Questions to Ask Yourself When Reading About Design

Reading About Design

What gets written on the Internet about the design of apps, web sites, icons, identity systems and digital experiences of all kinds is almost always written by people who are professional designers first and foremost. We don’t have a class (or even a sub-class) of writers who are actively engaged and uncompromised in thinking about what makes for good design and why.

Some designers think this is a good thing, but I don’t. Other forms of culture benefit enormously from critical thinkers who stand clearly outside of the profession, who don’t “ship” work—whether it’s art, theater, film, music, architecture, or even technology. There are at least a half a dozen prominent technology critics writing regularly for major news organizations, but not a single critic focused on the design of the products that are reshaping modern life.

As a result, so much of what passes for design criticism, especially in the world of digital product design, would not stand up to intellectually rigorous scrutiny—including, I’ll be the first to admit, a lot of the stuff that I write here on this site. Most writing about design gets done between work commitments, or at home before bedtime, and it’s rarely backed up with particularly studied research. Much of it also blurs the lines between critique and self-promotion, sometimes honestly and sometimes insidiously.

To be clear, there are many people who write very thoughtfully and earnestly about design and that work adds tremendous value for the practitioners who read it. But there’s a difference between writing about the process of design—even when it’s well done—and good criticism. Very little of what gets posted on Medium or what shows up on Designer News really qualifies as the latter, and even less of it is helping the world at large understand what we do and grow their appreciation for it

I’m not sure we’ll fix this situation in the near future, or if we ever will. But if we want to make progress towards that, one thing we could do, each of us, is to read what gets written about design more carefully, to be a little more skeptical about what we’re sharing so enthusiastically. What follows is my working list of questions that, in my opinion, would be useful for all of us to ask ourselves when reading any article about design. They’re grouped into four major sections.

Who wrote this?

  • Does the writer convincingly establish his or her credentials in discussing the subject matter?
  • Does the writer clearly state any possible biases that he or she might have towards the design being discussed?
  • Does the writer work for the company that the design was created for?
  • Does the writer have any kind of relationship with the company the design was created for (or its employees)?
  • Is it likely that the writer might someday work for the company, as an employee, a contractor, a partner, an advisor, or an investor?
  • Does the writer have any kind of relationship with competitive companies?
  • Does the writer stand to gain—financially or otherwise—from the success or failure of the design that’s being discussed?

What is it saying?

  • Does the article rely on access to information or insight that’s not also publicly available?
  • Does the article clearly indicate when its argument is based on speculation or unsubstantiated facts?
  • Does the article cite sources for facts and figures used in its argument?
  • Does the article provide any context for its assertions other than the writer’s own personal experience?
  • Does the article provide any context for its argument beyond just comparisons to similar products?

How is it being said?

  • Does the writer use exclamatory or hyperbolic language in making his or her assertions?
  • Does the writer make unsupportable leaps of logic, e.g., equating correlation with causation, or inferring generalities from specifics?
  • Does the writer use language that is unfairly dismissive or disrespectful of the people who created the design?
  • Does the writer use simple, understandable language?
  • Does the writer use excessive jargon or technical terminology?
  • Does the writer offer opposing points of view and does he or she treat them fairly?

How effective is it?

  • Do you find value in the argument even if you don’t agree with it?
  • Does the article challenge your assumptions—your opinions and widely held beliefs—about the subject matter?
  • Does the article help you understand the problems that the design addresses in a new way?
  • Does the article help you understand this and similar design solutions in a new or unexpected way?
  • Did you learn something new by reading this article?

In constructing this list I was tempted to word the questions so that they could serve as a kind of litmus test for reading design articles, so that if the answers to more than a given number of these questions were “Yes” you could then say “this is a badly written article.” Ultimately, that seemed to run counter to what I’m suggesting here, which is an overall appreciation for thinking more critically about what we read and write. Good criticism is not black and white, it’s unflinching in its grayness. It’s not quantitative but qualitative. Its purpose is not to answer questions but to raise them.

Like I said, this is a working list. If you have suggestions for additions or changes, please send them my way.