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Although they may put forth the occasional pearl of wisdom, I
cannot tolerate motivational speakers. Their imperious,
self-bloated stagecraft is, for me, like listening to chalk
screeching on a blackboard. Nonetheless, I know people who draw
real inspiration from this twaddle. In fact, at a few conferences
I've seen audiences become rapt in devotional attention as
motivational gurus toss out bromides about how to achieve design
Maybe I'm just being a little too cynical. Maybe that nagging
voice inside my head is correct when it says, "If you gave these
folk half a chance, you'd learn what you need to become a better
designer/business wonk and actually find true fulfillment in your
chosen field—which, incidentally, might help you rise above the
pitiful pettiness of your current existence." Well, faced with such
a persuasively articulated argument, perhaps it is time to
drop my resistance and open my ears and heart.
My problem, however, is this: while you can remove the cynic
from the skeptic, you can't lead a horse to the waters of
motivational salvation when prejudices are deeply ingrained. And
mine are definitely deep. Listening to motivational speech
cadences—tough-love vibrato alternating with earnest, sing-song
rhythms—is about as annoying as listening to the TV pitchman who
slices and dices or sells male enhancements on infomercials. I hate
the patronizing timbre that others seem to find hypnotic. Despite
the fact that, to me, they offer little more than robotically
formulaic liturgies, I finally gave in to the inner voice urging me
to give motivation a try. Understanding that the key to acclimating
myself to such rhetoric would best be done, at least initially, in
a more palatable way than attending another design conference, I
curled up with a book.
As luck (or fate) would have it, I stumbled onto Tom Peters Essentials:Design—published several years ago and
adapted from Re-Imagine!:Business Excellence in a
Disruptive Age—a decidedly evangelical, motivational tome that
promises to empower its readers to "innovate, differentiate and
communicate" through the marvel of DESIGN. It is written by "the
most influential business thinker of our age," or so says the flap
Peters and his persuasive powers are indeed legendary: the
co-author of the celebrated In Search of Excellence, he is a
pioneer image consultant for Rolls-Royce, Starbucks, Virgin and
Intel, among others. Thanks to the Essentials pocket-sized
edition, I could dip a toe in the waters of his knowledge and
experience, and, if his lessons sunk in, maybe I'd become a more
enlightened design person (and just maybe those nasty headaches and
that annoying twitch would go away, too). I might even graduate to
his others on Leadership, Talent and
But first, an admission: in case my snarkiness sends the wrong
message, this essay is not a rag on Mr. Peters. He is an
acute business thinker and, more importantly, a tremendous design
advocate. His motivational rhetoric is sincerely intended to
prevent designers from being "odd ducks who should be confined to
their desks." Actually, Peters's laudable mission is to release us
fowl from stereotypical bondage—and the fiction that we are
inarticulate passive-aggressive artistes who routinely push our own
aesthetic agendas at the expense of our clients' need. Rather, he
insists we should "sit at the CEO's immediate right at the
boardroom table," which I presume means not as servile concubines
but as meaningful strategic contributors. And it takes an
"uber-guru"—one of the many honorifics applied to Peters on the
book's back cover—to help the rest of us get our acts together.
Peters's goal is to both bolster designers' confidence while
proselytizing the value of design to business. For instance, there
is nothing more rousing to this designer's ears than Peters's
forceful directive to execs to "have a formal design board,"
"routinely invite top designers to address the company as a whole"
and make certain "the chief designer is a member of the board of
directors or, at the very least, a member of the executive
committee." Having read these words (twice), I felt he was that
proverbial big brother—the one who protects and defends against the
bullies—we all wish would be at our sides at all client meetings.
(By the way, he further urges those execs to "have great art on the
walls" to improve their visual literacy. Who could argue with
Peters's sprightly tome is packed with visual aids, including
typographically explosive manifestos, insider tips, bullet points,
lists of to-dos and not-to-dos, homilies, slogans (e.g., "Design =
Soul"; "Believe It"), screeds, rants and raves, asides,
declarations and "words of wisdom on design's large (and
potentially enormous) place in the universe…" The book looks like
an ambitious Power Point or (better yet) Keynote presentation, with
each sentence—and almost every word—meant to jolt and stimulate.
Among Peters's many quotable truisms, for example, is this message
to corporate executives that can't help but feed a designer's
optimism: "You don't become 'design-minded' by opening a checkbook,
spending a few hundred thousand dollars on a 'great designer'—and
then telling him/her to please 'do the design thing.'"
Peters's collected aphorisms are like "Home Sweet Home" samplers
for us designers, and his rationales for how and why design is
essential to all facets of corporate culture is so solidly absolute
it is difficult for even this cynic to find ways to puncture his
logic. Even his frequent hyperbole is indisputable. He clearly
loves design and hates those who misunderstand it. He wields prose
like a battle-ax against the hordes that encourage mediocrity or
Peters believes design makes dreams (or at least "dream
products") come true. As a contraction of the term "marketing of
dreams" he uses the coinage dreamketing. On one of his many
bullet-pointed pages peppered throughout the book he explains that
dreamketing is: "touching the client's dreams," "the art of
telling stories and entreating," "building the brand around the
'main dream,'" and "building 'buzz,' 'hype,' a 'cult.'" Another of
his many motivational mantras—"Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm.
Technicolor words beget Technicolor responses"—seems to define his
entire philosophy. So, after reading the 160 pages in but a few
short hours, I was convinced that if he were Secretary of Design
for the United States, designers would definitely enjoy an elevated
status heretofore unknown in this or perhaps any country. In fact,
I was so sincerely motivated that while reading I even punched the
air with my fist: "Right on! Peters!"
Yet despite that unbriddled surge of excitement, I find
something troubling about his motivational method.
You see, Peters's Design is as much a reservoir of
motivational tropes as it is a bible for the motivationally needy.
It is a stunning example of what he himself calls buzz, hype and
cult, and I have this nagging feeling that his motivational
rhetoric, which reads so convincingly, is powered by hubris, fueled
by generalization and depends entirely on packaging to succeed. If
I succumbed to this allure, just think about the more malleable
Are design motivators really just hucksters? Must design-speak
really be hyped-up marketing speak? Peters basically says yes. To
truly persuade clients that design is worth something, designers
must exhibit what Tibor Kalman called "the bullshit factor"—the
gift of doubletalk—which is the point at which all this
motivational hooey gets depressing. While I understand the
realities of business—and I realize that Peters and other
motivational gurus simply want us to do better (or as he says,
"dramatically alter perspective"), must we build our credibility on
a foundation of hype? Why must the rhetoric be so calculated that
it sounds disingenuous, even if it is not?
Intense repetition of a single idea, phrase or doctrine is
called brainwashing, and that is exactly what motivational speaking
(and writing) is all about. Motivational speaking, like advertising
and propaganda, is part psychology, part philosophy and part
ideology (religious at times), couched in any mannerism that sells
the big idea. Frankly, I was taught that brainwashing (a torturous
practice first administered to American prisoners by the Chinese
Communists during the Korean War and best illustrated in The
Manchurian Candidate) is wrong. Of course, every successful
motivational self-help author or lecturer is at least tacitly
brainwashing their audience, and they exude hubristic
self-confidence to command their listeners or readers long enough
to impart their wisdom. The uber-guru must satisfy the need of his
audience to be bettered, if not transformed, through sage advice,
convincing promises and corrective admonishments. Motivationalism
and its cousin self-helpism are such a big business these days
because we all want direction and are susceptible to anyone who
seems willing and capable to offer it.
Yet back before design gurus roamed this was more or less
accomplished through apprenticeships. Mentors were teachers and
teachers found ways to impart ideas in demonstrative ways that went
beyond aphoristic rhetoric alone. A good teacher didn't resort to
the formulas so common in motivational speech and writing.
Sure, people wrote inspirational books—Dale Carnegie was the
pioneer with How to Win Friends and Influence People in
1937—but the practice was not as cliché as it is now. Turn on any
channel in the early hours, and someone is at the pulpit
motivating. The design field is a fairly recent recipient of this
gift, but now has more than its fair share. Today, anyone with a
good stage presence, convincing oratory and catchy slogan can be a
motivationalist. Some certainly hit the right nerves and stimulate
strong responses. But it is just too easy to get sucked in for all
the wrong reasons.
After reading Design I feel a bit shucked and jived. And
believe me, I tried to be tolerant—really, I did! So maybe it
is just me. Maybe I find it hard to believe that being
formulaically told what to do will make my work, my life, better.
Still, I believe that we all must find our own
answers—our own blissful motivation—for ourselves. Or maybe
you should take two bromides and call me in the morning.
Not every project will be your “golden ticket,” so it’s up to you to create your own opportunities.
Section: Inspiration -
graphic design, personal essay, mentoring
Despite a rich, fulfilling career, there are things that Bantjes wishes she’d done differently. But maybe that’s a good thing.
All the training in the world won’t matter unless you strive to “take advantage of... everything.”
Section: Inspiration -
marketing, personal essay, mentoring
Every year all across the country, AIGA chapters work hard to present invaluable, thought-provoking, one-of-a-kind events where connections are formed, knowledge is learned and inspiration is gained. Here are 21 (plus 4!) that made 2011 eventful.
Section: Inspiration -
Event, networking, professional development, chapters
Gail Anderson (2008 AIGA Medalist) is recognized for her eloquent editorial and entertainment design, using bold, innovative typography, illustration and photography to engage audiences with a new standard of emotional and visual connection.
Section: Inspiration -
editorial design, AIGA Medal, entertainment
The Flattening of Design
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