Is Sagmeister a designer?

I was chatting with my friend Stokes about Stefan Sagmeister. He said “I like him but I do not think It is helpful to consider him a designer. He is basically a conceptual artist who gets to practice in a totally different way.” I agreed — his way of being paid for work is just a new form of patronage.

This raises that old question: what distinguishes design from art?

My take: Design is only design if it is created for other people, and only incidentally for oneself. Art is the opposite: it is created for oneself, and only incidentally for others.

And what about engineering?

Engineering is for nobody — engineering is done purely to produce some objective outcome. Even when engineering involves human behaviors, it casts its problems in terms of behavioral outputs, rather than subjective qualities of experience, meanings or relationships. This is why Lean Startup and behavioral economics are so appealing to engineers — they are both ways to reframe design problems as engineering problems.

Expertise versus philosophy

A person who is too busy, too stressed or too knowing — or all at once — cannot hear anything outside their immediate understanding. In other words, they cannot philosophize, and will not permit philosophy to happen in their presence. Their world is a world of expertise.

I define philosophy as Wittgenstein did: “the structure of a philosophical problem is ‘here I do not know how to move around.'” Philosophy is attempting to think the unthinkable. Expertise is the efficient application of established thought.

Two definitions of justice

For some, justice is primarily a matter of determining guilt and proper punishment. For others, justice is also a matter of determining innocence and proper protection.


I remember back in the mid-2000s, when I was caught up in the general leftist panic about the underlying philosophy of the Neocons and decided to dig into the substance of their thought for myself. The panic turned out to be justified. The passage below comes from Irving Kristol’s Neo-Conservatism: An Autobiography of an Idea:

The main priority of a sensible criminal-justice system — its first priority — is to punish the guilty. It is not to ensure that no innocent person is ever convicted. That is a second priority — important but second. Over these past two decades, our unwise elites — in the law schools, in the courts, in our legislatures — have got these priorities reversed. (Page 362, “The New Populism: Not to Worry”)

That is a pretty weird way to frame justice, but it rings eerily familiar is some conversations I’ve had with Progressivists lately. If you wanna make an omelette, you’ve gotta break some eggs.

Ex post facto justice

If you essentialize a particular culture’s ethnomethods/ethos/ethic and begin to view them as self-evident moral truths, it becomes completely reasonable to enforce newly established principles retroactively.

Of course, in a court of law, where violations are heard, tried, judged and punished within defined legal procedures and boundaries, ex post facto law is forbidden — but such formalities do not hold in the court of public opinion, where guilt is assigned and punishments dealt ad hoc and without measure.

Alienated in analogy

Foucault, from The Order of Things:

Once similitude and signs are sundered from each other, two experiences can be established and two characters appear face to face. The madman, understood not as one who is sick but as an established and maintained deviant, as an indispensable cultural function, has become, in Western experience, the man of primitive resemblances. This character, as he is depicted in the novels or plays of the Baroque age, and as he was gradually institutionalized right up to the advent of nineteenth-century psychiatry, is the man who is alienated in analogy. He is the disordered player of the Same and the Other. He takes things for what they are not, and people one for another; he cuts his friends and recognizes complete strangers; he thinks he is unmasking when, in fact, he is putting on a mask. He inverts all values and all proportions, because he is constantly under the impression that he is deciphering signs: for him, the crown makes the king. In the cultural perception of the madman that prevailed up to the end of the eighteenth century, he is Different only in so far as he is unaware of Difference; he sees nothing but resemblances and signs of resemblance everywhere; for him all signs resemble one another, and all resemblances have the value of signs. At the other end of the cultural area, but brought close by symmetry, the poet is he who, beneath the named, constantly expected differences, rediscovers the buried kinships between things, their scattered resemblances. Beneath the established signs, and in spite of them, he hears another, deeper, discourse, which recalls the time when words glittered in the universal resemblance of things; in the language of the poet, the Sovereignty of the Same, so difficult to express, eclipses, the distinction existing between signs.

Received self-contempt of the receptive

In times that despise receptivity, it takes considerable intellectual independence to perceive the value of receptivity and to value and honor it.

That kind of intellectual independence will come least of all from the most receptive people — who will, in conformance with the expectations of the times will obediently perform the role of the bravest, strongest, most independent individual, because that’s what is expected, and failure to play the role would compel automatic self-contempt.


Just as, mediocre generals always want to re-fight the last war, mediocre rebels always want to re-break the last broken taboos, to re-transgress erased boundaries and to imitate originality.

The truly forbidden is, as it always is, beyond the pale, shameful, anxious and doubtful. Rebellion is solely for the most hubristic who do not feel the reality of others enough and least hubristic who perhaps feel the reality of others too much and find themselves compelled to resist present norms. (As Nietzsche demonstrated, it is hard to tell the difference from appearances alone.)

People who expect applause or head-pats from doting authorities or dittos/metoos from peers or acclamations of bravery will rule out precisely what they pretend to be all about. They don’t want the reality of rebellion which comes only in its afterlife, but they want it right now, in advance, and indeed they get their reward, to put it in Christianese.

The real question might be: is rebellion all it’s cracked up to be? Why do we admire past rebels while scorning present ones? Maybe past rebels are just folks who won and wrote histories of glorious rebellions led by courageous rebels.

Religious imagination

Few people I know have tried to imagine the possibility of religion that doesn’t revolve around peace, altruism, enlightenment and/or magic.

Yes, religious life can certainly revolve around these four notions — but it does not have to — unless it is not allowed to.

And it is not allowed to by people in orbit around these notions, who compulsively bring everything back to them, over and over — who call the facts deposited in these aeon-long ruts “eternal truths” and who call resignation to following this well-paved, well-appointed path forever “wisdom”.

Simplicity simplified

I was told that my description of simplicity would be confusing to non-designers and non-nerds.

Here’s another way to say it…

If a person can say all 5 of these statements about a design, they will call the design “simple”:

  1. “This is a __________________ .”
  2. “It is good for __________________ .”
  3. “Everything I need/want is here.”
  4. “It has no extra crap I don’t need/want.”
  5. “Everything here makes perfect sense.”

Simple design

Friday afternoon at work, I facilitated a little salon where we tried to define what “simplicity” means in design.

Because I was facilitating, and it is bad form for facilitators to fight with participants, I had to keep my strong opinions to myself (which is probably exactly why they asked me to facilitate rather than participate).

But, of course, I did have uncomfortably strong opinions, and they had to do mostly with my own compulsion to simplify what we were saying about simplicity.

So here is my distillation, in the simplest terms possible, of how I think of design simplicity:

A design is simple when it is experienced by someone as having the following qualities:

  1. Everything relevant is included.
  2. Nothing irrelevant is included.
  3. It is conceived as systematic: all relationships among parts and within the whole are clear. 
  4. It is perceived as a whole: the entire system is experienced spontaneously as a single unit. 
  5. Its relevance as a whole is immediately obvious. 

Jaspers, Latour — and Buber, too

I love Jaspers, but I have to classify him with Rorty as another pre-material turn thinker who manages to say amazing things despite an uncannily precise neglect of the role nonhuman actors play in generating truth, and in Jaspers’s case, scientific truths.

His distinction between scientific modes of truth and original truths of being, and the application of a universal knowledge versus individual intuition schema to draw the line between the two conceals the all-important continuity between the two and the controversy around where that fuzzy gray line between established fact and questionable opinion ought to be drawn. It is too bad that Jaspers relied so heavily on scientific understanding as a foil, because he seems to have a lot to say about the nature of communication between individuals interacting in an interpersonal/interhuman — as opposed to social — mode of communication.

And now that I think about it from this angle, I view science as a social-material milieu — a setting where individuals and instruments and materials all socially interact, not as individuals, primarily but as representatives of roles. In other words, the social as Latour conceives it overlaps considerably with the social as Buber conceives it. In social interactions both human and nonhuman and actors play socially-defined roles and represent some ideal type in their acting.

And perhaps interpersonal interactions are possible with nonhuman actors… for instance when an artist works sculpts one particular piece of wood, with its own shape and grain. I think it is this intuition that makes me prefer interpersonal to interhuman… Let’s not limit personhood to humans.

I am not yet persuaded

People – especially empathic people – can sometimes forget that they, too, have a right to be persuaded.

They unconsciously assume the burden of persuasion, and feel that if they have not persuaded others to their belief, they do not have the right to their own beliefs, or at least not to public belief. They think that until they can argue a belief, they are obligated to keep it to themselves and suppress or conceal their doubts.

I think this can be harmful.

I consider it a liberal’s right, if not a duty, to express non-persuasion or even dissent when it exists, even when there is no strong argument to back up the belief. This practice is important for a number of reasons. If nobody disagrees or doubts, it creates an appearance of unanimity, suggesting self-evident truth. It can cause people to doubt their own doubts and worry that their questions are stupid or misguided. If this fear becomes widespread and habitual, and people stop raising questions and everyone becomes unaccustomed to unquestioning acceptance, a culture of conformity can develop where group-think is the rule and questioning is taboo.

Registering doubt at least keeps questions open. It also encourages other individuals with doubts to speak up. It keeps a society accustomed to hearing individual judgments and individual thinking that goes against the grain.

To a liberal these are concerns of the highest rank.


My conviction is that we can believe or not believe something even without strong arguments.

Of course, if we want people to agree with us, we’ll eventually have to produce some persuasive reasons. Until then it will be necessary to stand alone.

But we are allowed to stand alone. Some of us admire people for standing alone – as long as they also respect our right to be unpersuaded.


Advice to myself:

If I find myself in the midst of a group with whom I disagree, I will raise my hand and state: “I am not persuaded by what you are saying.”

I will openly admit it if I do not yet have counter-arguments. I will tell everyone I’m still thinking about it.

I will not be silent, and I definitely won’t be silenced.


As Christian fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population are called Christianists, and as Islamic fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population are called Islamists, Progressive fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population should be called Progressivists.

And why shouldn’t they? They have had powerful conversion experiences that revealed the true Truth to them. Now they see the world in its totality with an undeniable intensity, clarity and coherence. They know, they know that they know, and they no longer have patience for those who have no desire to know. They cannot conceive of how they could possibly be wrong, nobody is able to show them to their satisfaction how they are wrong, and therefore they are right.

Some are “born again”, some are “enlightened”, some are “red-pilled”, some are “woke”, and all are naive realists who think they awoke from naive realism, and they are going to wake you up, too.

Classy progressives

Conversations among progressives can be confusing.

When politics is the topic, everything seems very leftist. They regard exclusivity, privilege, elitism, inequality, unfairness and consumerism as abhorrent and are quick to call it out when they see it.

But when the talk turns to less weighty topics, egalitarianism goes out the window. It becomes a competition to see is most urbane, who has vacationed in the most exotic places, who has the best taste in wine, literature, cinema and art, who knows the most about the newest, most fashionable restaurants, who has a degree from the most prestigious university, who has what status in what airline, hotel and credit card. Who has the highest status?

It all seems very self-contradictory — unless you realize that political beliefs and social ethics is just another of these status qualifications.

To establish that one belongs to the progressive elite class one must have the best taste in food and drink, must vacation in the best places, must have the best educational pedigree and one must believe the right things and practice the best political etiquette most strictly.

Seen in this light virtue signaling is just another dimension of a larger class signaling.

Assuming a progressive elitist class exists, would progressive elitists be aware of the advantages they derive from their dominant identity? Would they be able to overcome the a form of motivated reasoning that sees unjust privilege everywhere but in its own identity? Wouldn’t they feel deeply uncomfortable when confronted by others, and perhaps feel some fragility and rage at having their dominance challenged and at the impudent demand that they share power with those who are different from them? Could they be quiet and really listen for a change, instead of lecturing and dominating the discourse? Could they accept the hard truth that, even with their deductions, counter-balances and privilege-checking they have refused to check the one privilege that dwarfs all the others combined?

Could they apply their own principles to themselves? Or will they use their power to dismiss, discredit, disgrace and punish attempts to speak truth to a power identity so powerful that it demands to be treated not as an identity but as truth and justice itself?

Design: thinking, crafting and actualizing

This post has also been published on my company’s blog.

To be effective in any design discipline it is certainly necessary to master the universal methods of design. Whether you call these methods Human-Centered Design (HCD) or Design Thinking or invent some new term for it, the principles are always the same and they are incredibly useful, especially for innovation, even outside the domain of what is normally called “design”. Let’s call this the thinking aspect of design.

Effective professional designers also become connoisseurs within their chosen design medium, capable of detecting subtleties in designs, rapidly assessing consequences and weighing trade-offs among different design directions, rapidly switching perspectives, zooming between whole and detail, and tacking between a shopper’s hasty glance and an expert’s inspection. Let’s call this the crafting aspect of design.

But even this is not enough, if the goal is making real change in the world.

For that, a designer must progress beyond thinking and crafting, into the actualizing part of design. This requires understanding of the materials specific to their design discipline. This understanding is not only an explicit knowledge about materials, it also involves an implicit feel for the possibilities and constraints of  materials, as well as fluency in the language which has formed around the material, often used by engineers and craftspeople.

This fluency is acquired less from from talking than from hands-on experience, and it is this that we mean when we say someone “knows what they’re talking about” and it is crucial for winning the respect and active support of the collaborators who will help the designer actualize the design.

Some examples:

  • Industrial designers need to understand the various materials and fabrication techniques used in manufacturing, and they need to know how to speak with mechanical and other types of engineers.
  • UX designers need to understand enough about development frameworks and methodologies to communicate and interact with software engineers. (“UX/UI designers” are even expected to be engineers. Whether they are still expected to be designers is the real question, but that’s a topic for another time.)
  • Architects need to understand methods and the myriad materials used in the construction of buildings, including plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc., and have the vocabulary to communicate with the various specialists involved in building projects.

This brings us to an interesting question: What is the material of service design?

My answer is: The material of service design is organizations.

Designing services demands deep and extensive knowledge of how organizations work. The explicit part of this knowledge (the knowledge of MBAs) is far easier than the implicit part which takes years of experience collaborating with many disciplines working in many departments. It is not necessary to have the same level of knowledge as those who work in these departments. But the more a service designer can convey that they know what they they’re talking about when discussing the problems employees face every day in their jobs, the more the service designer can earn their respect and willingness to collaborate. Just as other design disciplines collaborate with teams of engineers and other types of experts to actualize their designs, service designers must enlist the involvement of entire organizations and get them to function as a massive multidisciplinary organizational engineering team. If anyone wonders why service design workshops tend to lean large, this is why.

Great service designers will know the methods of Human-Centered Design inside and out. They will overflow with observations and opinions about good and bad services they’ve experienced or heard about, and they’ll probably talk your ear off about how these experiences came about and what they portend about their industries, etc. But the real test is what happens when they talk with front-line employees, managers and executives. If the conversation plunges into the deepest shop-talk, and everyone is talking what’s going on at work with the kind of intensity normally reserved for sports or scandal, you may be witnessing a talented service designer in action.

Faith space

Normally I don’t publish this kind of disorganized mess, but today I feel compelled to reflect on what feels like a constricting world, where liberal space from others is increasing scarce.


A person’s beliefs are not the same as that person’s faith.

Here is why I make the distinction: Beliefs are the product of innumerable choices, guided by attitudes that precede belief. The attitudes manifest primarily as our intuitions of relevance and value, and they pre-consciously influence what we are inclined to regard with interest or complacence, what we accept or question, what we embrace or push away.

Our practical responses are similarly guided. We are pre-consciously inclined to behave in particular ways to different kinds of beings and situations.

Before birth, long before we think or begin making conscious choices, a complex feedback process of perceiving, reacting, recognizing, responding has begun, and this process simultaneously produces us as people and our situation as the world we inhabit and the relationship between enworlded self and the world in which the self emerges is faith.


The best conversations sound out harmonies and cacophonies among faiths, faiths felt to inhabit an impossibly deep, dense, vast reality — a reality which monotheists like to emphasize as one, which polytheists like to emphasize as plural, and which pluralists like emphasize as both at once.


When talking with people of other religions I often detect a shared faith, even despite divergent beliefs. They’re “coming from a good place.” Or their “hearts are in the right place.” This place is what I call faith. And the goodness and rightness seems for me to have much to do with a desire for more than what their beliefs can grasp or possess. This is what I experience as liberal, and, for me, it has less to do with what one confesses or professes, and more to do with hospitality, mobility and spaciousness of soul.


It is not enough to be a mystic, to believe that there is more, to sense that that a beyond exists. It is necessary to desire it and want more and more of it, even though that means almost renunciation of many mystic virtues. A liberal soul does not have special divinatory or gnostic powers, or some special relationship with god that makes one immune to vulnerability, loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty or forsakenness. A liberal at heart might be a mystic turned inside out — …