Jessica Helfand on the Intersecting Ethics of Business, Design, and Creating with Purpose | Next Big Idea Club
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Jessica Helfand on the Intersecting Ethics of Business, Design, and Creating with Purpose

Arts & Culture Creativity
Jessica Helfand on the Intersecting Ethics of Business, Design, and Creating with Purpose

What is the purpose of design, and how do we ensure that the human concerns so central to the field don’t disappear? Jessica Helfand, designer, founding editor of Design Observer, and lecturer at Yale University School of Management, tackles these questions in her most recent book, Design: The Invention of Desire. Here, in a conversation with Heleo’s Mandy Godwin, she delves into considerations of ethics, business, humility, and more.

Mandy Godwin: What got you to thinking about design as a humanist discipline?

Jessica Helfand: Well, I have an unorthodox background as a designer. I had a liberal arts education. I grew up all over the world and always resisted the very formal restrictiveness of parts of my education. As the world has changed, I started to see to design as this panacea, this second language that everyone claimed a kind of literacy in. And here was an opportunity to write a book that did not just speak in the inside-baseball way to the converted but that really spoke more widely.

When my editor at Yale came to me and said, “We’re doing a series of books on why things matter to people. Would you write the one on design?” I jettisoned the first 20 tables of contents for how I was going to organize the material. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that there was a way to write a book about the broader moral implications, the ethical boundaries around our work and its long-term consequences. I thought that was a book that would be hard to write but one that I needed to write.

Mandy: There are a lot of very strong tensions that you’re exploring. There’s tension between the fact that design is at its heart about intentionality and about control of a medium, while at the same time there seems to be not quite as much responsibility taken for that intentionality as there should be.

Jessica: Right. We don’t teach design as cause and effect. We think about our primary objectives: solving a problem, reaching an audience, understanding a brief. We live in a time when we’re all tethered to our feeds, news doesn’t stay news for very long, and we’re not encouraged to think about the long-term consequences of anything. Add to that the fact that design is practiced and understood by the public as a topical thing, about packaging, sales. You design a better thing, there’s a jump in the market. You’ve satisfied your customer. But is that really all design is?

We’re living in an exciting time for the design professions. Corporations around the world are hiring chief design officers to look, at a systemic level, at how design can change business, so that’s good. But that still doesn’t get at the ethical and moral consequences of our actions. We see viral as a good thing. Not such a good thing, a virus. Things that trend, we don’t always want them to trend. I sometimes come out as a real naysayer. I’m in the middle of writing an op-ed for the LA Times. It’s probably going to get me so vilified that I will have to join a witness protection plan.

Mandy: Oh, no!

Jessica: I’m writing a critique of design thinking. It’s a very hard thing to do because it’s been so evangelized in the media.

Mandy: Do you mean the mentality of, “This is a thing that we can teach in a six-step program and it will solve your business problems?”

Jessica: Yeah, it’s a stigma, isn’t it? Exactly. As a journalist, you must have a similar reaction to listicles.

Mandy: Right.

Jessica: It’s the same thing. Long-form, investigative journalism, asking penetrating questions is what journalists do, and it’s what critics, artists, designers, and individuals can do, but you have to put in the time.

If you’re a war correspondent, you have to go to Libya. If you’re a designer, you have to sit there and look and look at something and not say, “By 1:00, I’m going to have the solution,” because you don’t always have the solution. It’s the idea that there’s a recipe for something that is not quantitative by its very nature that I’m taking issue with.

Also, why do we have to think like designers? Can’t we think like surgeons? Could we think like scientists? Could we think like journalists? Designers aren’t really benefiting from this. It’s not made our hourly rates go up. We haven’t become ennobled. This part of what we do has been usurped, and I think it’s been usurped incorrectly.

“The biggest cultural chasm that I find between my world and theirs is that they want outcomes, and we don’t think in terms of outcomes. We know we have to get somewhere, but we don’t go into it seeking an outcome.”

Mandy: That does tie right in, thinking about what is the goal. Is the goal to reduce what you do to a solution to a particular set of problems, rather than it being more of a process orientation?

Jessica: Designers privilege the process, and a great deal of the rest of the world privileges the product. You don’t want to be so focused on the process that you’re off in la-la land. But I have to say — Michael Bierut and I are now teaching at the business school at Yale. We’re teaching design for business students, design as a second language.

The biggest cultural chasm that I find between my world and theirs is that they want outcomes, and we don’t think in terms of outcomes. We know we have to get somewhere, but we don’t go into it seeking an outcome. We know we’re going to get there, and we know what the coordinates are that frame the expectation, but we don’t do it like a smorgasbord tapas bar.

There’s a methodology to being a designer which has to do with drawing and thinking and observation, but we don’t talk about stakeholders, about action items. It’s an entirely different vocabulary. Somehow, because that vocabulary is the dominant vocabulary in our culture, because we live in a capitalist culture, it has seeped into design, the same way words like “hacking” and “disruption” have seeped into design.

As we look ahead to understanding these larger humanitarian design conceits, to talk about the designer as a sentinel is ethical, moral, substantial, and it comes from what it is to be human beings. I’m not saying you have to go to design school to be a designer, but I’m saying if you’re going to be a designer, take this stuff on.

Mandy: Do you think that business and art can coincide and work in parallel?

Jessica: Absolutely. The place they coincide is in the individual human being. I was talking to a group of exhibition designers, a week ago. They were interested in the intersection of an exhibition space and the individual. If you’re designing museums, you don’t know who your constituents are. It can be anybody. It can be 10 year olds, 80 year olds. It can be foreigners who don’t speak English, it could be English literature professors. And you have to reach all of them. They were coming to the realization that the nexus between business and art, between society and the self, is that human being, is that one person seeing one exhibit.

Mandy: Every one of our very distinct disciplines and businesses and experiences — the only place they intersect is us, as humans, individuals.

“Civility doesn’t mean you’re not going to be progressive. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to advocate for change and build a better future for your children…”

Jessica: Right. It sounds kind of dopey, but when you think about it, it’s true. To come back to the Yale business school, it was founded in the ’70s as a school of management and public service. It’s like the Quaker school of business schools. Its mission is to look at how they can create leaders for society who are compassionate individuals who don’t lead with their ego, who are understanding a world larger than theirs.

Michael and I thought, “That’s exactly what we tried to do in the Design Observer.” The opportunity is to build a design culture at a business school that connects to the greater mission of the university, not to be the East Coast Stanford, not to recapitulate some design-thinking paradigm that other people wrote nine years ago, but to build our own and to have that be meaningful and honest and authentic.

Mandy: It seems like that isn’t being practiced a lot right now because the dominant, find-your-own-group mentality is, “I’m going to vilify the business people if I don’t believe what they believe.” Then we’re going to never talk to each other, and we aren’t going to integrate.

Jessica: Right. Civility doesn’t mean you’re not going to be progressive. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to advocate for change and build a better future for your children, but it doesn’t mean you have to be mean and take somebody down by doing it. The very word “disruption” suggests that the bottom feeder is going to oust the top feeders by toppling over the government. It’s a mutiny.

Mandy: Along the same lines, do you feel that this is a tools without ethics moment?

Jessica: Yeah, isn’t it?

Mandy: How do you imbue those ethics back into the tools when the tools are what we’re really interested in?

Jessica: God, that’s such a good question, and I’m not sure I’m the person to answer it. I do think that the biggest thing is to trade some of this hubris for humility.

There was an amazing op-ed in the New York Times by Allison Arieff, who is a wonderful writer in San Francisco, formerly at Dwell. She was vilified by a lot of people after she wrote about the stupidity of apps. She started the essay with this laundry list of apps: an app to rate your French kissing, an app to tell you when your laundry needs to be folded. You could sense the unbridled resistance from people who were largely in the tech sector: “You don’t understand. You write about architecture. What would you know?”

She was operating on a parallel level to what my book is doing, which is, let’s just ask some basic human questions. Where is this getting us? Why are you making that app? Is it because you’re motivated by money? Is it because you want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg? Suddenly people’s motivations get challenged. It hits close to home and people get very uncomfortable. The thing that is mobilizing us as culture right now is this outsourcing of need, and where did we start to quantify those needs as things that could be digested into tools and toolkits? It’s not to say that I don’t benefit from being able to hail a cab on my iPhone or binge watching on Netflix. There’s some things that have really been interesting for society.

I love when people take a behavioral expectation and shift it to a different discipline, and then they ramp up its potential in that business. Podcasts are like that. They’re fantastic. You can listen to them while you’re doing other things. It’s completely changed the way I feel about getting in my car, and it doesn’t hurt anybody and is a simple technology. It’s people telling stories. It’s not, “Storytelling is part of our ethos and our company, and you’re hiring us to be storytellers,” when you’re the trash man.

Seriously, there’s so much affectation. I fear that those of us who are in the creative industries have to be mindful not to get caught up in that maelstrom of bullshit: buzzwords, listicles, anything trending, anything hyperbolic. It cannot be good for the creative class, ultimately. There’s something toxic about it.

Anything that is going to be original — it’s hard to imagine that it comes from any kind of step-by-step process. I know it can, and I know I’m being hard on these people. I know that if you’re somebody who works in a factory and you’re looking at design thinking to open up and brainstorm a better process, that’s great for you. My argument is that you cannot take the name of design in vain and say that that’s what it is. I’m having some kind of moral realization about this.

“Psychologists say you’re more likely to believe a person who’s good looking than the person who’s not. What does that say for design and the capacity to leverage false authority at an epic scale?”

Mandy: To what extent would you think it’s a distinction between extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation?

Jessica: It’s a lot easier to go along with the pack than resist it, right?

Mandy: Right.

Jessica: Confirmation bias is really interesting to me. Psychologists say you’re more likely to believe a person who’s good looking than the person who’s not. What does that say for design and the capacity to leverage false authority at an epic scale? That, to me, stands at the center of everything. Like we’ve unwittingly entered into this commodification of our work because if our work looks better, more people will buy the things that we’re making — and maybe that’s not okay. The examined self needs to have some part of that.

That’s why I wrote the book, in the end. Honestly, it’s so clearly my midlife crisis. I got the assignment to write this book about the time my husband was diagnosed with cancer. He died 17 months later. Then I went to Paris and wrote, so there’s no question that the tumult in my personal life, with two teenage children, led to a level of self-examination I might not have gotten to without this unfortunate life occurrence, death occurrence. But I got there.

When we talk about consequences, we can’t talk about what happens if we don’t examine these things with brutal, honest, ruthless objectivity, and incredible clarity about the fact that we’re all just humans making choices and decisions. Some of those things should be done in teams, but the more we privilege this team/group think, that’s a pernicious slippery slope. It diversifies the risk. If it fails, one person’s not going down.

Mandy: Everybody can kind of shrug and be like, “Well, okay. It failed.”

“…groupthink is just a smokescreen for fear. People’s fear of being original. People’s fear of taking responsibility for an idea or an action.”

Jessica: I’m all for an anti-hierarchical society if it means that we’re not creating these binary oppositions between rich and poor, but I feel like groupthink is just a smokescreen for fear. People’s fear of being original. People’s fear of taking responsibility for an idea or an action.

Mandy: It’s almost made more difficult because now it’s very easy with social media to have a lot of people jump on you if you are taking responsibility for something.

Jessica: And conversely, you have this amped-up sense of your own worth by people liking what you just posted. Where’s the authenticity in that, really? We’ve all been there. It’s popularity by proxy. You posted something — suddenly, thumbs up.

I’ve been a very big critic of the faux empathy of my cat died, sad face. I went through this when my husband died, people posting sad emojis. My husband died. Really, you’ve met your quota for empathy for the day? It’s the truncated language of speed becoming the optimum dynamic by which we self-identify. It comes back to this question of the examined self.

Mandy: I do think there’s a little bit of hope, in looking at how other people are bringing design and examined thinking across disciplines. It’s something that Amy Herman is doing with Visual Intelligence.

Jessica: That’s interesting. It may be more powerful because she is the fulcrum through which this is happening. They did it at Columbia, taking first-year medical students to museums and having them stand in front of paintings and talk about what they see on the assumption that the diagnostic skill set of the physician cannot be restricted to science. That it’s visual, and it happens in real time. It takes time, and it’s about observation. It’s a great example. Is that design thinking? No, that’s just being a human being and opening your eyes and privileging patients.

Mandy: I like the idea that, at its heart, that is what real design thinking can be.

Jessica: That is what real design can be. I don’t know if it’s what real design thinking can be. I take issue with the idea that anybody can be anything: everybody is creative, but why can’t we be creative in different ways? When I wrote this book on scrapbooks I got really attacked by scrapbookers.

Mandy: Really?

Jessica: In my studio they called it Scrapbook-gate. I wrote the book because I thought there was another story, the inverse story of Martha Stewart. Scrapbooking has been around since the Civil War or earlier. It often surged in times of war because people felt vulnerable and wanted to cement their experiences to the page.

I went around the country and looked at these things in museums. I found great ones on eBay. I wanted to make this assessment of what it was to make a visual thing when you were not a self-described visual person. Why were these people compelled to keep visual records of their lives when they could have just written them down?

As a social historian you can say, “We now know what it cost to buy Wrigley’s gum, or we now know that this woman was really religious but she wanted to go to the movies because she put a prayer card next to a picture of Rudy Valentino.” You can look at these juxtapositions and glean readings of people. There was something very self-specific in these forms of personal, visible expression. My issue was with the meaningless visual grammar of going to the art supply store and buying stickers.

It turned out that — this is not unlike the design thinking argument — there was this whole world of women who had health problems or had too many kids or didn’t have enough money or had husbands who were mean, and their keeping a scrapbook was their way into some special space that made them feel good about themselves.

I went to scrapbook conventions. I remember interviewing a woman who had three kids who were always screaming, and when she got away from them for the weekend, all she did was look at pictures of her kids and put them in the book. I said, “What do your children think of this?” She said, “Well, they think it’s weird, but I refer to these children as my flat children,” because they were not screaming at her.

It was this weird cultural blip on the radar of feminism that is meant to be creative but really isn’t, because you’re taking pre-digested materials and slapping them down. That was sanctioned by Martha Stewart and Michael’s Arts and Crafts. When I wrote the book, scrapbooking was a four and a half billion-dollar industry.

Mandy: Wow.

Jessica: That had nothing to do with scrapbooking in times of vulnerability and needing to restore faith in your country. Anyway, I was vilified for that, for not supporting these women, so I will be equally vilified for not supporting the design thinkers who believe the seven-step process will change the world. It’s lonely being a critic.

Mandy: You said that there’s been an unusual amount of people who have reached out to you from across disciplines. Has that been surprising?

“I don’t think you can stand at a podium and talk about humility. It’s kind of counterintuitive.”

Jessica: I thought it might happen because the book doesn’t have a design in it. It has paintings. The anecdotes and examples are often further afield. It was my sixth book, and I really wanted to write something that wasn’t just design criticism. I’m not giving lectures about this book. For one thing, I don’t think you can stand at a podium and talk about humility. It’s kind of counterintuitive. I’m saying to people if you want me to come, let’s have a conversation with students.

The most important thing to me, as mother and educator and artist and theorist, is that I want to see these questions in the minds and studios of other people. It’s not that I have all the answers, far from it. What I want to do is change the conversation and change the way we have the conversation.

We live in a time of TED talks and people at a podium. I just want to crack out of that. I hate it. I think it’s hierarchical and meaningless. It doesn’t make it about the person who’s at the receiving end. I’d rather have it be a town hall meeting, I’d rather have conversations. If I’m going to be in the room for two weeks with someone from Iran and someone from Singapore and someone from Israel, the point is for them to take away something from this. If I’m hit by a bus tomorrow, that’s the most important thing to me.

Seriously, why else would you teach or write or do anything if not to pay it forward in some way?

Mandy: Right. In a world of very quick creation, we also need people whose job is really to ask the questions.

Jessica: I hope you’re right, because when I join the witness protection plan and am wearing a funny nose and a mustache, you’re going to know why.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

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