all zap and no design

29 October 2008, 01:16

A week ago I was at zap your PRAM, an un‑conference ‘for people who don’t like going to conferences.’ Here are some of my favourite reports from other participants: Stephen, Deane, John and Deb.

It was a remarkable event. Instead of terrible air conditioning there was a log fire in the central hall spreading a wonderful scent through this old mansion. Instead of awfully calculated ‘networking’, it was totally natural to talk to a bunch of interesting people.

dissenting voice

Steven Garrity had invited me to participate on a panel discussing the value of design. He proposed that I show the impact of design on GIMP or openPrinting. Instead I thought I could spice things up by talking about my problems with the word design, along the lines of my recent I’m not a graphic designer post.

Steven thought that was ‘…potentially contentious, which could be fun.’ Here is the gist of my ten‐minute talk:

I am not a designer, part 2

I am simply not able to call myself an interaction designer. The interaction part is brilliant, it is all about flow, actions in time to achieve certain goals. The problem is the word design, which has been hollowed out over time.

Hollowed out…

…by consumers
aka users. They perceive and value design as the outer shell of an object, website or a piece of software: ‘making it look cool.’
…by clients
of designers: the producers of said objects, websites or software. They share the consumers’ outlook on design and are happy to superficially cater to it. Adding insult to injury, they schedule the design at the end of develop­ment processes, as a special sauce that gets poured over the actual product right before serving.
…by designers
who seem happy to participate in this game between the two groups above and deliver those outer shells, that special sauce.


Designers are forgetting to solve the problem. Forgetting that when something needs to be designed, it means that it will interact with people. That this interaction with people defines what this artefact, this object; website or software, actually is. That designing means making it work, beyond a pile‑up of commodity functionality.

common theme

The difference is empathy. At zap your PRAM that turned out to be sort of the theme‐of‐the‐day. Hannah Donovan, lead designer of, had already held an excellent talk in the morning that heavily featured empathy.

To me empathy means feeling the pain of users. Yes, in your stomach. Instinctively knowing that ease of learning, ease of use or ease of remembering targets are not met. And it is keeping you awake at night. Empathy is what it takes to be a designer.

a picture is worth a…

At my talk I had to show at least one example to get the non‐designer‐geeks tuned into what I was talking about. Some well‐known website where obviously money is spent on ‘design’ but problems do not get solved. Ebay came to the rescue:

Top‐left next to the ebay logo we see me being greeted. That tells me I am signed in. See the two red buttons at the bottom of the pic? Their message (sign in or register) contradict the fact that I am signed in and destroys my confidence surrounding this concept.

Now I do not know how many designers were involved with producing the pieces with which this page is built up. But I do know that one designer with a good dose of empathy should have been in charge of making the whole signed‐in concept work.


There is nothing new about this story. In 1971 Victor Papanek published a book titled: design for the real world. Focussing on product design, this book is full of intriguing ideas, concepts and challenges that are applicable to interaction design today.

One central theme of the book is that product designers are creating shiny junk that is designed to sell, but fails to work even according to basic criteria. Think of american cars at the turn of the ’70s: every year new huge impressive‐looking models, with same‐old technology under the bonnet and total disregard for road‐safety issues.

golden showers

The US design establishment was really grateful for Victor pointing out the elephant in the room and asked him to resign from his professional design organisation in the US. I should blog one day about the long‐tail impact of this book.

the big picture

I wish designers would start designing, with a healthy dose of empathy, focussing on solving the real problems. As soon as that becomes the norm, I will be happy to call myself an interaction designer.

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