The undesign code

The 'undesign' controversy rages on. Respected Philadephia-based designer, Jason Santa Maria recently opined that the debate is, in fact, getting a bit long in the tooth and it's hard to disagree.

As if design wasn't already a barely understood discipline as far as the business world was concerned, along came the notion of undesign to actually promote the notion that good design is just a load of old waffle - and a waste of money to boot.

I suppose it started with eBay. Features began to appear in various journals, primarily on the web, arguing that the key to eBay's success lay in its gawky aesthetic somehow reflecting the joyous amateurism of a jumble sale. Then there was Craigslist, where the same opinion mongers mistook a lack of graphics for a lack of design. And then came MySpace, the world's largest collection of bad websites since Geocities was launched in the mid 1990s. And so, it passed into common knowledge - design is bad, undesign is good.

Well I, for one, am not convinced.

Part of the problem with the entire undesign debate is that it is based on a false premise.

Design is about communication, not aesthetic wonderment. Once you realise this, it becomes quite clear: bad design is bad.

Bad design can look good, but function poorly. More often, though, it looks bad and barely functions at all. This is not the same thing as lo-fi design, which can be perfectly good.

I recently came across a company that specialises in designing a particular kind of commercial interior. Judging by the photographs on their website, they do this rather well and as a result decided to expand into other areas of design including graphics. I'm not quite sure what the thought process was there - well actually I do have an idea, but it's too depressing to contemplate.

And, how did it work out? Not well. Its website is a shambles. To paraphrase Jacques Brel, I would sooner cut my legs off and burn myself alive than hire these people to get involved in a visual communication strategy.

(I will not be linking to its site or mentioning it by name, not so much to spare their blushes, but because I have a working knowledge of the local libel law where the company is based.)

The funny thing is, some of its corporate identity designs, though certainly low-brow, are actually OK. It's the company's own website that is a disgrace. This website is surely loosing work for the company. Bad design is bad.
?Another difficulty is that an awful lot of people don't like designers. Sorry, but they don't. Common responses to the field of design are that it is snooty, incomprehensible in intent and out of touch with ordinary people.

Now, I am not convinced by the notion of design as a 'profession' - compare a designer's salary with that of a medic or a solicitor, not to mention their relative independence - but I do support the idea of professionalism in design. And therein lies the rub: Many people do not like 'professionals'. This is a laudable enough sentiment. At its root lies a democratic impulse - distrust of figures of authority and a desire to be viewed on equal terms.

Unfortunately, this very same impulse has created a culture in which our recognition of the greed and arrant stupidity of those in positions of power has been replaced by the fear that some sinister cabal must be directing things from afar, like some deus ex machina - consider the popularity of that turgid Dan Brown book and the growth industry in paranoid conspiracy theories about the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.

The undesign debate is a reflection - albeit a pale one - of the same phenomenon. MySpace compounded the feeling of distaste felt about the arbiters or what is right and wrong in design, muddying the waters of much more than the likes of eBay and Craigslist did - and for good reason.

Put simply, MySpace is home to thousands of the most apparently authentic people of earth, in two overlapping groups: angst-ridden teenagers and musicians untainted by a recording contract (and often untainted by talent).

As a result the debate moved from 'design is unnecessary fluff' to something not far off 'design represents slick corporate whoredom'. Oh dear.

To the uninitiated, and I used that term advisedly, design has elitist overtones. Typography alone must seem like a Masonic brotherhood with its incompressible terminology of kerning, leading, picas and points. Of course, technical jargon has a purpose - it is there to facilitate clear and concise communication about precise and complex subjects. But, if you're trying to get involved and don't know what it means, it's pretty easy to dismiss the whole thing as a nonsense, meaningless verbiage used for obfuscation.

But this is simply a misreading of things. As has been pointed out, time and again, successful examples of undesign, succeed not through their poor design, but in spite of it.

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