In the strange, pathetic society we live in, avoiding fight and conflict at all costs is often mistaken for being empathetic, and the woke bullshit has even made it a virtue. Following in this devious way of thinking, the ability to compromise has wrongly been associated with open-mindness and tolerance. It’s neither of those things.

People who care, fight

On an individual and collective level, people have conflicting interests. The rich want to pay less taxes. The poor wants a chance to work and for his work to pay more. The religious wants society politics to align on his dogmas and beliefs. The non-religious wants nothing to do with beliefs and outdated morals. All those claims are irreconciliable in nature, because making one happen will basically deny the other, and none of them can happen half-way. The point of a true democracy is to arbitrate those irreconciliable agendas, that is agreeing upon protocols to follow when disagreeing on decisions to make.

People will apply as much pressure as they can to shift decisions into following their interest, whether or not the decisions actually have an impact on their life.1 Straight away, we should discard the automatic assumption that a person’s interest aligns with the effect of decisions on their actual existence. Dogmas make the notion of interest more complicated than a mere desire to win anything from the effects of a decision.

But applying pressure to shift decisions consumes resources, which are ultimately always limited. People will therefore need to choose where they want to invest those resources, that is what interests matter the most. Once again, a true democracy has to regulate how pressure can be acceptably exerted, in particular by lobbies, because a few people with lots of resources could systematically wear and overrule a less-resourceful majority. Because of these pressure and influence mechanics, it is perfectly possible to void democracy (on its core principle of conveying the people’s will), while perfectly following democratic protocols (parliament process and such), which is the whole point of lobbies.

Fights happen from the conjunction of 3 events:

  1. individuals have reasons to believe that the right thing to do is not the decision where the collectivity is headed,
  2. individuals consider the matters being discussed are important enough to go on a fight,
  3. individuals have resources to invest in a fight.

Here again, a true democracy should pay some attention to those who lack the resources to invest in a fight, for example because they can’t afford to lose a day’s pay, which would systematically discard them from collective decisions. The right to vote is only a mild stopgap, there is more to democracy than just casting a ballot every couple of years.2

Fights are therefore a sane, healthy and positive process by which people assert their will and exert control over their present and future life. Denying people the right to fight would deny them the right to make life-altering decisions, denying their life in itself. People made uncomfortable by the violence that could result from those fights should consider the violence of living enslaved, being denied the right to make individual and collective decisions, and not owning their own life. Refusing fights on the grounds of them being violent is equivalent to systematically submitting to the most powerful party, where the ultimate power is being able to win fights by doing nothing until opponents wear down and give up (the last man standing being the most resourceful one).

Also the looks of violence are often deceiving: there can be violence in keeping silently still while inacceptable things happen in background that create suffering. But the “doing nothing” part doesn’t catch the eye enough to stand out as a form of violence. For this reason, it is better to define violence by its property of creating suffering, which can also stem from quo status, rather than by its looks of agitation and destruction, especially when fights happen against one party that has enough inertia and leverage to win them by just waiting for the blast to pass.

The current exagerated distaste for fights (and for violence) shown by modern societies is most likely the consequence of several generations having lived in peace and in relative safety, who lost the memory of having to fight for freedom and for rights. They were handed freedom as an heirloom and are watching it shrink, as their disdain for politics and distrust in democracy grows, until there will be need to really fight for it again.

Solving fights and conflicts

Conflict is what happens when people have irreconciliable interests, and fights happen when they decide to do something on it. Not all fights are bloody, in fact most of them are friendly. If unmanaged, those fights are always won by the most powerful party, where the generalized concept of “power” includes reputation, likeability or alleged experience.3 If managed under the woke ideology, minorities should always win on the ground that they are the least powerful party, contradicting the principle of democracy (majority wins). In both cases, the issue is decided ad hominem by who fights, instead of on what they fight.

The ability to compromise, that is accepting decision outcomes that contradict one’s interests, has been promoted as a virtue. A compromise is a way of resolving a conflict by meeting halfway in losses: each party accepts to forfeit half their claims, which is deemed fair because both parties lose. “I’ll accept to suffer because you will suffer too”. How is that a solution ? Not to mention, compromises are hard to rationalize when they affect morals and ethics, which can rarely be split in halves.

If we discard religious beliefs (which are irrational in nature), people tend to want the same thing: wealth, health, comfort, security, happiness. On that, we can all agree. What we disagree on is the specifics : what does wealth or comfort mean and how do we reach them ? How much wealth is wealth, how much becomes luxury, how much defines a poverty threshold ? Where does freedom fit in all that ? How much freedom can we forfeit for the sake of security or comfort ?

People rarely fight over what they want, because then they wouldn’t be anything to fight: they mostly want the same things. In fact they fight on how and how much they want (of) it. And the problem of compromise is it becomes the natural solution only when the problem was ill-defined, focusing too much on the means, too little on the goals (which we share).

Designers build technical appliances to solve technical problems. Nothing here will change the history of civil rights, it’s only matters of how many knobs to put and how much control we can give to users, to match both functional requirements and price tags. Although, since technology has invaded our whole lives, work and privacy, designers have an actual way of making people’s life better or worse. Not to mention, technology comes with a carbon footprint and creates new illiterates, so politics and societal impacts do fall into the mix, in subtle and misleading ways that companies prefer to disregard,4 because both capitalism and communism have made us believe that material progress was the key to moral progress, security and happiness, so whether you vote left or right, technology is labelled as the only way forward.5

And yet, design doesn’t seem one bit simpler than taking society-altering decisions. In this context, fights happen between users and between designers (if there is a design team). The same rules of peer pressure and popularity contests as in politics apply. The same devious love for dogmas, buzzwords and wrong success metrics too. It could have been simpler, it isn’t.

But it could be. Design aims at building tools (and toys) to do things. This enables functional descriptions of the tasks to complete. Tasks can be evaluated against their number of steps and elapsed time at completion, as well as the training time required for operators to be able to achieve them. Tools can be evaluated against their manufacturing, operational and maintenance costs. None of these criterions are opinions. At most, opinions will be how those individual factors are weighted against each other, in an overall appreciation of the fitness of a given solution to a given problem.

Design always gets stuck because someone, often the client, jumped straight to the description of the solution, including the technology that should be used and how.6 Perhaps because spending time on the description of the problem makes people incomfortable. Perhaps because they think it’s going to be faster if they rush into the solution. Often because people fall in love with some kind of tech and want to apply it everywhere.7 Making design about what people like or want is the surest way to make it fail. For every solution that some user or designer likes, we can find someone else that won’t like it. How is that helping a decision ? Whipping up a design made of elements that some sample of people liked most (individually) is almost guaranteed to produce an incoherent and impractical object at the end.8

Here is how it goes, and fails:

  • some entity (person, company, administration, etc.) has to perform a specific task,
  • the entity believes that some other technology would be a better fit for that task,
  • the entity commissions a design team to bend the technology into making it happen.

Here is how it should go:

  • some entity (person, company, administration, etc.) has to perform a specific task,
  • the entity identifies what part of the task takes the most time, incurs the most costs or the most injuries,
  • the entity commissions a design team to reduce time, costs or injuries.

The difference is important, because sometimes, the solution is not technical but might be training people or shifting schedules. Forcing a technological vantage point from the early beginning, especially if the type of technology is also forced, is just forcing an onset bias  that will most likely divert designers from the optimal solution.

This is where design based on wishes and desires is plain wrong. As it turns out, compromises stem from the same mistake: trying to please people who have different wishes. The way to defuse compromise is to scratch underneath wishes, to find the actual needs, expressed in functional form (“I need to do …” instead of “I want a tool that looks like …”, or worse : “I need to hack … into doing …”). And sometimes, needs are Russian dolls: they are nested into another. The great thing about needs is they are not opinions, and we can actually turn them into criterions that can be validated objectively. If needs still appear to conflict, it’s usually because you found the ramifications and missed the roots : then you need to find the top-most need on which all parties can agree. This is a difficult exercise that has little to do with technics, maths, physics, blueprints, etc. It’s pure analysis based on a dual approach made of technics and psychology (something that engineers are notoriously bad at, having an insane love for rationality, processes and numbers). Needless to say, engineers are not trained for it.

When this is done properly, there is no need to compromise and win-win solutions can be found. Solutions also tend to be simpler, which induces lower maintenance and operational costs. But that requires some pedagogy on the client side, who needs to cooperate into shutting the fuck up on means and focusing on functional needs (goals).

Accepting compromises is just accepting bad design as an inevitable fate. It is entirely sane that people would fight compromises, because piling up compromises is how you make someone’s life miserable (by forcing them to resort only to sub-optimal solutions), and that is often misdiagnosed as resistance to change (with a hint of patronizing from those in charge). Whenever compromises can’t be avoided, it’s a sign you need to split and specialize your solution into two different products. Because the way technology works is as an inflationary process : there will be more technology tomorrow than there was yesterday. In this process, we replace very few technologies, instead we stack new ones over the old ones, which means today’s rotten top will be tomorrow’s rotten fundations. From there, it’s only downhill. But as of 2024, the cool way of doing thing is still one-size-fits-all ACME  products, trying to cover all needs for all audiences, since it maximizes user base, thus profits.

There is also a human cost to bad technologies, because they force users to resort to workarounds, and imprint devious processes into people’s normal thinking. The day when you finally resolve to change the techs, you will not be able to reprogram people’s bad habits, which means you might end up having to choose between firing the people (and losing their experience), or keeping the bad techs (and getting eaten alive as soon as a more efficient competitor rises up).

Who is a designer ?

People are intrinsically interested (or not) in certain things, and enforcing protocols and procedures on people who don’t see their point makes for shortcuts. Students choose their field based on labels, but there is a lot more to the professional practice than just the content of the classes. Where it gets misleading is technology and engineering attract students that love mechanisms and reproductibility, but have little to no interest for psychology or social sciences, even though it is the preliminary step of every design, since we only ever design for people. This is something you discover later, out of school.

Most of the time, when you utter the word “designer”, people think about someone drawing cars or logos, or even laying out magazines content.9 There is more to design than just the looks: design is where form meets function. Engineers are (or should be) designers, insofar that they actually create technological appliances that will sit in front of people. The problem of engineers is they are not the best crowd to handle the psychological issue of understanding one’s needs, beyond technics, and through speech. The problem of non-engineers, is they suck hard at maths and physics,10 which are great assets here, since they bound the realm of possibilities.

Having a team mixing engineers and “drawers” can be a solution though it has its challenges: they don’t speak the same language, and can look down on each others. It can be very time-consuming to bring the drawers up to speed on technical matters. On the long term, it might be worth considering to make engineering schools more attractive to “people’s people”, perhaps through double curriculums. Also a lot of engineering schools train students to become industrial executives (which they become eventually), rather than being good technicians (which is the job of interns and juniors). As of now, the best we can expect is for the maths geeks to pick up the people’s skills on the road, provided they are not already too-far gone into mechanical reductionism .

  1. Abortion or gay marriage are rights fought mostly by people who will gain or lose nothing from it. And yet there is no talking them into letting it rest. ↩︎

  2. Electing representants is merely choosing your next daddy, whom you entrust to do the right thing for you, hereby forfeiting your right to do anything yourself. It’s interesting that modern democracies use so few referendums after 150 years of mandatory school systems, that were supposed to raise and educate capable citizens. Either education has been a big failure, or nobody wanted citizens to take public matters in their own hands in the first place. ↩︎

  3. Experience being the name people give to the habits they acquired over the years, it’s not automatically a good thing as it can lead to biases favoring sub-optimal and off-topic, but well-known, solutions. True experience comes from questionning the outcome of experiments, and comparing them to other approaches, not from mechanically reproducing habits. ↩︎

  4. When the only way to pay your taxes or enroll your kids to school is through the Internet, computers stop being a suggestion and a possibility, they become both a requirement to master and an hidden cost to cover. What place remains in society for those who can’t ? ↩︎

  5. Communism has never been the opposite of capitalism insofar that both advocate for productivist industrial systems, which have destroyed environment and ecosystems on a large scale. What they disagree on is how the wealth created by those industrial systems should be shared, and who should decide what to produce. ↩︎

  6. See The designer and the drilling machine ↩︎

  7. When you have a hammer, everything becomes a nail. See the blockchain … ↩︎

  8. See Design by committee ↩︎

  9. In French, we use the English word “design” to refer to graphic design, and “conception” (which also means “making a child”) to refer to the engineering design process. ↩︎

  10. In fairness, a lot of engineers suck at maths too, especially the North-American kind. ↩︎