Et tu, Brute? May 6th, 2004
I have to admit, I am somewhat at a loss at what to say over the recent Wall Street Journal coverage of Greg Storey’s A Better Tighty Whitey. (Maybe not given how long this piece turned out.)
The first thought that came to mind was, “What a clusterfuck.”
The second thought that came to mind was, “Tufte has now been quoted as saying, ‘I think the design’s irrelevant.’”
Way to go Eddie. You really fought for the cause of Design this time, didn’t you?
Nice guys finish disappointed
While I’m opening myself up to all of you in this post, I’ll let you in on a secret. I was actually very concerned about my Gurus v. Bloggers piece. Seriously concerned. So much so that I almost didn’t publish it.
I was concerned how it would be received, whether it was appropriate, and whether I was out of line with it. The only reason I hit the publish buttonwas because I had three-quarters of a good bottle of Two-Buck Chuck in me at 2:30am when I finished writing it. The piece actually originated from conversations I had with Tom Dolan and Greg Storey during our dinner at the Art Center Design Conference, and a get together with Bob Baxely and Ben Listwon at my home in Sunnyvale.
In the original, unpublished version, I let loose. I ranted furiously at what I perceive to be a lack of real leadership in the design community, especially as it relates to design and technology. I lamented the fact that I, as a practicing designer in the technology field who has had the opportunity to work on some fairly high-profile products, have had to basically learn everything I know about design as it applies to technology the hard way — all trial by fire. (And thus one reference to the name of this web site.)
You could say I’m a bit bitter about not having any living, breathing, positive mentors to guide me through the land mine infested field that is Design in a world consumed by bits and code.
After this WSJ write-up, all I can think of right now is why was I so nice to the Gurus? Now I’m truly fed up.
Good graphic design is about communication
Let’s get one thing straight — Storey’s redesign should really only be considered a quick, graphic design exercise. A good one at that aimed at trying to find ways to communicate more effectively. One could call it an information design exercise as well, with the same intention — improved communication. That’s pretty much it. This exercise is also one I have to assume Storey spent maybe all of two hours working through. He did it with nothing more than a bad photocopy of the original memo at his disposal, little context about the problems White House staffers have dealing with communication and information, and his own inspiration.
Having said this, I’m positive if the government wanted to pony up the kind of cash someone like Nielsen, Tufte or Wurman make when they do consulting work, as well as give Storey the necessary time and access to staffers to find the root of the communications problems that are present, Storey would have come up with a design that communicates even more effectively than the little thing he spent a few hours on.
Yes, he’d fix the spelling errors in his example copy. Yes, he’d figure out that unless everyone in the White House had color laser printers and copiers, he might have to nuke the red blocks and copy and figure out how to solve that problem another way. Yes, he’d even probably discover issues about what staffers are allowed to do and say and whether its appropriate for staffers to make assumptions about numeric threat levels in writing up memos.
Storey’s a smart guy. I’m confident he would have resolved all those issues and provide a design that communicated a thousand times more effectively than his little two hour design exercise did, which in and of itself communicates a thousands times more effectively than the original memo.
Where the article goes severely astray is when Storey’s simple graphic design exercise gets converted into some piece about Information Architecture.
What an information architect does tends to be much more involved than what Storey did with the memo. If the article were about how the memos existed in the process of the daily meetings at the White House, how information gets passed, digested and stored in the lives of the staffers and the President, and how people are held accountable for all the information processed in the course of events, then I could see bringing in the Information Architects angle.
That would have been a good story for the WSJ.
But we are talking about one memo’s visual presentation. At best, Storey’s little exercise was a simple, one off, information design or graphic design exercise. Nothing more. Why Christina Wodtke was pulled into the article, I’m not exactly sure. It seemed entirely out of scope and confuses the matter. Further, some of Wodtke’s own account of what happened in her discussion with the WSJ reporter puzzle me.
Wodtke says in an article on her web site,
…Imagine if every memo had bargraphs displaying a scale of how severe the threat was, how urgent the issue was and how trustworthy the data sources were. Bush could then compare that memo to those on corn production and diplomat dinner schedules and know where to place his attention.
This kind of assumes we know what a PDB memo looks like in comparison to a memo about dinner schedules. It also assumes a lot about when the President gets information, how it gets disseminated, and whether the President should be given numeric threat levels, potentially neglecting information to make up his own mind about what is important.
One of the things I think that got Storey into trouble with the redesign, sidetracking the main goal of his exercise, was the fact that he put a large “9″ in a big block of red in the upper left corner. It’s an interesting idea, but in the process of iteration, discussion and redesign, Storey might have come to the conclusion that he put too much emphasis on the threat matrix piece.
Wodtke also says,
In a strange way it’s like designing a comparison shopping site like Yahoo! Shopping– you know when users are searching for a camera, they want to be able to look over a number of stores who are selling the camera and quickly see if it is a brand they know, what is the user rating, how much is the price… the president may need to know how severe is the issue, how much time does he have to respond, how trustworthy is the information.
Whoa… let’s back up a minute here. I know nothing of the processes inside the White House, but it would frighten me beyond belief to think that digesting critical information that creates political policy, affects whether people live or die, and determines if a nation goes to war is anything remotely like comparison shopping. If it is, then I’m quitting my job, packing my bags, and living a hobbit’s life in New Zealand.
I think this might be a case of the experts using their personal experience in what they know and applying it to this innocent graphic design exercise, cooked up by Storey, without enough consideration of the original exercise’s context. I can only be glad this little comparison from Wodtke did not make it into the final WSJ article.
To her credit, I should note that Wodtke’s example of how Yahoo! reworked some of its internal communications processes was entirely relevant to the article, but got dropped by the reporter. That’s a shame, and the WSJ reporter should be given a good chiding. More on that below.
I mention what Wodtke said in her account because while not remotely equivalent in scope, it’s similar to what happens in the WSJ article once Tufte, Nielsen and Wurman are asked their opinions.
The gurus offer up their own point of view about the new PDB from the context of their own expertise, but offer little insight into the design exercise itself. Worse, the Gurus do this while also managing to sell out.
First up in the line up of experts is Edward Tufte, who once again gets to proclaim Microsoft PowerPoint is evil. Yes, we got it. Next time, sir, be sure the WSJ links to your web site so you can sell another copy of the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.
But what I find inexcusable is the general comment attributed to Tufte about Storey’s redesign.
Mr. Tufte also dismisses Mr. Storey’s redesign of the PDB as an example of using “cute type” or “content-free decoration” to “attract attention to itself and weaken the pursuit of truth.”
Since when did Myriad Sans become “cute type?” I guess I better inform the marketing people at Adobe since it’s been the corporate font for more than a decade now. Further, let’s look at an example right out of Envisioning Information, page 63.
Before Tufte’s redesign.
After Tufte’s redesign.
I guess the use of shading isn’t content-free decoration. I guess switching to Gill Sans does not constitute using cute type. I guess using limited colors like red and yellow in the redesign really aren’t trying to attract attention to themselves, weakening the pursuit the truth.
It’s truly unfortunate that rather than taking the time to offer useful critique about Storey’s PDB redesign that might prove insightful to both designers and the non-designers that read the WSJ — I have to say that personally, I found the large red threat matrix block that Storey created a bit over-powering in the design — Tufte reduced himself to offering what he accuses others of who practice poor information design.
He offered nothing more than a useless soundbite.
I love how we have Jakob Nielsen siding with Storey. (Glad it was you and not me, man! I would have had to commit sepuku.) Yet, the thing with which Nielsen agrees happens to be the exact thing Nielsen seems to know little about: Typography.
To [Nielsen], common mistakes include: tiny typeface that requires too much effort; typing in all capital letters that slows down comprehension and using sans-serif typeface.
You’d think Nielsen was Robert Bringhurst or something. But a quick look at Useit.com is all the reminder one needs to see just how little Nielsen understands legibility and typography as it relates to digesting the written word.
But here’s the golden nugget from Nielsen.
If the writers intended to spur the government into action, “they certainly didn’t communicate it,” says Mr. Nielsen, who estimates that improving email and memo design could save U.S. businesses $71 billion in productivity costs.
My only question — beyond how on earth Storey’s little two hour graphic design exercise for a White House memo suddenly beame a lead into how the entire business community could save so much fucking money — is this: Does that $71B include what Nielsen would generate in consulting fees? Inquiring minds want to know. Because if those businesses are saving $71B, but have to factor in paying Nielsen $1B for the privilege, then the real savings are only $70B. However, if the original savings were $72B, and Nielsen already factored his $1B consulting fee, then maybe some full disclosure is in order here.
The line-up ends with Richard Saul Wurman. Here’s what he has to offer.
For the PDB, [Wurman] suggests using location as an organizing principle, with maps of potential danger zones at the top of the page.
Excuse me… but how in the world does adding a map to this memo offer up any relevant or critical indicators about Bin Laden’s imminent attack? So the graphic might draw a nice big red star on a map of New York City. That helps in understanding the threat is imminent how?
What happened to reporting?
Obviously, part of the problem with this whole incident had to do with poor journalism. If you are reading this Ms. Mintz, I am referring to you.
I have been involved with media events in the past for product promotions, news cycles, etc. Every time I have worked with a reporter, I’m always left with a feeling that the resulting story will in some way be inadequate. Most of the time, I’m disappointed when my premonition proves itself true.
Some portion of the inadequate results we get from our news media has to do with the news medium itself. Reporters don’t write long essay for the news, with truly in-depth analysis that does justice to the complexity of the issues in their stories. That sort of reporting tends to be done in history books, or appears in long televised specials like Frontline. Reporters have to keep it short and simple, compacting complex thoughts into an impossibly short phrase.
On top of this, with noted exceptions, most reporters for major news outlets rarely seem to be experts in the fields they cover — at least in the design or technology sectors. Yet, they must determine what is relevant to a story and what is not without truly understanding what is important to filter. That tends to lead to inadequate reporting.
However, I have to also assume that Ms. Mintz wasn’t given much help by the experts and gurus she interviewed, based solely on the quotes included in the story.
So, I’m fed up. I’m sick of the high-profile, highly-paid experts and gurus not providing adequate leadership in the field of Design. I will no longer seek out these mentors anymore, as I have gotten this far on my own after having read their books. I find little use for them anymore.
I will look to my friends and colleagues for help and mentorship. I will find inspiration from those designers in the trenches — you know many of them from the work you see that they put on public display. All those people offering up great design content, great design advice, and building what will be the next generation of designers to be remembered through the ages.
I’m tried of the repeated sound bites, of the endless self-promotion and the sell-out nature of all the experts and gurus in the field of Design. I’m done with them.