Don’t make me Think (About Publishing)

17 October 2013

Saw Hannah Arendt last night and then felt weird about having a book called "Don't make me think" on my shelf. — @timothycomeau July 14, 2013

S teve Krug’s Don’t Make me Think is considered one of the canonical texts of web-design, and as such was introduced to me as part of my web design studies at Sheridan College, which I undertook during the 2011-12 academic year. The title alone had always been offensive to me, someone who enjoys both ideas and thinking, and I always chaffed at the mindlessness it encourages.

However, the education process I went through helped me become conscious of my web-browsing behaviour, and the book is narrowly contextual to those times when we are on a website for a purpose-driven reason. For example, when we go to a theatre’s site to buy tickets, or are on some other commerce site trying to find contact-info or a business’ opening-hours. Primarily, the ‘design philosophy’ behind don’t-make-me-think is contextual to commercial or other service-oriented websites.

In the film Hannah Arendt, we get a wonderful defense of thought as a human activity, and a explication that the evil in question (the Holocaust) was facilitated by classic, mid-century modernist bureaucracy, and especially the German version which was predisposed by an education system which taught obedience and discipline. The system becomes one which encourages people to disregard thought which (as Arendt says in the film) dehumanizes us by ‘making people superfluous’ to the system. In other words, the indifference of a bureaucracy toward the individual it is meant to serve means people end up serving the bureaucracy.

You see, Western tradition mistakenly assumes that the greatest evils of mankind arise from selfishness. But in our century, evil has proven to be more radical than was previously thought. And we now know that the truest evil, the radical evil, has nothing to do with selfishness or any such understandable, sinful motives. Instead, it is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings. The entire concentration camp system was designed to convince the prisoners they were unnecessary before they were murdered. In the concentration camps men were taught that punishment was not connected to a crime, that exploitation wouldn't profit anyone, and that work produced no results. The camp is a place where every activity and human impulse is senseless. Where, in other words, senselessness is daily produced anew. (00:49:46 – 00:51:17)


Since Socrates and Plato, we usually called thinking to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself. In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently, he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the likes of which one had never seen before. It is true, I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down. (01:41:00 – 01:42:25) • Hannah Arendt (2012)

It’s worth noting that the German education system, as developed by the state of Prussia, was imported to North America a century ago to transform farmer-children into future factory or corporate employees, by teaching a tolerance for boredom and a willing and mindless obedience to managerial directives. (See John Taylor Gatto’s essay, “Against School”)


This decade incorporates the 20th-year-anniversaries of everything web-related. The World Wide Web was first released in 1993 as an app that ran on the Internet (then an academic and government modem network). Now the W.W.W. is synonymous with the ‘Net and the design principles promoted by Don’t Make Me Think have become so standardized that we recognize websites as bad when their straightforward principles are violated. We know how websites are supposed to work, we recognize header menus as such, and understand what ‘home’ means.

Krug’s follow-up, Rocket Science Made Easy was a second-semester text, and I found both books very hard to read both because they are so patronizing and because he’s continually stating what is now obvious. They were written for people for whom computers, and using them, were new. Now they feel more like historical documents.

Inasmuch as we have a ‘web 2.0’ nomenclature (which in itself is about a decade out of date) I find the language shift from the ‘Net’ to ‘The Cloud’ indicative of where we are: the interconnected network was about siloed websites and email – essentially network nodes and lines of communication.

The Cloud (as a “post-Net 2.0” term) speaks to our ever-present interconnectivity, where we can download data to our devices out of thin air, and where server farms behind our screens can run the necessary compression algorithms to apply filters to our photos as we upload them.

The novelty of this technology has been intoxicating, and myself I’ve found it fascinating enough to both want to understand it and participate within it professionally. But after 20 years, the novelty is beginning to wear off; and the inevitable transitions evident fifteen years ago have come to pass.

Physically, publishing on paper is in decline (in some cases rightfully) whereas digital publishing is established and growing. This echoes the transition between Mediaeval manuscript book propagation in favour of the printed book, and if Gutenberg’s invention in 1452 echoes Berner-Lee’s of 1989, we are in the equivalent of the 1470s, by which time Guttenberg’s press had spread to France, Italy, England, and Poland.

The model of book-idea production has lasted since that time, until our era when we’ve figured out how to fluidly use a two-dimensional surface through the manipulation of electricity and light.

"We're struggling because the most visually adaptable medium in history is undermining print! Fire the photographers!" – Chicago Sun-Times — Taylor Dobbs (@taylordobbs) June 28, 2013

I spent a week last July helping put the finishing touches on a corporate website to publish a company’s annual report. Twenty years ago, the report would have been a booklet and print designers and typesetters would have been hired to produce it. As the novelty of working with computers is wearing off, and as our economy has shifted to incorporate them in our offices and studios, it is now obvious that this digital economy is essentially that of publishing: websites, apps and ebooks. It is supported, as it always has been, by ad money. And the big sites like eBay and Amazon represent the Platinum Age of mail-order. I grew up with Roch Carrier’s famous short story about a hockey sweater ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue. A future generation will probably know an equivalent that replaces Eaton’s with Amazon.

As I worked during that July week it occurred to me that in 200 years I would not be described as front-end developer, nor a web-designer, but perhaps just a publisher, in the same way that Benjamin Franklin is described as a printer, not a pamphlet designer, nor a typesetter. “To earn money he worked in publishing” – may be all that need to be said, for by then, publishing will be digital by default, and will have been for two-hundred years.

Document History
  1. Published on my blog on 17 October 2013
  2. Sept 2015: this version produced; Hannah Arendt quotes added.