Anti-consensus critique

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.” — Oscar Wilde

This article is more of a prompt than anything else. I ask many more questions than I have answers for.

When the band you discovered and love becomes popular you don’t like them quite as much. If everyone agrees something is good it probably sucks. The perception is that the more popular a thing is, a band, a film, whatever piece of popular culture, the more it appeals to the lowest common denominator. There is also an element of cache here, and in-group bias perhaps. People elevate the value of their taste and tend to discount the taste of others. But the truth may a thing is actually less novel the more people like it.

Too much accord can lead to homogenization. An Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe exists, where we all secretly seem to be working toward the same goal resulting in a sameness in design work: see Dribbble. Is consensus bad? Some of the best designs are also the most polarizing. Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman explore the issue in Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned. The following address a slightly different context but the ideas translate well:

“If you are doing whatever is hot and parrot the right buzzwords, you might be able to attract wide support. On the other hand, an interesting idea is likely to split votes”

“Perhaps then it would sometimes make sense to reward maximal disagreement instead of agreement”

“When experts radically disagree with one another something interesting is happening.”

When it comes to the business of design, consensus is the preferred state. But are there times in the design process where consensus is detrimental? Seeking approval is required to get paid. We try and nudge outliers back into the safe and accepted range. Where does sameness originate? There may be value in training designers that discord doesn’t equate to a bad design. Is there a place we can intervene? You’re not going to convince a client that the fact they hate a design solution proves it is the best choice. An intervention earlier in the design and/or education process seems more realistic. Whether it be professional or educational, a critique environment seems ideal to address consensus experiments.

In a critique, how to you distinguish between something that is polemic because it is bad and something that is polemic because it challenges and is new? Certainly the former is the case most of the time, but we have a responsibility to at least plan for, even hope for the latter. Amongst others goals a critique is useful for encouraging the interesting and novel, finding opportunities to teach and learn as well as managing divergent opinions. The current paradigm is to compromise and converge. What if we do the opposite? The benefits are two-fold you are both pushing the work in new directions while reinforcing the notion that differences of opinion do equate to right and wrong.

In a student critique, the most divergent opinions are going to occur when rules are broken. What happens when a student develops an innovative solution that disregards the assignment criteria. Is there space within the curriculum for rogue actors? You don’t want to encourage the behavior, but when it happens organically and it results in novel work, how is it handled?

“If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, ‘Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?'” — Jeff Bezos

New and vital things don’t come along very often, but we should try to encourage them. Sameness within design also teaches the audience what is good and bad, and creates a barrier when you attempt to introduce something new. How can we find moments to foster dissent and divergent opinions, perhaps even discourage convergent directions. As Stanley and Lehman offer, perhaps we reward disagreement. One of the most challenging and useful lessons is learning how to move forward without a consensus.