Ideas vs Ideology and the "Strategy Table"

If you’ve ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie “Paths of Glory,” it’s a brutal illustration of the distinction between “ideas” and “ideology.”

Kirk Douglas at the "Strategy Table"Kirk Douglas’s character (Colonel Dax) is coming to the “strategy table” after leading his men in the first-hand experience of the trenches. Based on his observations from open-minded, first-hand experience of his troops on the ground, he has ideas about what should and shouldn’t be done strategically. But the strategists, basing their decisions on ideology, force him to lead his soldiers to make a completely suicidal attack: an attack that makes no sense based on what one can plainly see “on the ground.” In this movie, the Strategy Table is ideologically driven; Dax is driven by ideas shaped, and changed, by first-hand experience.

In my last post, Austin Govella commented with some terrific questions that made me think a lot harder about what I was getting at. Austin asked: “Is ‘design doing’ the practice of all design practitioners? Can you be a design practitioner whose practice consists of ideology and abstractions?” And it made me realize I hadn’t fully thought through the distinction. But it’s a powerful distinction to make.

In design practice, ideas are the imaginative constructs we generate as we try to solve concrete problems. Ideas are fluid, malleable, and affected by dialectic. They’re raw material for making into newer, better ideas.

Ideology is nearly the opposite. Ideology already has the questions answered. Ideology is orthodoxy, dogma, received doctrine. It comes from “the gods” — and it’s generally a cop-out. We see it in business all the time, where people make decisions based on assumed doctrine, partly because doing so means that if something goes wrong, you can always say “but that’s what the doctrine said I should do.” It kills innovation, because it plays to our fears of risking failure. And it plays to our tendency to believe in hierarchies, and that the top dog knows what’s best just because he’s the top dog.

Let me be clear: I don’t want to paint designers as saints and business leaders as soulless ideologues. That would, ironically, be making the mistake I’m saying we have to avoid! We are all human, and we’ve all made decisions based on dogma and personal ambition at some point. So, we have to be careful of seeing ourselves as the “in the trenches hero” fighting “the man.” There are plenty of business leaders who strive to shake their ideologies, and plenty of designers who ignore what’s in front of them to charge ahead based on ideology and pure stubbornness.

I also realize that ideology and ideas overlap a good deal — that strategy isn’t always based in dogma, and ideas aren’t always grounded in immediate experience. So, when I say “Strategy Table” I only mean that there’s a strong tendency for people to think as ideologues at that level — it’s a cultural issue. But designers are far from immune to ideology. Very far.

In fact, designers have a track record of inventing ideologies and designing from them. But nearly every example of a terribly designed product can be traced to some ideology. Stewart Brand nicely eviscerates design ideology in “How Buildings Learn” — famous architecture based on aesthetic ideologies, but divorced from the grounded experience of the buildings’ inhabitants, results in edifices that people hate to use, living rooms where you can’t relax, atriums everyone avoids. Falling Water is beautiful, and helped architecture re-think a lot of assumptions about how buildings co-exist with landscapes. But Wright’s own assumptions undermined the building’s full potential: for example, it leaks like a sieve (falling water, indeed). Ideology is the enemy of successful design.

Paradoxically, the only thing close to an ideology that really helps design be better is one that forces us to question our ideological assumptions. But that’s not ideology, it’s method, which is more practical. Methods are ways to trick ourselves into getting to better answers than our assumptions would’ve led us to create. (Note, I’m not saying “methodology” — as soon as you put “ology” on something, you’re carving it in marble.)

Jared Spool’s keynote at the IA Summit this year made this very point: ideology leads to things like a TSA employee insisting that you put a single 3oz bottle of shampoo in a plastic bag, because that’s the rule, even though it makes no practical sense.

But the methods and techniques we use when we design for users should never rise to that level of rules & orthodoxy. They’re tools we use when we need them. They’re techniques & tricks we use to shake ourselves out of our assumptions, and see the design problem at hand more objectively. They live at the level of “patterns” rather than “standards.” As Jared illustrated with his stone soup analogy: putting the stone in the soup doesn’t make the soup — it’s a trick to get people to re-frame what they’re doing and get the soup made with real ingredients.

That distinction is at the heart of this “design thinking” stuff people are talking about. But design thinking can’t be codified and made into dogma — then it’s not design thinking anymore. It has to be grounded in *doing* design, which is itself grounded in the messy, trench-level experience of those who use the stuff we make.

Coming to the “Strategy Table,” a big part of our job is to re-frame the problem for the Lords of the Table, and provoke them to see it from a different point of view. And that is a major challenge.

In Paths of Glory, one of the members of the Strategy Table, Paul Mireau, actually comes to the trenches himself. One of the real dramatic tensions of the film is this moment when we can see the situation through Dax’s eyes, but we can tell from Mireau’s whole bearing that he simply does not see the same thing we do. He’s wearing Strategy Goggles (with personal-ambition-tinted lenses!), and ignores what’s in front of his face.

At the “Strategy Table” one of our biggest challenges is somehow getting underneath the assumptions of the strategy-minded, and help them re-think their strategy based on ideas grounded in the real, messy experience of our users. If we try to be strategists who think and work exclusively at a strategic level, we stop being practitioners with our hands in the soil of our work.

But what if we approach this challenge as a design problem? Then we can see the people at the strategy table as “users,” and our message to them as our design. We can observe them, understand their behaviors and mental models, and design a way of collaborating with them that meets their expectations but undoes their assumptions. At the same time, it will help us understand them as well as we try to understand our users, which will allow us to communicate and collaborate better at the table.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at

15 thoughts on “Ideas vs Ideology and the "Strategy Table"”

  1. I like where you are going with this, but I think your way of getting there has some problems — in fact, the exact same problems that prevent designers from getting where you want to go.

    The basic problem is the question of what is ideology? You contrast ideology with ideas, admitting that there is some overlap, but actually, there is no such latter category of pure ideas, it’s all ideological. Everyone has one, and the easiest way to spot it is to look for statements like “I don’t have an ideology, those guys over there have ideology.” Against your statement, I would instead say we have never made a decision that wasn’t in some way informed by ideology, and most types of either/or thinking, where we reify our pre-existing binary categories on to messy reality are ideological.

    In other words, this whole essay is itself the basic operation of ideology: “My values of X and Y are true, obvious, transparent and universal, and everyone else should value them too. The reason they don’t is because they are blind to their misguided and false conceptions of reality, which they arrived at by believing the lies of Not-X and Not-Y. The solution is to educate them about the truth.” What you’ve done is set up a binary opposition, then construct a straw man that the bad side is “disconnected from reality”, but actually, they are every bit as connected to their reality as you are to yours – ideology tells you what about your reality is important, relevant, salient, good and bad, etc.

    Applying the template, we can say that X and Y in your case are something like: “practitioners’ best work is at the level of practice”, “they make things better, based on the concrete experience of the things themselves”, not “divorced from grounded experience”, etc. The “good” results you achieve from this practice are themselves ideological – no result is inherently good or bad, independent of an ideologically-driven value judgment made by an individual.

    For example: “famous architecture based on aesthetic ideologies, but divorced from the grounded experience of the buildings’ inhabitants, results in edifices that people hate to use, living rooms where you can’t relax, atriums everyone avoids.”

    These are all value judgments based on your ideology. People should love to use things, products should favor the needs of the users over needs of the creators – this is the contemporary ideology of design and usability, which I agree with to a large degree, by the way, I’m just not under any illusions about what it is. One of the sacred cows of design thinking is that users’ needs and creators’ needs (or business needs) are distinct things, and we should be completely devoted to the former. The problem is that user needs and business needs are completely intertwined, and the only way a product comes about in the first place is because of that, because there is an intersection.

    Another thing that falls out of this recognition of design thinking as ideology is that, since everyone has different perspectives on what the product is and what a good result looks like, what we really need is a meta-ideology or a meta-perspective that includes as many of the other ideologies as possible (including design thinking), preserving their distinctiveness and strengths while not allowing them to run roughshod over all the others. We should resist the impulse to believe that design thinking is a total perspective that can save the world once and for all. If we are to be something approaching non-ideology, then we must first be aware of our ideologies, not deny them, but continue to hold them tentatively in a way that makes them transparent and open to revision.

  2. alsomike: thanks for the thoughtful response!
    I have to disagree with your characterization of “ideology” however. To my mind, at least, you’re conflating “ideology” with more basic things like “values.” Granted, I’m not a trained ethics scholar, so I may be using the wrong terms for these concepts, but I’ll run with it for the sake of this point:
    A Value would be “it’s generally wrong to harm a defenseless person” or “it’s generally better for people to have food and shelter than to have to go without.”
    An Ideology would tell you *how to interpret* those values: “People who don’t have enough food and shelter should be taken care of by redistributing goods from those who have more than enough.” (Or it could easily be the opposite: “People without food and shelter deserve to be without them if they’re lazy or less competent than those who have enough.”)

    Believing that users should be able to comprehend and make easy use of products is, I think, more on the “Value” end of the scale. I seriously doubt any business would disagree with that value these days — it’s a matter of how they interpret it and execute on it, and that tends to be driven by ideology. So, a business will try to figure out if its product is useful and usable by customers by running focus groups and surveys, and looking at sales data, because their ideology tells them that masses of data and marketing focus groups are the most reliable way to learn these things. It’s conventional business wisdom. But those of us with UCD background understand that old-school data isn’t enough — we need to contextually observe users in their element to best understand their experience. Now… I’ll admit that’s a sort of ideology. Which means we need to continually be on guard that we don’t get frozen in it. (Spool’s keynote at IASummit made exactly this point: don’t let UCD become an ideology that you follow religiously without reminding yourself *why* you’re doing what you’re doing — it’s just about the results.)

    Ideologies are codified into doctrines — systems of belief. And they’re not necessarily bad. I admitted that we all use them, all the time. If we had to go around learning everything all over again every tie we made a decision, we’d get nothing done. But as designers, it’s our job to *question* them on a regular basis.

    If you get into the recursive logic of saying “everything is an ideology” and then “and believing that is an ideology too!” it gets to be absurd, and the conversation becomes useless. (Many a philosophy professor has had to remind a sophomore of this very point.)

    By the way, I don’t think I ever suggested that “products should favor the needs of users over the creators”: in fact, I tried to get across just the opposite. In my last paragraph I talk about how to learn and understand what the goals of the Strategy Table people are, so as to work with them rather than just against them. If products don’t meet the needs of their creators, then they’ll stop making them, and users won’t have any products to begin with.

    Thanks again for your comment though — you definitely made me have to think harder about my post!

  3. I have to disagree with your characterization of “ideology” however.

    Well yes, I think that interpretation is a bit problematic. You see, the Paths of Glory account of ideology seems to debunk it, when really it supports it. In fact, Colonel Dax (and the audience) is the ideologue, because his viewpoint is presented as obvious, unproblematic and practical, while everyone else around him is stuck in their pie-in-the-sky abstractions. So we, the audience learn that because a viewpoint appears to us as neutral and obvious, then it is correct, and as Foucault points out, this is exactly how the dominant ideology presents and reproduces itself. American ideologies often present themselves exactly in the way you touched on, as fighting in the trenches against “the man”, the rebel-hero myth. Of course, the country was founded on this ideal, so it’s a coveted position to take, akin to saying you are on God’s side. If you can present yourself as the outsider overthrowing the establishment, you almost automatically win the argument 🙂

    To follow your distinction between values and ideology, values tell you “it’s generally wrong to harm another person”, ideology tells you who counts as a person. This sounds weird because it’s obvious to you and I that a person is any human being; we take that for granted, but it hasn’t always been that way.

    I seriously doubt any business would disagree with that value these days — it’s a matter of how they interpret it and execute on it, and that tends to be driven by ideology.

    If you asked them point-blank, most wouldn’t disagree, but how they execute on the idea tells you what they really believe. You are right that their reliance on quantitative measurement is reflective of an ideology that qualitative methodologies are unreliable, mechanistic automation is better than human insight, etc. But take a look at this experience design manifesto: “The ultimate aim of all creative activity is to bring happiness to people’s lives.” I think most designers are motivated by such aims, and that’s a good thing – you want designers to be motivated by those ideals. But there’s a problem, because most business types probably throw a fit when they see that because they have different goals, values, results: different ideology. So there’s a second problem of how do we do the very important work of making room for design thinking in organizations, and my argument is that we can’t do that by believing that UCD or design thinking is a complete system of thought that can replace the “ideologies” of business. Instead, we should present design thinking as a way of enhancing those ideologies: if you care about your customers, design thinking will make your customers love you; if all you want is money, you will be swimming in cash Scrooge-McDuck-style; if you want to be respected leader in your field, people will be knocking on your door with their hat in their hands; if you want to be an innovator, or make people happy, or whatever. And that’s not just a cynical way of marketing the idea, design thinking should really support all those goals because they are all potentially necessary and important.

    In my view, the problem with ideologies is not that they are rigid — they need to be rigid to maintain their coherence and usefulness — but that they are too narrow and exclude things that should be rightfully be included. Even if we are flexible and pragmatic with UCD methods, we will still encounter problems at the strategy table because of our narrow conception of what the goals of design thinking are.

  4. Fascinating points. But, ultimately, I honestly don’t see where we disagree. I never said there was such a thing as an all-encompassing worldview, or that UCD is a panacea. We have to avoid assuming such a thing. Hence the need to use methods to shake us our of our presuppositions.
    I only propped up the ideology/idea thing as a way to illustrate a point — not as a rigorous philosophical treatise. PoMo semantics are great fun, but they don’t get anything built.

  5. I stumbled to this website accidentally, but I’m fascinated by the post and its comments.

    I especially love how “PoMo semantics” can so easily erase difference. I have to say that I agree with AlsoMike, and the “PoMo semantics” comment actually illustrates what he seems to be saying. I’m also struck by your use of the phrase “on the ground,” which isn’t particularly neutral, either.

    You cannot simply remind yourself to reassess your presuppositions. You actually cannot think outside of your ideology. We all have one, and the best possible outcome is for a person to develop his or her own ideosyncratic ideology, rather than hang onto the dominant (which I think is what Foucault had in mind). And to say so is not to engage in tautology, which I think you were referring to, Andrew, when you made that remark about philosophy classes.

    Look. Millions of Americans drink coffee, and most of them drink coffee out of (what I think are) functional but ugly coffee makers. Hamilton Beach is successful because it can crank out working coffee makers at a small cost and sell them to people who don’t notice the things they use. That’s functional design.

    But I (with my own ideology) prefer to use something beautiful (as I deem it to be) for a short period of time than to use something ugly (as I deem it) for a longer period of time. We all believe design should serve the user. It’s a matter of how. And if you, Andrew, refuse to notice that you operate always within your ideology (your field of assumed, possibly invisible ideas), you will be ruled by it. You won’t get to be Dax or the Strategy Table. You’ll be one of the troops.

    Sorry if that sounded a little aggressive. I get a little het up about this stuff, and that Kubrick movie pushes my buttons, too. Nevertheless, I hope you don’t stop thinking about the potential differences among ideas, values, worldviews (all encompassing or not), methods, presuppositions, and yes, ideologies. Be rigorous. Choose how you use words. It’ll make you a better designer, I promise.

  6. Hm… these comments make me wonder if I wrote a completely different post… but then I go look at the post, and it really is the one I thought I wrote.
    I’m pretty sure I said, “In fact, designers have a track record of inventing ideologies and designing from them. But nearly every example of a terribly designed product can be traced to some ideology.”
    I am a designer. Therefore, I am included in this statement as well.
    We all go through life based on assumptions learned from patterns of past experience — we all reify these truths and act on them. For most of us, much of the time, this works out alright.
    But a big part of design’s job is to be aware of these presuppositions, world-views, etc. Hence, we have techniques for shaking ourselves up as much as possible to see things from other frames of reference.
    That’s my point about “ideas” vs “ideology” — you can’t get anything done without ideas. They’re necessary. But hopefully you’ve done the work to free those ideas (as much as possible) from your de facto frame of reference.
    I still think “Ideology” is a more narrow construct than my commenters seem to think — it’s not just any point of view or set of assumptions. It’s not only rigid, but codified, doctrinal — it’s orthodoxy. Which is different from mere “point of view.” But both can get you into trouble in design.
    Be as aggressive as you like! I honestly think you missed my point, or I missed expressing it well enough, or some combination.
    I never claimed to be neutral, or that my rhetoric was somehow clear of any self interest or world view. I only claim that the approach I describe works better than some others, if the goal is design successful products for the marketplace.
    One way I hope I avoid being “one of the troops” is by having a healthy dose of doubt about *any* system of thought (including Foucault’s) as much as it includes any other. My preference of one choice over another, in any given situation, is based on what seems to *work* in that context.
    I hope I’m getting better as a designer every day. And that everyone else is as well. 🙂

  7. Ha, ha. It is funny when people react in such surprising ways to a post.

    I agree that we differ, and the crux of how we differ may rest in part on your quotation of yourself:

    “In fact, designers have a track record of inventing ideologies and designing from them. But nearly every example of a terribly designed product can be traced to some ideology.”

    It makes me realize that our beliefs about ideology clash. We’re using the word “ideology” in several different ways. As best I can, I’ll say what I understand to be true, based on my observations, those of others I admire, and my process of thinking (my ideology).

    The hierarchy goes (from widest to narrowest): ideology, value, idea.

    So, designers often have ideas that lead to bad design, like “let’s make a clock that only indicates minutes as numbers and indicates hours as shapes connected to the clock frame.” (It sounded like a fun idea at the time but ultimately it was impractical and ugly.) Ideas like that one come from a value: Innovation trumps what probably works when the innovation makes people think about their world in a different way.

    Ideas like “we should make everyone put their tiny bottles of shampoo into plastic bags” stem from the value “I don’t want anything to go wrong that can be blamed on me” or even “making people do silly things at checkpoints makes them think that I give a damn about terrorism.”

    Those value stem from an ideology, which is only partially visible.

    The reason why I see this as connected to your post and you don’t is that your manner of thinking about the world is different from mine and only partially visible to you, as mine is to me. I agree with the recognition that your values and ideas are non-neutral (?), but I reject the idea that they have no enduring, inescapable ideological basis.

    Although this may seem like I’m picking nits, I believe that a designer’s understanding of these concepts is crucial. As designers, we are philosophers. Hashing this stuff out, I think, improves design, rather than distracting from it.

  8. Kmccoll:
    You equate Ideology with a process, but by any conventional definition, it isn’t. It’s a ‘set of beliefs, aims and ideas’ — connected as a whole. Being rigorous, as you say, is important. I’m sure we could deconstruct the word to the point where there’s no difference between saying it or “coconut.” But that wouldn’t get us anywhere. Semantics are tricky. But as in any “language game” the important thing is that there be an internal contextual consistency for how we’re using words, otherwise nobody can have a conversation.
    You say you “see this connected to your post and you don’t” … but the truth is, I do. You seem to think I believe my ideas “have no enduring, inescapable ideological basis” — but I never made that claim. I only said that we have to challenge our assumptions, and that many design techniques are there precisely for that purpose. I never claimed they didn’t also have origins in people’s ideologies, values, etc. That would be nuts.
    Mr. Kellogg invented Corn Flakes to keep people from masturbating. They were a result of his rather peculiar ideology. But I use Corn Flakes as a part of my balanced breakfast, with no intention of affecting my “self affections.” Just because Corn Flakes came from that ideology, it doesn’t mean they’re inherently corrupted by it. They’re a tool. I could just as easily use them in support of some highly developed strain of Hedonism. (The detailed execution of which is fodder for an entirely different sort of blog.)
    But, what I want mainly to get across here is this: There comes a point where we have to stop questioning every single truth claim and decision, and *act.* Otherwise no design gets done. I’m all for broadening a designer’s frame of reference to continually be on guard for bad assumptions. But at some point, somebody has to make something. It will be imperfect. But it will hopefully get closer to (impossible) perfection than it would if at least *some* questioning hadn’t happened.

  9. It’s a little ironic that your post is about the necessity of not being dogmatic, but as soon as I try to do that, you switch to “Yes but we can’t question every truth claim…” and dismissing my point as PoMo semantics.

  10. alsomike:
    I hope I haven’t sounded quite so prickly! My apologies if I have. Evidently I didn’t make it clear enough in my post that I think *all* systems of thought should be under question. When I reference UCD I mean the tools & techniques, not necessarily the whole-enchilada of UCD worldview. And I really didn’t intend to be dismissive, only cautionary — that eventually a commitment has to be made, whether we’ve perfectly avoided our assumptions or not.
    Thanks for being so engaged in the post!

  11. I’ve experiences Strategy from both sides and found that measures make the difference.

    When I teach Strategies for a Web Presence at the University of Toronto I define strategy as 3 things; Goals, Measures and Resources, which I then illustrate with a bullseye. Goals in the centre, Measures are the next ring and Resources the last ring.

    The strategist has no real control of the goals or resources available, but can influence strategy with measures.

    If there are any changes in any of the 3 components of Strategy then the strategist must consider a change or the impact of not changing.

    I try to keep things simple but do use two other tools besides the 3 component bullseye–Scenarios and Personae.

    It is probably best to have a look at my site and blog links as I use both uniquely.


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