Effectiveness is a big, important word in design. And not just in design; we want and demand effectiveness in all walks of life, especially if public money is involved. It’s why the nation experienced a collective eruption of bile when MPs were caught fiddling their expenses and when greedy bankers had to be bailed out by cash from the public purse.
In all walks of life it’s now commonplace to be measured for effectiveness. League tables are published for schools, universities, hospitals and police forces. Even white vans have phone numbers to allow the driver’s performance to be rated. So we can hardly be surprised when design is called to account.
Yet, how effective is such evaluation? Do we have better schools and hospitals as a result? What are the benefits to the public of a police force swamped by the demand for performance statistics? Has anyone ever tried ringing the number on the back of a van to complain about bad driving? And do effectiveness criteria result in better design, or just more sameness?
In a recent article about the London 2012 Olympics tendering process, Michael Johnson was quoted as saying, ‘We’ve been asked to tender by two organisations in the past few years, the BBC and the Central Office of Information, and have failed with both applications – you never really find out why.’
Writing a few weeks later on his website, Johnson added, ‘Since writing that we received a longish e-mail in return. It explained that two of the case studies we’d presented lacked enough evidence of success.’
If I was running a communication programme that had to appeal to a broad constituency, Johnson would be among the first names on my team sheet. His brand of ideas-based design is not my personal taste (I’m drawn to obscure young Swiss designers who have eliminated the seductive tropes of ideasbased design from their work), but I see in Johnson’s work a strong vein of intelligent populism that avoids the überblandness of most commercial design. Put it this way, if I was trying to explain the power of graphic design to a Martian, I’d use his work to do it.
You can’t help wondering about the evaluation criteria used to measure creative work if they eliminate someone like Johnson. Point-scoring systems and strict financial performance indicators don’t tell the whole story. And since most evaluation schemes are used to remove human judgment (much easier to tick a box, than make an informed decision), the only outcome we can be sure of is that the work that emerges will be safe, riskfree and homogenised.
But this isn’t a plea for the removal of effectiveness criteria: as designers we can’t bang on about the power of design and then shrink away from producing evidence to back up our claims. There’s also a benefit to tendering procedures that cause us to think about social responsibilities. Yet the simple fact is that there will always be an element in design – and creativity in general – that is not measurable by normal evaluation criteria.
Take the Olympic delivery committee and its bizarre system of awarding points to all submissions and then choosing companies that score 100 per cent on an A-Z basis: it will be interesting to see what they end up with. My guess is that it will be more of the überblandness that characterises most public commissions.