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About a week ago I sat down to watch a recording of Mule Design's Mike Monteiro speaking at the Webdagene conference. His talk began with some brave and incisive criticisms of the failures of both academic design programs and the design industry proper. But as the talk drew on, Monteiro built himself up into a righteous fury. He became so incensed that he ended up transforming his critique of design institutions into a rebuke of design employees.
While watching Monteiro's concluding remarks, it struck me how similar they were to the infamous invective delivered by actor Alec Baldwin in the film Glengarry Glen Ross. What was most disturbing about this realization was that the similarities between the two speeches were not limited to their cadence and delivery, but their subject matter too–and the resemblances were uncanny.
Below I've excerpted from Monteiro's speech to compile a video mashup. I encourage you to watch the talk itself too.
Most people watching the scene from Glengarry Glen Ross come away with a sentiment best expressed by YouTube commenter stalemates:
You people realize this is a movie right? It's meant to be absurd with a grain of truth at its core to keep it palatable. You try and give a speech like this in any other workplace and I doubt you'd get the same positive results.
Not so in the design industry, where self-flagellation knows no bounds. Now let's be frank, Monteiro was being facetious about firing everyone. But what message is being sent here? More importantly, what prompted it?
According to Monteiro's Interaction '15 Talk, last year his studio, Mule Design, suffered a significant drop in client inquiries. He explained,
We were in the most horrible down cycle that I’ve seen in 15 years of running this company…There are times when keeping the studio afloat and making sure that I could pay my people meant that I had to walk out of the presentation with a sign off so that we could bill the client or we would die…Every studio owner I know, every person who hires designers made two lists last year. And if they tell you they didn’t, they’re lying to you. And they were lists of who was staying and who was going if that moment came. And sadly a lot of us actually had to pull out those lists last year, and the number one criteria for figuring out which list you went on was, 'can you sell design or not…can you come back from the client’s office with a check or an approval so I can invoice them.'
It is an unenviable position to be in, having to arrange which employees are first to go on the chopping block–which makes Monteiro's Webdagene presentation all the more confusing. What explains the Trump-like rhetoric a la The Apprentice, the seeming perverse fascination with the sacrificial ritual firing of designers?
Whatever the explanation, imagine, for a moment, being in that crowd, being pressured to engage in the call and response chant to celebrate the firing of one's colleagues if they so much as "hesitate" in providing rationales for their design decisions.
Picture yourself in that auditorium, being confronted by Monteiro's disparagement of aesthetics, on the basis that, "you're not an artist." Or take his argument that saying "'it looks good' is not a rationale, it's a red flag" and indeed a fireable offense at that. All as if aesthetics plays no part in selling clients on design.
Consider young designers who do, in fact, rely on the mentorship and direction provided by their superiors, and may now be less confident asking for that guidance, because as Monteiro asserts, "if they knew how to do your job, they wouldn't have hired you."
But more broadly, let's consider Monteiro's tack strategically. Here I have serious questions as to its effectiveness as an example of design advocacy. Ostensibly Monteiro's aim is to make a case for the design profession being seen as a revenue multiplier and investment rather than a burden to be approached with austerity. But if that is the case, it makes little sense for him to go to such great lengths to argue for such a reductive view of its possibilities. In this talk, he has instead illustrated a world in which employers must be ruthless in enforcing discipline.
To be clear, there is nothing shameful about selling in itself, as Dan Pink cogently argued in his book, To Sell Is Human. Neither is Monteiro mistaken in reminding those at agencies of this fact given this turbulent time in the industry. He is right–their survival is directly contingent on selling clients their services. Still, survival is merely the base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Having a healthy cash flow is necessary, but hardly sufficient in the pursuit of producing great design.
What is dangerous is embracing this sentiment of buckling down on sales to the exclusion of other considerations. Moreover, hurling threats of termination at employees of design departments does a disservice to our cause.
The good news is that there are more productive approaches available to us in advocating for design, many of which can be found in the first portion of Monteiro's own talk.
Many have argued that Monteiro is not the design equivalent of the food world's Gordon Ramsay and that therefore he has no place to lecture. I don't condone that sort of ad hominem attack. Monteiro could be Gordon Ramsay or he could be a no name (he's not), but you should judge the validity of his arguments based on their substance.