Your Dogma is Bullshit

· March 4th

When I say your dogma is bullshit I don’t mean your opinions or values are wrong, only that there is no guarantee they’re right for me. If you’re confused, don’t worry, for a long time so was I. Every day we see posts like 12 Ways to Become a Better Designer in 2013, Your Code is My Hell, or Please Stop Using Twitter Bootstrap (which I actually happen to agree with, but I’ll get to that some other time). Each one of these articles, no matter how well written, edited or who they’re published by are complete bullshit, and here’s why.

First, lets define dogma. While it’s most often used in reference to religion, dogma simply means “a principle or set of principles presented as the truth”. Sounds all well and good right? Who doesn’t believe they’re version of truth is the truth? Sure, but how do we know my truth can also work as your truth? We don’t.

Each of our perspectives is developed over time through the experiences within our own lives. The likelihood that one person’s experiences matches those of another is almost zero. So what guarantees do you have when I say “you shouldn’t use Bootstrap” that I’m looking at it from your perspective? None right?

Even if I were to make the best attempt at seeing from your point of view, the fact that we’ve both followed very different paths—even if they’ve arrived at the same position—means I’ll never be able to walk in your shoes and see things for how you see them. Without understanding your context there’s simply no way for me to make such a broad claim, no matter how hard I try.

So if I can’t claim to know whats best for you—and you for me—how do you know everything I’m claiming right now isn’t bullshit too? I mean I started with a very broad claim, how do you know that I’m right? Unfortunately you don’t, and that simple fact proves my claim—or doesn’t, you’ll have to decide. This entire essay is essentially a chicken or egg argument, there’s no way for anyone to claim that it is or is not correct for anyone but themselves and that’s what makes it so wonderful!

Now that you’re questioning my dogma (and quite possibly my sanity), you’ll begin to question everyone elses too, including your own. So when you believe something to be the best—or worst—you’ll ask yourself, “compared to what?” Compared to your own experiences? Compared to mine? What about compared to those of the very next person you come across? What about the last person you came across? There’s no way to know, so there’s no way to positively define it as the best, the worst or anywhere in between.

Hopefully I haven’t lost you. I understand this is all feels very much like Alice peering Through the Looking Glass, but if we now know that my dogma is bullshit, and your dogma is bullshit, where does that leave the oh so many articles claiming their dogma is the one that just so happens to be right? Your initial reaction might be to label it as nothing more than noise and avoid it at all costs. I know because for quite a while that’s what I thought and for some time believed that was where this crazy journey came to an end.

The truth is the majority of it is noise and probably wouldn’t make a dent in your existence whether you read it or not. At the same time each is an amazing opportunity. Each post is a very small doorway into the author’s point of view. A single point of access to a small sliver of their experiences and you can take advantage of that, as long as you know how.

As designers it’s our job to try to understand our users and to build our products for them rather than ourselves, our peers or our employers. It’s up to us to attain as much knowledge as possible about the people who use these things we create. Part of that knowledge is knowing what makes them tick. Instead of reading dogmatic articles and taking up arms for or against the authors claims, attempt to read them from the author’s perspective and to discover what led them to the position they’ve taken. Where have they come from? Where are they headed? You’ll find yourself discovering more than just whether you agree or disagree with their position.

It is true you’ll be making generalizations of your own (and I know, I did say you can’t possibly live someone elses life), but once you begin to understand even a portion of an author’s experiences, you’ll see their positions’ from a broader perspective. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong—honestly, who cares? You’ll have gained something much more valuable, an understanding of the experiences that crafted their vision.

If given enough time, you’ll develop an ability to make intuitions not only about authors, but the other people in your life and hopefully, the people you’re building for. More than color theory, more than typesetting, more than grid systems, the ability to look at a problem from your user’s perspective will have the most positive influence over your designs, unless of course you happen to believe my dogma is bullshit too.