How Not to Be Motivated

Filed Under: Inspiration , mentoring , Article , Voice , critique

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 nirvana.

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:Designpublished 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 copy. Tom 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 Trends.

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 that?)

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 worse.

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 reader.

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.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.