design”.

  8. David Clarke

    I agree with Miguel, “stay humble and listen to what your users are saying” is a great line but I disagree with a lot of the sentiment in the article. Design needs strong leadership, not to ignore users, but to build something consistent. There are so many products that have been designed by committee that fail to engage users because of a lack of consistency in their user interface. Building a consistent interface doesn’t require genius and doesn’t ignore users but it does require strong leadership. Dictatorship is an emotive term with entirely negative connotations. Strong leadership is something we look for and even aspire to.

  9. Michael

    I believe your position is right and wrong at the same time. People like Steve Jobs are not geniuses because they understand what people want; given the proper amount of money for focus groups and stuff everyone can get an accurate idea. Unfortunately I’m convinced most of focus groups only lead to failure, because of the way they’re conducted. In my opinion, people like Steve Jobs are so successful because they understand what people need, not what people want, which is a thing of one-in-a-million, and nobody should ever suppose they’re that one-in-a-million.

    Regardless of that, every designer is supposed to have skill and knowledge. That’s why clients pay you, because you can do that particular thing better than them. So, even though listening carefully to your client needs is the basis for any healthy working relationship, I’m convinced you need to know when to say “no”. That is because you do know better than your client, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing your job, he would.
    So, although the attitude you describe can be easily identified in some designers, I don’t really believe it is the main reason for the existence of bad products, or bad software, or generally bad design. I believe that good design can happen only with a good client and a good designer, so maybe, at the end of the day, it’s more about the number of bad designers and bad clients out there than the number of “design dictators”.

  10. Mitch Malone

    I agree with your central premise, to be humble and talk to users. However, I think it’s foolish to equate “not talking with users” with “not asking what they want”. Any designer or product manager worth her salt will not ask a user directly what they want because they can’t envision a future product, solution, or experience. This is the job of the design/product manager. If you presented a list of 500 features for a piece of software, a customer will probably say they want all of them. Why? Because the customer doesn’t think about the ramifications of having myriad software features. Because it’s intangible software, the more the merrier, right? Well, no. That results in unusable software. So instead of conducting a survey or a focus group and asking “what do you want”, good product managers and designers will ask, “what is the problem you’re facing?” In fact, this is the approach of 37Signals. They employ a “jobs-to-be-done” product methodology that not only revolves around talking with users but having deep interviews with them to understand the “jobs” they need done.

    Here’s a recent interview with 37Signals product manager, Ryan Singer about jobs-to-be-done:http://jobstobedone.org/radio/ryan-singer-jtbd-radio/

    If Apple had relied on market research, focus groups, and asking people “what they want”, they never would have made the iPad. There were no tablets at the time. That market didn’t exist. And when they released the iPad, people made fun of them. “No one’s gonna want this,” said everyone. Now every major consumer electronics company makes a tablet. And despite the fragmentation of the market, Apple still owns 98% of the tablet market.

    Besides, if there was a destructive “cult” of designers making shitty software, the products they make wouldn’t sell and they would be forced to change or face going out of business. Look at the reaction to Windows 8. It was radical and different and people simply don’t like it. As a result, Windows 8.1 aka “Blue” promises a return to a traditional Windows desktop experience.

  11. Grammar Police

    tennant > tenet (see: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tenet)

  12. Subhadip

    “Ultimately, a client will get the work he deserves.” — Sir John Hegarty. Be it Gnome 3 or anyone else.

    That is the way it works right? Good designs are changed so many times, and then it turns into shit. Some clients recognise bad work, fire the designer and get the guys who can do it right.

    In either case, the one who will use the design must have the vision. That will do. Good or bad designers will get their just. It has happened to me.

  13. Dmitry Nikolaev

    There are many design schools around: 37s, Steve Jobs, and so on. And many-many good designers all over the World (you don’t mentioned them here, you just have 37s, Steve Jobs and semi-designers).

    Anyway, I think principles are more important. Because users adopt to every design you gave to them. But if you’ll change principles, nobody like it.

    Here is a good reading on topic from popular russian designer A. Lebedev: http://www.artlebedev.com/mandership/176/

  14. Jonathan

    You gotta know when to be uncompromising. That´s it. Besides, this is the just the point of view of “I’m a software developer” which I envy being a designer, (I love both of them, designer and developer) but, the same thing would an account manager could be able to said about its marketing leadership when the taking big choices time comes.
    I would just give this great post a little bit more of context when talking about designers, because some how is our era now, but a few years back engineers would actually behave as if they would have the ultimate and last world…am I wrong?

  15. Kevin Stevens

    One case where the design dictatorship is problematic is where it is unearned through experience. If you want to say, “This is the way it is because I’m the designer and I said so”, you had better have a bad-ass track record to give you credibility.

    A second is where designers flat-out ignore engineering concerns because of aesthetics. The new mag-safe connector on the MBP Retina is a perfect example. In order to lose a millimeter or two of width, they sacrificed the one thing a power connection has to do: stay reliably connected. Now they fall off nearly every time I move my laptop and it’s annoying as hell.

    37Signals is still an open case, in my mind. Being opinionated isn’t the same as being right, especially over the long haul. “Often wrong but never in doubt”, is no way to go through life, son.

  16. Fooberto Foobertson

    I’ve heard a front end designer use the 37 Signals formula one guy as an example of why he shouldn’t have to listen to anyone else’s input. He followed that with a sentiment along the lines of, if they think they can do it better they can do it themselves. This mentality doesn’t work well in a project setting where everyone else is cooperating and openly sharing ideas and constructive criticism. This poor fellow sticks out as if he’s wearing a mask, like the Lone Asshole. I’ll bet he doesn’t get invited to the next project.

  17. Danoquette

    “listen to what your users are saying”

    Best. Advice. Ever.

    Great article BTW

  18. Peter

    Dońt need to say anything else.
    Dictators act in a way nobody else can understand.

  19. Petra

    Alex, I kind of get your point of view. it might seem we designers are sometimes a bit too bossy, but in my opinion it quiet often has other reasons you miht want to consider.
    I just wrote a short essay from the designer’s point of view, mentioning your article: https://medium.com/design-ux-1/7ce019895423