Design Candy and Rotten Teeth

If the journalistic community is fretting over losing mindshare and gainful employment to blogs and consumer-generated media, I can provide one example of why I believe they should. You see, for about two decades there’s been a mostly lone voice in the mainstream media talking about Design: Bruce Nussbaum. One would think I’d appreciate having someone talk about design – and I would – if I believed that what I perceive as increasingly worthless, honey-dripping hype was how the design profession would grow and gain respect in the corporate community.

Although previously mentioned (reLink), I’ll repeat a little history here. In the late 80’s Nussbaum told the world via BusinessWeek (April 11, 1988) magazine that Design had returned to America:

After relegating design to the backseat in the 1970’s, U.S. manufacturers are once again discovering that it is key to industrial competitiveness.

Right. And there was much self-congratulatory backslapping in the design community. Until everyone figured out it wasn’t quite true; that it applied to only a handful of manufacturers. I wish you could see the products chosen as examples of this new Return to Design. Sadly, there’s essentially nothing that a design student today would likely recognize. No truly great design icons; just mostly pretty, 80’s era geometric shapes.

Then in the early 90’s Nussbaum again declared (BusinessWeek; June 7, 1993) that Design’s role was becoming critical to corporate success:

Leveraging the power of design is one of the hottest strategic games being played today.

Uh… sorry. Even though the design community had created some truly worthy products, that not only turned out not to be true, but the exact opposite of what was happening as corporations were starting to scramble to China where cheap, poorly-designed products were the real strategy for success and sweet profits.

Fast forward to last year when Nussbaum once again declared that Design’s day had come. “Design has won” he stated authoritatively. And while it was the kind of thing I admittedly like to hear (as do all designers, I suspect), there was no ignoring reality this time. You see, his comments were a load of hype, and I called him on his assertion by pointing out the inconvenient facts. He admitted afterward to exaggerating (reLink). What’s even more interesting is that he’s recently posted an entry on his blog (Link) that now seems to be an attempt to distance himself from his previous “Design has won” position:

I joke that innovation is the new black because everyone talks about it these days, but the truth is that very, very few CEOs and managers know how to implement it. The gap between their mouthing the word innovation and their allocating resources to make it happen is wider than the gap between their compensation and the pay of their average employee (sorry but incentives play a serious role in building an innovation culture).

Wow. Now he’s sounding like me. Only thing is, that’s a long way from his previous comments; like old gum those earlier words of his apparently lost their flavor and he’s now left to characterize this as a “joke”. And for some reason he seems to believe that the people with whom he’s interacting at those exotic, foreign conferences he attends includes “everyone”. Right. Y’know, I’d say we’re well on our way to another black eye (reLink).

So what’s up with Nussbaum?

Well, to answer that maybe we should take a look at what has the journalism profession all worried. With people like me blogging, that means increased competition, right? Well, kind of. I’m not competing with A-List journalists. I’m neither that good nor is what I’m posting of any real impact. Me and most bloggers are writing second-tier stuff at best. That’s all. So for the most part, the people in journalism that need to worry aren’t the A-List people, it’s the one’s that aren’t much better than talented amateurs. What’s happening now with blogs and amateur newsites is the equivalent of what happened to the graphic design profession in the 80’s: the low-end professionals wound up competing with average but talented people. That’s why there’s so much hand-wringing.

Now, when I look at what Nussbaum writes, I can tell you I don’t see A-List journalism – I see someone who tends to exaggerate and distort and who, admittedly, makes a nice cheerleader for the industrial design community… but not much else.

Think I’m being overly critical? Well, ask yourself, what are Nussbaum’s qualifications? Is he some innovation guru? Has he developed some product or process that people in industry recognize as especially innovative?

Not that I’m aware of.

Was he a designer at some point and thus speaks from some qualified professional experience?

Not to my knowledge.

Has he even been involved directly with an R&D process as part of a development team?

From what I’ve read about him, the answer is “No”.

So when I read Nussbaum’s words the impression of the person I get is that of someone who attends big conferences in far-flung locations where he rubs elbows with the so-called elite and then writes tired junk about how brilliant they all are and how exciting the conference was.

That’s it.


What I also see is someone who, with little practical credentials, apparently joined the good ol’ boys network by becoming a useful mouthpiece to help them promote themselves and their business. That would explain the awards. And when he’s not rubbing those elbows, he does stuff like latching onto a cute phrase (e.g. “mining intentionality”) and finding ways to fit it into everything around him so that he becomes the “(insert phrase here)”-guru.

The other thing I see is someone who expects people like me – who actually are working in the trenches – to give him respect as if he’s somehow deserving of it. Talk about arrogance. This became pretty obvious after posting a comment on his very one-way blog after he started making some pretty pathetic entries regarding Second Life (like this pablum – Link – or this “no duh” entry – Link). Here’s my comment (Link):

This is the reason I rarely read your blog, Bruce: Second Life is now old MSM news. Where on earth have you been? How is it that someone so focused on innovation misses one of the most innovative technologies around? It’s not as if it’s been a secret.

And his reply:

One of the most important things you must do in business or journalism–in anything in life–is know your audience, understand their culture and respect it. Second Life may be “old news” to a small group of folks who first adopted it when it was launched in 2003. But to most of the business community around the world–indeed, to most people– SL is a new phenom. They are curious and want information about it. Being “insidie” and culty may make you feel good but it borders on arrogance and disrespect.

Now what you won’t see is my reply. Why not? Well, because Nussbaum is censoring comments he doesn’t like and which effectively point out how non-A-List he really is.

Of course I’ve been around the blog block, so I know to keep copies of comments when I suspect a blog author is going to probably attempt to protect themselves from criticism (very old-school and not of a very innovative mindset, imo). Here was my admittedly-harsh but not censorship-worthy comment submitted on 30 October (note that he’s approved other comments after this date):


I am your audience. I am in that culture of which you speak. And you respect it, imo, by keeping abreast of innovation ahead of the rest; not following the rest.

I am *not* – as you suggest – someone who first adopted it. I developed an interest in early 2005 after a story in the Wall Street Journal (that’s a newspaper for “the business community”).

Describing SL as a “new phenom” is insufficient in today’s fast-moving society. Mainstream media has been reporting on it steadily since Wells Fargo’s announcement over a year ago (Sep ’05). Forbes, Fortune, Wired, and more marketing blogs than I can count have been buzzing about it for at least a year. This latest buzz is the second round, Bruce, not the first. You missed the first wave.

You suggest my comment borders on arrogance. That’s not arrogance; that’s exasperation. You say my comment borders on disrespect. That indicates to me that you assume you have a right to my respect. It’s arrogant to assume you have it. You do not. You have to earn it like everyone else. Perhaps you can start by serving me – your audience – with timely information on innovation instead of posting stuff like “design has won”. That feel-good blather is neither accurate (as you conceded on my blog some time back) nor of any practical use. If all you’re going to do is provide follow-up commentary, I’d rather not bother being a member of your audience. There are things going on in the world. I can’t afford to wait for late-comers. Can your audience?

But wait, that’s not the only one he censored. In another post on Second Life (Link) we got not only time-late tripe, but inaccuracy. Here’s the second comment of mine (minus a line that was something for him – some generic, non-spam info on me and my credentials) that’s been censored by BusinessWeek (submitted 31 October):

1 – Incorrect. There are many.

2 – Incorrect. A million sign-ups does not equal a million people. It’s a worthless metric.

3 – Incorrect. Please don’t attempt to use your new phrase when it’s inappropriate to do so. It is one factor; not a “key” factor and not, afaic, even a major factor at this stage.

4 – Too bad you missed this a year ago. Rosedale’s “platform” comment generated decent buzz on some pretty big sites.

It’s a decent article, but there are some mistakes. For example “hackers” do not periodically shut it down. That’s been rare. It’s “griefers” that do the periodical attacks that force the entire grid to shut down. Not the same thing.

Okay, so what should I make of this? This is a completely legitimate comment that’s being censored by a supposedly innovation-minded journalist working for a supposedly forward-thinking magazine.

This is what I think about it: here’s someone who has made a portion of his living promoting my profession, but after he sees his latest proclamation not panning out, starts to backtrack over his previous comments to save face. We have a candyman who gives us always “terrific” blather about conferences that don’t really mean anything to most of us, and slow-to-report discussion about new technologies like Second Life.

Oh. And censorship. We get self-serving censorship. Here’s a guy who’s blog is about being “Inside the business of innovation and design“, yet he’s so out of touch he doesn’t know how to handle blog comments. It doesn’t appear as if he’s aware of Web 2.0 and the implied ethics that go with it. He doesn’t engage his so-called audience; he talks down to them, makes suggestions about arrogance and respect, and then censors them instead of defending himself openly.

Is this a person who deserves my respect?

More importantly, does the design community deserve to have this person speaking for it? I don’t think so. Design is still a relatively new profession and eating the feelgood candy is understandable. But it’s time the profession grew up and started eating its vegetables. There’s no nutrition in the sweet junk that Nussbaum gives us. Time to move on.

Time to get serious.

Time to grow up.