Design for a challenge

With so many showcase sites out there, web designers today are quick at picking up new trends and styles. Designers influencing each other this way is nothing new, and while this, along with templates and frameworks help propagate a sense of sameness across modern web design, it also helps elevate visual standards and overall design language. My main concern however is that these design trends are often applied to all the same things.

When you are a young designer starting out you want a portfolio that looks sleek and sexy. So you turn to the things that are front of mind of any young designer; your sneakers and your headphones. They might not be your client yet, but who knows; maybe if you make a design that looks really good they’ll come knocking, showering you with free sneakers. Best part is that these things sell themselves. No need for lengthy descriptions or explanations. Just a name, price, and a shiny buy button will do. Minimalism at it’s best. Also, the products are easy to silhouette in PhotoShop.


design-for-challenge-headphones1 design-for-challenge-headphones2

Now, I’m not here to crush designer dreams. If your goal is to design for Nike then work towards that goal. Goals are good. But chances are that as part of your career you will need to produce designs for someone other than a well known shoe brand.

Let’s take health insurance. There is no physical product to silhouette in PhotoShop. There are lots of things that need explaining, and moreover, convincing people they need it can be hard as hell. Not only do we need to cater for different user types having come to our web page based on different triggers, (typically a life event), but there would also be a range of business requirements. Even if you apply big, bold typography and tell a compelling story through parallax scrolling and clever animation, you still need to include disclaimers and other highly unsexy legal copy.

Designing shoe and headphone product cards can be a fun exercise, but in the absence of any rationale it’s mostly just visual masturbation.

I have also seen some really nice re-designs of Netflix and IMDB. Definitely a fun area to stretch your design legs, but did you know that some major Hollywood stars has in their contract that their faces can not be obstructed by graphics. Yup, there goes your big fancy overlay typography. (For the NEON project we dubbed this the ‘Cruise-Clause’). And that is just one out of many business requirements  you need to consider.

Designing shoe and headphone product cards can be a fun exercise, but in the absence of any rationale it’s mostly just visual masturbation. My point is that UX and UI design is about problem solving for both business and customer needs. If you can show that you have understood and designed for that while still making it sexy, then I’ll be truly impressed.

When classic and new design collides

A diverse crowd was gathered for AGDA’s first ‘Design Means Business’ series of talks at the Ambush gallery here in Sydney. The format was brilliantly different in that four seasoned design professionals circulated between four tables, where after doing a 10 minute pitch on their thoughts around the future of design, the table would have an open discussion to resolve or clarify any of the views presented.

Many argued for a rise in collaborative and insights driven design, where data and open source technology lay the foundation for faster, better, and more robust work. The most opposing view however came from Michael Lugmayr from Toko, who felt that craft, honesty and integrity were much more important parts of the design foundation and saw this as the fast approaching fork in the road. Do you do the cookie-cutter, watered down approach to design, or do you stick to your own conviction, values and vision?

In many ways, Mr. Lugmayr is here channeling The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark. This view of design coming from a singular vision, and not from either collaboration or technology can be seen as  a very old school way of thinking, and someone did in fact point out that this would be considered ‘classic design’. Toko is a traditional Graphic Design studio, and there is a level to which they can ignore user testing and analytics, much like there is a divide between functional and aesthetic design. As the line between design and business quickly gets blurrier however, and data driven experiences become increasingly pervasive, choosing to ignore such factors may prove detrimental to small agencies. The ability to adapt, re-invent, and draw from a larger pool of skill sets will be the best way to ensure you are not left behind. Unless you like being referred to as ‘classic’ that is.

Mr. Lugmayr isn’t wrong however, and there is a lot of merit to focusing on craftsmanship, clearly evident in the beautiful work Toko produces. While I’m firmly in the camp of ensuring that insight sits at the heart of any user experience I help design, I still try to achieve a marriage of both approaches, where a high level of craftsmanship and integrity is baked into the final outputs. Tight timelines however tends to be the biggest barrier to experimentation, exploration and iterative changes which are the building blocks of a truly refined output. More often than not you have to choose between one or the other, and since I mostly design for user problems and not purely for aesthetic reasons, the tried and tested approach will continue to get the upper hand. The solution might be bespoke, but the building blocks will be based on whatever gets me there faster.

The other benefit to selling yourself as a ‘classic’ graphic designer is that it’s a clearly defined role most people understand. UX designers however will for a while longer continue to squabble over the meaning of their job titles and how they best fit within any given business and product design cycle, as will their clients. But who knows. Maybe someday I’ll refer to myself as a classic UX designer.

It’s not how big the data is, it’s how you use it.

Recently the Wilson Fletcher UX team attended a talk at Vivid Sydney hosted by Adobe where the topic was ‘Is Data Killing Creativity?’. Adobe ,who provide both data and creative tools, left the discussion to two teams of three highly competent speakers who argued for and against the question posed, their backgrounds covering the full gamut from academia to people in advertising.

The format failed somewhat as the context of data and creativity wasn’t clearly defined. Many of the speakers and audience members came from the advertising sector where data plays an increasingly important role. If the discussion had focused on this sector alone I feel the arguments would have been stronger.

It’s not hard to see how layers of data and market insights can water down creative concepts, a remit previously owned by crazy timelines, budgets and temperamental clients. One example of this was provided by the highly engaging Luke Chess who pointed to how sales data and trending reports are clearly not making Hollywood a more creative environment as they spew out sequel after sequel.

Then there is the argument that data only has meaning if you start by asking the right questions and interpret the outcomes correctly. We also find that clients often use data just to validate existing assumptions instead of seeing how the data can help with innovation and new thinking.

Creative people however will always be creative, and without any commercial constraints or considerations they are artists. If you’re not solving for a problem, (yes Mr. Sagmeister, that’s what most designers do), there is no reason for data to get in the way of creativity. ( Unless we’re talking about the right hand rail on YouTube).

Now where was I…

One of the more persuasive arguments in the ‘yes’ camp came from Dr Fiona Kerr who had some brilliant insights into how the human mind reacts and grows very differently when engaged in creative endeavours compared to what happens when you’re trying to structure and analyse data. There are simply too many things the human mind can conjure up when left to it’s own devices which data can not. But this is where the topic started veering into AI, a slight digression from the world of advertising.

The example of Google’s AlphaGo playing Lee Sedol in Go came up as an example of data pushing the human mind to think in new and creative ways. With that in mind I was left thinking that a better question to ask would have been; ‘How can data best aid creativity?’ Sure, this means you can’t have two camps battle it out, but as we’re already knee deep in data, shouldn’t we focus on how to make the best use of it?