WARNING! Pragmatic Designers Keep to the Shallow End

December 17th, 2008 in Web Design Worldview

by: Matthew Griffin

Our culture is obsessed with practical advice. We have seven habits of this and ten rules for that. Everywhere we look, we're being given steps for how to accomplish something. I don't think I can argue that all practical advice is bad. After all, practical advice is simply the outworking of principles. But while we wallow in the shallow end of practical advice, we would do well to remember that it's the principle shapers in the deep end who are telling us what the rules of the game are. They choose generic words like "effective" and "best" to describe the goals they throw at us. Who wouldn't want to be an effective person or live their best life? But without an object, words like effective and best have no meaning. These words are beach balls intended to focus our effort; to steer us to an end; to bring us to passively accept someone's idea of what effectiveness and best life are.

The Problem with Being Too Practical

In his book The Consequences of Ideas, R.C. Sproul relates a story about his first run-in with pragmatism. He was attending a parents night at the local school where his young daughter was attending. In tedious detail, the school headmaster explained the practical reasons behind each of the daily activities in which the students participated. At the end of his explanation, the headmaster asked the parents if anyone had a question. A general snicker went up from the parents. But Sproul, being the inquisitive person that he is, raised his hand. He thanked the headmaster for his detailed presentation and asked if he could explain exactly what kind of person the school was trying to create. The headmaster had no answer.

Pragmatism starts in the shallow end and pretends that the deep end doesn't exist.

And that's exactly my point: that's where pragmatism stops. Even if the headmaster had given an answer—"We're trying to produce children with good hand-to-eye coordination and excellent math skills"—he ultimately never could could answer the question "Why?" Pragmatism eventually runs into foundational principles for which it is ill equipped to account. Pragmatism starts in the shallow end and pretends that the deep end doesn't exist. But the people in the deep end know better. They're under no delusion that their methods are unfruitful. They may not make a big splash on the New York Times best seller list, but they will make a big splash in the future of culture. Aristotle, Marx, Calvin, Dewey: These are the thinkers who inspire the Franklin Coveys and the Tony Robbins of this world. Whether they admit it or not, the deep end always controls the shallow end.

Asking the Right Questions

"Why" is such a wonderful word. It gets to the root of the issue. It breaks down the most complicated ideals. It's no wonder that parents are notoriously bugged by children asking this question. It makes us think. Many times as adults we've settled into a rut of principles that was never thoroughly tested to begin with. When we ask "Why" we're forced to give an account for our lives.

Designers can apply the same question to their methods. And more importantly we can apply the question to those designers whose advice we respect. Why is Jason Fried obsessed with free? Why does Jeffrey Zeldman want a semantic web? Why? We need to be watching the deep end saying, "Hey! I saw you throw that beach ball over here. Why did you throw that beach ball?" In many cases, we may dig down and discover a rotten worldview that's totally contrary to our own.

...the Christian balance is one of paradox. We must love our lives enough to lose them.

This doesn't mean that all of the practical advice coming from a bad worldview is wrong. It's startling how similar the outworking of two contrary worldviews can look on the surface. G.K. Chesterton discusses this concept briefly in his classic Orthodoxy. He compares the practical application of the Aristotelian principle of balance with the balance of Christianity. On the surface, both appear to value balance; an equilibrium of life; an aversion to any extreme. But Aristotle's life balance is truly a balance. It tells us never to love our lives too much or too little; never to be too hot or too cold. But the Christian balance is one of paradox. We must love our life enough to lose it. Chesterton uses the example of a sailor pinned against rocky cliff. To stay is suicide, and to climb is to risk death. Yet, to save himself, he must draw close to death; risk everything. This is the central paradox of life itself, and it's the paradox that Christianity so uniquely and completely answers.

This is why we need to be aware of the deep end principles. When bad advice is thrown our way we will be able to recognize it and alter it to serve the right ends. To follow blindly opens us up to unknowingly absorb flawed principles.

Switching to the Deep End

There are two types of deep end designers: deep end watchers and deep end swimmers. The deep end watchers are aware that the deep end exists but they rely on outside sources to inform them of deep end activities. There is no excuse for a Christian designer who is not at least a deep end watcher. When our eyes are on the deep end, it loses its sway.

Then there are the deep end swimmers. The deep end swimmers are those who mold and shape the game of the shallow end. Unfortunately, being a deep end swimmer takes a lot of time and effort that many of us can't afford. The bottom line is this: if you want to be a deep end swimmer, you're going to have to be a reader. And that's something that a lot of people are especially opposed to. But there are no two ways about it. As someone once said (probably in a book), "A leader has to be a reader".

Unfortunately, our churches and our education system in general do not foster deep end swimmers. They follow John Dewey's pragmatic model. They are designed to produce fact mimickers. Students are never pushed out of the data assimilation phase of learning. If you are the product of a data-only education, you will have to teach yourself how to think outside the pragmatic circle. It's a difficult journey but well worth the effort. In a conscious display of irony, I'll leave you with one piece of practical advice: read old books.



Posted By: Katie on 12/18/08

I just saw this in my dzone feed. I almost jumped when I saw the Sproul quote, then noticed the verse, not expecting something that so clearly discusses faith to make it to dzone. Thank you for this insightful post, both in terms of design and in terms of the Christian doctrine of calling. It is all too rare to find people out there bringing faith to bear on the little things, and even rarer when that little thing is computer-related.

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 12/18/08

Thanks, Katie. I'm glad to welcome another Sproul fan to the site.

Posted By: joyoge designers' bookmark on 12/19/08

useful article thanks..

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 12/19/08

Thanks Joyoge.

Posted By: Tom J Nowell on 12/20/08

Ill be holding onto this article for some time, very useful

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 12/22/08

Thanks, Tom.

Posted By: Italy Wine Tours on 06/09/09

Thanks for this interesting article. Luckily in Europe schools seem to still be able to produce deep end swimmers. BTW who said/wrote "A leader has to be a reader"? A great quote.

Posted By: Ben on 10/18/09

Matthew, I agree with your overall point, but I must defend Steven Covey. I almost get the sense that you haven't read his books, including Seven Habits or Principled Centered Leadership. He's all about principles. In fact, his more recent book -- the 8th Habit -- is, in the end, about following your conscience. He deals with the principles at a very deep level. Have you read any of his books?

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 10/19/09

Ben, thanks for the comment. No, I haven't read any of Steven Covey's books and that probably won't change any time soon. My vague reference to his book in the first paragraph was only meant to point to a trend in titles that themes that appeals to our pragmatic side. Hope that helps.

Posted By: Galilea Montjio on 11/11/09

Hi, Mathew good post Ia agree with you about covey and most of selh help authors for that matter, but there's one who does a goo job with "switching to the Deep End" Steve Pavlina, a good read. All about pragmatism really struck a cotrd with me, I recently asked myself just after graduating why I went to college? and I couldn't answer really, other than just because society expected me to, I went to college because thats what I ought to do after high school, right? Sigh. Well, thanks for the post and oh I surely applies to desing too. lol

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