Some Thoughts on Choice and Reason

Last week I read Michael Bierut’s On (Design) Bullshit in Design Observer from a couple of years ago. He talks about the need to give reasons for design choices in order to sell your work to clients:

Before I could commit to a design decision, I needed to have an intellectual rationale worked out in my mind. I discovered in short order that most clients seemed grateful for the rationale as well. It put aside arguments about taste; it helped them make the leap of faith that any design decision requires; it made the design understandable to wider audiences.

In my far more limited experience working with design, this is true and apt. Even when ‘the client’ is yourself, rationalizing decisions makes you feel better about your own work in the ways that Beirut describes. Beirut himself admits that these rationales amount to bullshit, and at the end of his essay leaves off with an amusing anecdote:

I remember working years ago with a challenging client who kept rejecting brochure designs for a Francophile real estate development because they “weren’t French enough.” I had no idea what French graphic design was supposed to look like but came up with an approach using Empire, a typeface designed by Milwaukee-born Morris Fuller Benton in 1937, and showed it to my boss, Massimo Vignelli. “That will work,” he said, his eyes narrowing.

At the presentation, Massimo unveiled the new font choice with a flourish. “As you see,” he said, “in this new design, we’re using a typeface called Ahm-peere.”

I was about to correct him when I realized he was using the French pronunciation of Empire.

The client bought it.

In this example, it is clear that the reasons for choosing Empire did not include the fact that it is French, because it is not. However, this was the rationale given to the client, who had some predisposition to thinking that the design somehow needed to be French. The client had a desire that needed fulfilling, and the designers did so with bullshit. This bullshit rationale, however, made the choice of font perfect in the eyes of the client.

It may be hard to see this as a ‘bad’ thing overall, because Beirut ostensibly did not choose the font under those same false pretenses. However, this same process - desire or need followed by false fulfillment - can take place internally. In other words, when we are already looking for a particular reason to like a choice we have to make, we can easily be too quick to provide ourselves with a satisfactory bullshit reason why a certain choice fits what we need or want to accomplish.

In this way, having reasons that we are predisposed to sets us up to make some choices by default, without considering other options. The important question, when reviewing your own work or someone else’s, is not always “Why did you make this choice?” Sometimes it is “What choice did you make here?”

Michael Beirut recently announced the publication of his first book, Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design.