‘Carthage must be destroyed’

It’s been a month since Google’s Aspergerian nerds drove their sole known visual designer, Doug Bowman, to quit the company. I still say good for him.

I read dozens of postings about Bowman’s decision. Most were laced with appeasement of the Google position, to the extent one exists. Google must be doing something right, and whatever Bowman brought to the table wasn’t rationally and objectively needed, or else wouldn’t his work have been implemented?

Only somewhat unfairly, I view this position as one espoused by extreme male brains encased in bodies that, surely by coincidence, have never been well dressed a day in their adult lives. I take the terminology from Susan Pinker’s The Sexual Paradox (TV interview), which explains, using scientific findings, why large majorities of girls and women behave almost identically at different stages of their lives – while large minorities of boys and men show vast variability compared to each other and to male norms.

Some of these boys and men exhibit extreme-male-brain tendencies, including an ability to focus obsessively for long periods of time, often on inanimate objects or abstractions (hence male domination of engineering and high-end law). Paradoxically, other male brains in these exceptional cases may have an ability to experiment with many options for short periods each. Pejoratively diagnosed as attention-deficit disorder, Pinker provides evidence this latter ability is actually a strength for some entrepreneurs.

The male brain, extreme or not, is compatible with visual design. It allows you to learn every font in the Letraset catalogue and work from a grid. In fact, the male-brain capacity for years-long single-mindedness explains why the heads of large ad agencies and design houses are overwhelmingly male. (It isn’t a sexist conspiracy.)

In the computer industry, extreme male brains permit years of concentration on hardware and software design, while also iterating those designs seemingly ad infinitum. The extreme male brain is really the extreme Google brain. It’s somewhat of a misnomer, because such is actually the average brain inside the company, but I will use that as a neologism.

Google was founded by extreme-male-brain nerds and, by all outward appearances, seems to hire only that type of person, not all of them male. Apart from Bowman, I can think of only two Google employees I could stand to be around for longer than an elevator ride.

My impression of “Googlers,” which I concede is based on little direct knowledge and is prejudicial on its face, is one of undersocialized, uncultured, pampered, arrogant faux-savants who have cultivated an arrested adolescence that the Google working environment further nurtures. Their computer-programming skills, the sole skills valued by the company, camouflage the flaws of their neuroanatomy. Their brains are beautifully suited to the genteel eugenics program that is the Google hiring process but are broken for real-world use.

Bowman’s experience shows there actually is something worse than having epic bad taste (as Microsoft has eternally displayed) or none at all (my experience the rest of the time with Microsoft). This worse thing is an active denial of taste. The extreme male brain, housed by the thousand in Google meatbags, cannot discern patterns or distinctive features that constitute good design according to the consensus of informed, educated people.

Instead of simply trying harder to learn to make such distinctions or just taking our word for it, the Googler embarks on a full-scale jihad against the very concept of taste, denying we have any rational or objective basis to make such a judgement. And even if there were such a basis, Googlers’ A/B testing results beat the shit out of your opinion so who cares what you think? We’re not here to make things pretty.

While harsh and hyperbolic, I speculate that Bowman would not disagree that the foregoing is a reasonably accurate précis of what actually happened to him in meetings.

Kevin Fox’s posting strove for even-handedness, ladling it on so thick it seems like a covert endorsement of Google’s culture of anti-intellectualism masquerading as pure reason. (Maybe by only a hair.) Still, this sentence strikes me as factual reporting of what the meatbags encasing these extreme Google brains actually do: “Data-driven design is a vital tool for hill-climbing iteration of a site, but you should take great care not to use it as an appeals process whenever you and your designer reach an impasse.”

I also read a posting, which I now cannot find, that claimed there really is a renaissance (actually a naissance) of design literacy inside large tech companies. Apparently Bill Buxton of Microsoft was at the Mix conference telling everyone that he’s hiring scads of “designers.” I’ve known Buxton – very distantly, off and on – for about 15 years, so I mailed him and asked if he wasn’t talking about design in the most catholic imaginable sense – systems design or big-picture thinking rather than visual design, graphic design, or visual communications, which are three synonyms for Bowman’s field and our true subject here. Yes, he told me, promising to write about it himself at one point.

If you think it’s Bowman’s own damned fault for not fitting in with Google’s culture and good riddance to him, while at the same time claiming that technology juggernauts are indeed getting religion when it comes to visual design, you’re wrong both ways. You’re one step away from telling two kinds of lies.

Companies committed to a culture of antidesign (also consultants like Jakob Nielsen) may occasionally succeed in the marketplace, but they do so in spite of their antidesign, not because of it. Of course we can’t prove that; we can’t run a controlled experiment, let alone 41 of them with distinct shades of blue. It is merely one of those things a visually literate person knows. The fact that you don’t know it, or you deny it’s important, or deny it even can be known goes to show you really are better suited to programming a computer all day than dealing with actual human beings.

I again welcome Bowman back to the ranks of human civilization.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.04.26 14:13. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
http://blog.fawny.org/2009/04/26/google-neuroanatomy/

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