This Machine Kills Facists

In 1941, beloved American songwriter Woody Guthrie plastered a sticker on his guitar. It proclaimed succinctly that “This machine kills fascists”.

The story goes that the stickers were handed out to defence workers during World War 2 as a morale-boosting exercise – a reminder as to why their labours were necessary. A personal touch imperfectly added to mass-produced gunmetal.

Woodie adopted the stickers in a show of solidarity, and in the process appropriated the propaganda for folk music. A military slogan juxtaposed a musical instrument asked the question: How can a guitar kill fascists? 

Now, Woody might not have been asking such a question directly when he peeled the sticker from its backing, but folk artists who followed like Bob Dylan saw the connection. Guitars make music that is put to song. Songs communicate ideas and change how people think. These ideas can ultimately bring down an exploitative regime. For them, the guitar was an instrument to change the world.

As a designer of products, I draw inspiration from the image of Woody’s guitar. I use it as a reminder to ask: How does this product make the world a better place? 

How an organisation answers such a question gives a product it’s unique persona and, when done well, provides a ‘True North’ that guides the evolution of the product when the path ahead lacks clear signals from the customer.

This practice has parallels with Simon Senic’s Start With Why, but here are my own product-specific musings.

Slogans are important

You need to be able to summarise your product quickly. It needs to be tight and pithy for it to be memorable. As product owners, we always need to draw the connection between the countless small, repetitive and often dull tasks that must be done to build a successful product, back to the higher purpose. Without that connection, you can’t expect people to do their best work. If your team doesn’t care about what they are building, you can’t expect your customers to either.

Personality goes a long way

People look for clues about the values of the maker to infer the quality of the product. Woodie’s crudely drawn sticker on his finely crafted guitar suggests that for him, the message was more important than summoning beautiful tones. He wasn’t worried about keeping the woodwork pristine. He didn’t care how the paper might baffle the sound – to him “anyone who used more than two chords was just showing off”. He was a poet with injustices on his mind and the sticker was an instruction to his audience to pay attention to his lyrics. To his audience, it had a homespun authenticity that they understood.

What are you against? 

Every new product is battling against the status quo for adoption. You can’t avoid it, so don’t shy away from the conflict. Be bold and define your product in opposition to something. Be clear who you’re for and who you’re against. 

Small contributions add up

As designers, it’s often difficult for us to measure our contribution. After all the impact we have on the world is indirect. We put ourselves in other’s shoes and imagine how things might be better. We might save a customer a moment here, or reduce confusion there – the individual features we release are often small and mundane, but in aggregate and when multiplied by lots of users they are significant. Woody’s sticker was a small positive act, amplified by his audience.

So the next time you are struggling to gain traction on a product, go back to the heart and answer – how does this product make the world a better place? You might not be able to kill fascists, but you will find a better way to communicate why the product matters and rally the resources you need.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *