Drive-by Redesigns

My family and I recently went on vacation to a big city. On our second day there, we took one of those hop-on-off double-decker buses that show you the main sights of the city. These mass-market tours are useful for getting a sense of the overall shape of the place. At least its highlights — you get a sense for what the main areas are, where they sit relative to each other, distances between things, etc. What they’re not good at is giving you an understanding of the city: what makes it special, its history, why things are the way they are.

When you’re in one of these tours, everything about the city gets collapsed into talking points that can fit into the cadence allowed by traffic. You whizz past neighborhoods and landmarks old and modern. Dates and people blur; context collapses. There’s no sense for cause-and-effect, only facts. “This is the statue of x. It was completed in y date to commemorate the battle of z.” That’s about it — no information about why the battle was fought or why it matters to the overall history of the place. Off to the next landmark.

“What” is easy to talk about; “why,” less so. Yet why is the more important of the two — especially if your aim is to change things. What is effect; why is cause. Designers ought to give precedence to why, but we’re drawn to what. This is because we can point to what. It’s the stuff we include in our portfolios; the stuff other designers fawn over.

A couple of days ago I saw a post on social media that epitomizes this problem. The post had two images: one of a regular airline boarding pass and another of a “redesigned” boarding pass. The redesign was all surface: typographic and layout changes with no signs of understanding of the reasons why the elements in airline boarding passes are laid out the way they are.

There are reasons why boarding passes are the way they are — warts and all. For example, humans aren’t the only audience for boarding passes; they must also be legible to various machines. There are constraints around the systems that generate boarding passes and the machines that print them. None of this was acknowledged in the “new and improved” version.

Redesigning a boarding pass isn’t a simple matter of changing the layout of elements in an Adobe Illustrator artboard. The current boarding pass is a manifestation of particular contextual conditions that have informed its form. You can take a stab at the form without understanding these conditions, but the intervention won’t go beyond an exercise in aesthetics​.

That’s not to say the current state can’t be improved; in most cases, it can. The whys that led to the current what may have changed. New technologies supersede older ones, rendering them obsolete. Legal requirements change. Systems change. Improving things calls for understanding the reasons why things are the way they are. It calls for seeing beneath the surface. Alas, social media doesn’t lend itself to deeper probing. The boarding pass example isn’t unique; hang around designer circles in Medium and you’ll quickly run across unsolicited redesign “case studies.” Most are superficial and naïve.

As a medium, the tour bus establishes the pacing and structure that leads to a superficial overview of the city. Social media’s bite-sized, attention-driven structure also influences the presentation of design decisions. Unlike city tours, I don’t see much value in these drive-by redesigns. They manifest (and reinforce) a common misunderstanding of design as noun, one that ignores the process and complexity that goes into evolving form-context fit.

(Bonus points: replace “design” with “politics” in this post. The structural lack of nuance and substance in social media is a big part of why civic discourse has become so polarized.)