Presumed mysterious, presumed menial.

Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

Michael Bierut in DesignObserver:

It was September, 1981, when design critic Ralph Caplan first unveiled the phrase. He was speaking at a Design Management Institute conference in Martha’s Vineyard. His talk was titled “Once You Know Where Management Is Coming From, Where Do You Suggest They Go?”

“I want finally to address in some detail,” Caplan said toward the end of this talk, “a role that I call ‘the designer as exotic menial.’ He is exotic because of the presumed mystery inherent in what he does, and menial because whatever he does is required only for relatively low-level objectives, to be considered only after the real business decisions are made. And although this is a horrendous misuse of the designer and of the design process, it is in my experience always done with the designer’s collusion.”

It’s 25 years later. Has anything really changed?

Well, I try not to collude with folks who hire designers as workers whose job is to “achieve low-level objectives”, but I think that my technical skills and avid interest in the how to do stuff works against me here. My geeky credentials might lead some not to suspect that I have a deeply held belief in design as the highest level of problem solving. There are projects I’ve worked on (especially from-the-ground-up designs of channels) where I worked out how nearly everything would look, feel, and interact…and then (sometimes) would hear a manager type get most of the credit.

Sometimes I’m OK with it, content to sit back and watch the finished product and say “boy, that really looks like what went on in my head,” and other times, well, designers can be a grumbly lot. But you bring design into the process too late, well, sometimes it’s too late, no matter what nice wafer-thin shiny coats of paint we can apply.