Matthew Butterick: Solving problems is the lowest form of design

“Solving problems is the lowest form of design”: With an opening like that Matthew Butterick was sure to ruffle a few feathers.

Photo © Gerhard Kassner

But what does this mean? According to Butterick “Design wants more” and “the problem is just the context”. The real value design brings is investing our humanity into mundane items like annual reports or website shopping carts, filling them with ideas and emotions and humor and warmth – everything in our hearths and minds. Exploring this further, he talked about how we know when this works – triggering an emotional response regardless of, and working with the constraints in place.

Butterick also spoke about technology and its relationship with design – how it is at its best “when we stand on its shoulders and explore being human”. The perfect example being the Dishwasher “inviting us to relax and be lazy”. But the problems arise when “laziness becomes habit, and the space for humanity reduces”.

At the heart of the talk Butterick explains further what is meant by declining expectations: “This idea of what happens when we defer to technology instead of standing on it’s shoulders? What happens when we choose convenience over quality? Eventually we are going to forgot what quality is like”.

To place this in context he cites Web Design and Web Typography as primary victims of declining expectations. A field where failure of leadership has resulted in mediocre work with the same “awful design” being used throughout all online news. Another example is the slow progress of technology – namely web fonts, which have been 15 years in the making (the large hadron collider took 10!). Design stagnation was also perfectly exemplified with some well documented past and present screensohts.

On the flip side he sees type design as a field starting to reverse tide of declining expectations, where tools and technology have been used to enhance and extend the field.

Another topic explored in detail was digital books, where “declining expectations have taken an early lead”. Here design and typography were described as being completely abandoned or having inherited the typographic failures from the web. In this case lowering expectations seems much riskier choice as it could have detrimental effects the fundamental experience of reading.


Matthew Butterick

Matthew Butterick is a typographer, writer, and lawyer in Los Angeles. After graduating from Harvard, he worked as a type designer for David Berlow and Matthew Carter. He then founded Atomic Vision, a web-design studio, which was acquired by Red Hat. He attended UCLA law school and became a lawyer in 2007. Butterick is the author of the popular Website and book Typography for Lawyers. His fonts include Hermes FB, FB Alix, Equity, and most recently, Concourse.

But all is not lost, Butterick gave some pointers about how can we help to take a stand against declining expectations:

4. Complain (nicely)
Don’t be silent, present a logical argument to the people who matter.

3. Teach
In teaching we share what we know with others and expand our influence.

2. Vote with your wallet
Be conscious of how your spending decisions effect the world. It can be more influential than teaching, and it is something we do everyday. Companies search for profit, and this makes it easy to modify behavior.

1. Create better things
The internet is a great way to get ideas off the ground and a place where curious creative can make their biggest contribution. Impatience can be good when it motivates you to take action – think IA Writer, Mixel or Readability.

Although cautious of the design industry as it can be “hostile to those who want to expand the boundaries of design”, Butterick promotes individualism and the “industry of you” as “there are lots of ways to be a designer and a lot of ways to use your skills”.

He encourages us to “take risks and challenge ideas, go the opposite direction, raise standards, make trouble, invest your humanity. Because that’s what design wants from you, that’s the highest form of design and we need it now more than ever.”

Text by Sarah Lincoln