The 'Science' of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea

Designers embrace scientism at their own peril.

The 'Science' of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea
Photo by Geraldine Dukes / Unsplash

This post was originally published in The Atlantic on May 11, 2011. It was re-published in frog's design mind and in psfk. In this version, I have removed one change made by editors to the originally published version.

A job interview can be a pretty dry affair, but a few years ago, I had one that I'll never forget. I was talking to an advertising executive about one of his clients, a major telecommunications company that had recently renamed itself. At the end of the interview, he asked if I had any questions for him. "What do you think about your client's decision to change names?" I asked. It seemed to me that discussing the pros and cons of a decision like this would be one of the more interesting aspects of a job in advertising. But his response didn't inspire much of a dialogue.

"I know it was the right decision," he said. "I've seen the research."

Ah, yes. "The research." That most magical of phrases. Extinguisher of debate. Oracle. Provider of easy answers to the most complex questions. As an undergraduate physics major, I had grown to understand scientific research as a slow process that took place over years or even decades. Research, as I understood it then, was an attempt to deliberately advance knowledge by eliminating false theories. It was a difficult undertaking bolstered by rigorous debate.

In the business world, I later learned, "the research" is quite a different phenomenon. As my interview so nicely illustrated, "the research" is not debatable. Apparently it's capable of predicting people's reactions to decisions that haven't even been made yet. In fact, "the research," seems to be capable of making decisions all on its own.

This simplistic view of research pervades our culture, the business world, and increasingly the world of design. According to this view, "research" is synonymous with science. And since science provides us with hard truths in the physical world, "the research" should do so in the business world. But let the buyer beware of such thinking. The real world is a complex system inhabited by autonomous individuals. It isn't so simple or knowable, which is exactly why design can be so valuable.

The Austrian economist F.A. Hayek called this imitation of science "scientism." Scientism is to science what Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" is to truth. It feels like science, so it carries a certain weight. But upon closer examination, scientism turns out to be a charade. It is often a well-intentioned, earnest charade, but a charade nonetheless. Scientism exploits the extreme reverence accorded to science in our culture, as well as a popular misunderstanding of what actually constitutes science. True science has certainly earned our respect, but as Hayek said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1974, "what looks superficially like the most scientific procedure is often the most unscientific."

So why am I discussing scientism in a blog about design? Because as design has become more accepted in the mainstream business world, it has adopted many of the conventions of business, including scientism. But designers embrace scientism at their own peril. This way of thinking may help designers gain acceptance in the short term, but it ultimately cheapens the most important dimension of their work: the human dimension, including things like judgment, taste, and creativity.

Anyone who has worked in a creative field—or has reflected on his or her own creativity—recognizes that being creative is necessarily chaotic, sometimes arbitrary, and often unpredictable. Why do ideas come easily one day and not the next? Where does inspiration come from? These are mysterious questions. They are also the kinds of questions that would make a paying customer nervous. As designers venture out of their studios and into company boardrooms, they find themselves being asked questions like "How do we know this process will work?" or "How do we know which design is best?" or "How will people react to this?". Clients are right to ask these questions. But designers also have a responsibility to give honest answers—answers that can be difficult to deliver and difficult to hear. The allure of scientism is that it provides a way out of considering hard truths.

That's because scientism offers some convenient fictions. According to one of them, the work of the designer is dictated by a predictable methodology. It is as if anyone could follow the same steps and end up with a great design on the other end. This story satisfies the design customer's desire for predictability and reliability. Unfortunately, it also trivializes the role of the designer. Paula Scher criticizes this mechanical view of design in her book Make It Bigger

. "It diminishes the real value a corporation gets from a designer," she writes. "It is the rare combination of the designer's intelligence, intuition, inspiration, and aesthetic sense—dare I say talent?—that makes for successful design."

More recently, and much to my delight, Scher wrote a critique of another symptom of scientism in the design world in vogue at the moment: the infographic. She dubbed it "faux info" and warned of its seductiveness: These graphics are "fed to you in a scientific style that demonstrates authority and infallibility. The information does your thinking for you, and you don't have to think at all." The idea that information speaks for itself—that the numbers don't lie—is a widely held belief. But as anyone who has spent time crunching numbers can attest, data can be bent to the will of the analyst with relatively little effort.

The problem with the real world is that it is fundamentally unpredictable. This makes life challenging for designers and economists alike. But it is better to face uncertainty with what you know to be true rather than with implausibly precise fictions. As Hayek says, "I confess that I prefer true but imperfect knowledge, even if it leaves much undetermined and unpredictable, to a pretence of exact knowledge that is likely to be false."

It is understandable that design wants a seat at the table in corporate decision-making. But designers need to find ways to provide value to clients without devaluing themselves. If we believe in the value of design for business, we need to be honest about the complexity, creativity, and uncertainty involved in great design. This means not cheapening design by reducing it to a mechanical process. It means casting a critical eye on "the research." It means accepting that the most important information is not always quantifiable.