Creating Controversy for its own Sake (and How Humility is a Rare Bird Indeed on the Web These Days)

Back in May of 2009, a then 21-year-old designer named Dustin Curtis wrote a blog post called Dear AmericanAirlines in which he redesigned (read: moved some pixels around in Photoshop) their homepage, called them names, called into question their business strategy, and then called for the firing of their entire design team, “[who are] obviously incapable of building a good experience.” 

Setting aside the arrogance of an article centered on an unsolicited JPG of the easiest page of a site to tackle—he “spent a couple hours redesigning [their] front page”—I’m amazed that anyone purporting to be a professional interface designer would assume a night of Photoshop earns them the right to be smug. It’s easy to “design” when you’re unencumbered by things like metrics, creative direction, business acumen, sales experience, actual functionality, enterprise scale, or any thought about how a site with millions of page views and users has to function. It’s easy to look at their site versus your comp and go, “See, mine’s better. You guys must really suck at this.” Unsolicited designs, if they’re going to be public and if they’re going to be done at all, should be communicated with class, humility, and a ton of research.

Andrew Wilkinson wrote a similar article recently redesigning the homepage and, while he was summarily ripped to internet shreds in this Hacker News thread, he was graciously responded to by Brian Kalma, the Director of UX/Web Strategy at Zappos. Wilkinson says stuff like, “I don’t know if your designers are using Photoshop 6 or what…here’s a tutorial to share with them.” Kalma responds with, “I appreciate your thoughts, your creativity and your care.” The company shows more humility than the designer, which speaks volumes about Zappos’ corporate culture and employees, and highlights a forgotten nugget of knowledge—there are real people on the other side of those sites. 

Somewhere along the way on the web, a lot of designers and developers have abandoned common courtesy for condescending quips that drip with pride and ignorance. And these sorts of unsolicited designs, apart from their accompanying snarky commentary, would be interesting cases studies in what young designers think up, apart from the external factors affecting large sites. However, with the attitude they’re currently wrapped in, it’s hard to separate the message from the messenger.

But back to AmericanAirlines… apparently one of the UX Architects who worked on responded to Curtis’ article under the guise of “Mr. X,” talking about their process, how huge the team creating the myriad of content and functionality is, how it takes relatively no effort to create a homepage comp (“You want a redesign? I’ve got six of them in my archives.”), and how enterprise-level companies don’t turn on a dime. He closed with some specific details about upcoming improvements to the site and signed his letter “Very truly yours (and hoping I don’t get fired for being completely incompetent)”

Only he did get fired. Even anonymous airing of corporate secrets is still a violation of most Non-Disclosure Agreements. And since little in corporate world is truly anonymous, it only took AmericanAirlines an hour to search their email servers, identify the guy, and show him the door. 

Curtis posted The Incompetence of American Airlines and the Fate of Mr. X telling a bit of the tale. He says, “AA fired Mr. X because he cared…enough to reach out to a dissatisfied customer and help clear the company’s name in the best way he could.” No, they fired him because he violated his contract, in a very public way. His attempt to “clear the company’s name” made them look slow, dysfunctional, and incapable of internal communication between departments. Even if that’s all true, no company wants that image portrayed online by an employee. Employees can’t put their personal agenda ahead of the company’s agenda.

Companies with shareholders may very well be incapable of tolerating the openness and transparency so many social media folks clamor for. When every corporate decision you make influences the bottom line, in real time no less, you seek and destroy bad PR wherever it is found. They’re not clueless, they’re heartless—they exist to make as much money for their shareholders as possible. This isn’t horrifying; this is every day in most of corporate America.

So where does that leave us? A 21-year-old wrote a blog post. A guy broke the corporate rules and got fired. The internet (and the blogger!) is outraged. The name-calling continues, as everyone blames the big, bad, clueless, hopeless company. Mr. X will likely land somewhere less corporate, where speaking his mind is welcomed and his designs will see the light of internet day.

But the web will still be full of arrogant, uninformed, polarizing, self-promoting, controversy-creating content that has ramifications no one wants to own up to. And consequently, the web will still be lacking in common courtesy, humility, and the admittance that most of us don’t know best. Which is sad, mostly because it’s true.

Full Disclosure: I was an Interactive Art Director for AmericanAirlines’ advertising Agency of Record in 2006/2007.