in Philosophy

Everyone’s punk rock band

The nice people at Amazon recently delivered a book on design history along with all-time quarterback from Death Cab for Cutie songwriter/frontman Ben Gibbard, a lo-fi homemade recording. Reading one while listening to the other is oddly complementary. Gibbard, playing simple and melancholy pop songs, self-reflexively sings of his relationship to his punk rock influences…

And if we could break the rules that were already
Broken before we were born,
Then we could hold them to their guns
Cause we’d be a punk rock band too

In the book, they recount the design trends of the past. Art Nouveau, in UX terms, emphasized esthetics while the Bauhaus emphasized usability. The Modernists did away with all decoration, having the form follow the function, and so on. And of course the effects of all this on people and society was argued through essays as well as artifacts as passionately as we do today.

So now when I see gurus come along with something like expectation design it looks like they’re treading on well-worn ground. Yes, the intracacies of digital design are new and different, but the higher level of how design affects people has been addressed for a hundred years. I start to understand why the traditional design press doesn’t always take UX design seriously. When it comes to design theory we’re green.

I didn’t know about design history because I hadn’t lived through it, and had never read it. I’m now feeling more sympathetic to all those LIS folks who feel like they’ve been doing information architecture for decades. When you look at their artifacts it seems they haven’t, and yet in conceptual ways they sometimes have.

Given the variety of our backgrounds (my education was in the liberal arts, and training was first in IT), a lot of us probably haven’t read the design history. We all want to invent punk rock, and it’s a little humbling when we realize we’re just repeating what Thonet did 140 years ago. As Mr. Gibbard would say,

What could they possibly do next to shock the crowd?
“We’re gonna rock rock rock you, make you scream out loud”
Bad boys whatcha gonna?

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