Design is not Horsepoop

Design is not just how something looks…design is not just how something looks… …

In his impassioned piece Design is Horseshit, YongFook suggests that the increased focus on designers as founders is misguided because design isn’t what makes most startups successful.

In my recent post The Golden Age of Design in Startups I was bullish on designers as founders, so I’m here to call bullshit on Yongfook calling bullshit…or something like that. (actually, the idea of “calling bullshit” seems silly to me…why not just respectfully debate a point?)

Yongfook’s argument is that design is not the reason why startups are successful. He suggests that startups are successful when they “create value” and in his view “Design enhances value, it does not create it.”.

It depends, of course, on your definition of design.

Implicit in Yongfook’s argument is his definition of design. He is equating design with making something look good. This is clear from his thesis:

“Stop creating shitty startups that look amazing. A product or service that is indispensably useful yet looks like ass is infinitely more likely to be successful than a product that solves zero problems but looks like a work of art. Stop this cycle of creating beautiful novelties, getting your 15 minutes, then disappearing. Create value.”

“Look amazing”, “looks like ass”, “looks like a work of art”, “beautiful novelties”. Each of these terms is about “looking good”. So if you agree that design is the act of making something look good, then you’ll undoubtedly agree with Yongfook’s piece.

I hear this notion of design every day. Many people seek out design help because they can’t make something look good on their own…they just haven’t had practice doing that. But designers secretly know that their role is much more than just making something look good…it’s solving the right problem and communicating the right message.

And this goes for startups as well. For some reason, Yongfook wants to separate “value creation” from “design”. But that’s hard to do…as design is in part the process of discovering problems and then conceiving of solutions to them. The idea that a founder would go out and “create value” without actually designing something along the way doesn’t make much sense…in solving the problem they would end up designing something, even if it only be conceptual design of a proposed product. (if they’re not conceiving of something new then they probably don’t have a business anyway)

In short, Yongfook’s dismissal of design as decoration is a long-standing, myopic view of the field. This is not just my opinion. Steve Jobs, in an interview about the iconic design of the iPod, addresses this notion of design directly:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

If you agree with the idea that design is how something works, then you won’t agree with Yongfook’s post. Instead, you might insist that learning about what problem to solve in the first place (which Yongfook is adamant about and which I agree with) is actually the first step of design. You cannot create a successful product without first understanding the problem you’re solving.

Founders who talk to customers are not black swans. There are people who do this all the time….UX people in general continually interview, survey, and test with users to make sure that core problems are being addressed and solved. (as much as I’m a fanboy of Blank and Ries they were not the first people to get out of the office and talk to customers) In a startup you might not have a UX person at the beginning…but I would recommend hiring one sooner rather than later. Startups who do customer research would benefit greatly from having a UX-minded designer on the team.

Yongfook also separates design from usefulness, suggesting that something can be completely useless but extremely well-designed (and vice-versa). Any designer worth their salt would disagree with this separation and would align usefulness with design success, dismissing the notion that you can have one without the other. They would argue that design only succeeds when people find a product useful, when they adopt it as part of their lives.

The act of design isn’t reserved for those with the word “designer” in their job title. Design is a universal activity that we all participate in…and it’s much more than making something look pretty.

Published: December 17th, 2011