The 'Science' of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea

Design, like the world as a whole, is unpredictable and messy. If you think it boils down to "research," you're mistaken.

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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.

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.

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.

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Ben McAllister is an assistant creative director at the innovation firm frog. His writing has appeared in Fast Company, PSFK, and Interactions Magazine.

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