Try to parry the sword of data and you might get your pixels sliced off

Last week somebody who should have been working tipped me off to the story of Douglas Bowman, a lead designer at Google, quitting at least in part because his design decisions were being second-guessed and subjected to minute quantitative analysis.  Quantitative analysis at Google?  Who knew? Bowman wrote in his blog,

I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

That certainly does sound a bit soul-killing for a creative person.  I hope he was able to tackle some of the more exciting problems too.  He also recounts a story of Google engineers testing over 40 different shades of blue to determine the optimal one.  Bowman sums up his departure with this: “…I won’t miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.

Time to zip up my flame suit.  I like design and designers.  Some of my best friends are designers.  I think this story is another example of a terrible and corrosive attitude that has infected many members of the design profession.  (That’s not to say it’s anywhere near restricted to that profession, but let me piss off one group at a time here.) One of the important differences between being an artist and being a designer is that designers make products or parts of products for customers, and they are answerable to the wants and requirements of those customers. An artist – and only an artist – is allowed to say that the critics are fools and follow his or her creative destiny wherever it leads.

Inspiration and creativity have a vital place.  I don’t think anybody wants to lose those things, but nobody’s inspiration is above questioning, testing and probably incremental improvement.  Google is a profit-making company and they have an obligation to their stockholders to measure any employee’s work and its contribution to the bottom line.  Google sells advertising so they have a very clear interest in making sure that their ads are the most clickable they can be.  Designers are right to want to tackle “more exciting” design problems, but shouldn’t they also have a more open-minded attitude to analytic solutions to the “miniscule” decisions?  Don’t auto manufacturers stick a designer’s work of art into a wind tunnel and subject it to materials cost analysis, safety checks and ergonomic factors?

This story reminds me of some of the less attractive practices of the marketing and consulting professions.  I’ve met plenty of marketers and consultants who tell their customers that their work is the product of genius and cannot – indeed must not – be subjected to testing or measurement.  “You can’t test brand” “you can’t measure PR” and the like.  Accountable marketers call bullshit on this attitude and so should responsible designers if you ask me.

Lest I come off as (more of) a curmudgeon here, let me suggest a possible innovation.   More and more smart marketing departments include a marketing analyst, somebody responsible for counting the beans, measuring the programs, and generally helping keep the whole function accountable to the realities of business.  What if design departments had design analysts?  The fancy pants creative directors could work on the big problems, and when somebody asks, “how many pixels wide should that be?” the designer could shrug and say, “how am I supposed to know? Ask the analyst!”

A simplistic solution, perhaps.  But until designers and marketers accept that their work is part of a complex ecosystem that also includes customers and metrics, they will continue to frustrate themselves creatively and frustrate their employers financially.

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