There are no mistakes in design. But there are plenty of opinions. I once designed an annual report for a large corporate client. We had established a look and feel, we’d created the report, we were on the 17th round of text changes (they could afford it), and we had been getting sign-off every step of the way. We were sure we were going to get final sign-off this meeting. However as the CEO sat looking at our masterpiece we could tell he was about to drop a bomb on it. The day before, he told us, his wife had bought a new set of yellow curtains and she really liked the colour of them. And would we please change the colour of the whole report to match their curtains?
What this shows us is that design is not a science. You don’t get it right, or wrong. You might have just designed the defining work of your career, that you know will achieve all the outcomes outlined in the brief… but because it’s not the colour of your client’s curtains, none of that matters.
Try for a moment to define the word ‘design’. What did you come up with? If your definition included the words colours, fonts, shapes, logos, or pictures… you’re about 10% there.
That’s the part above the surface. The part you see. The other 90% lurks beneath; the part you don’t necessarily notice but if it wasn’t there you’d have a pretty superficial product or experience.
A guy from Pixar I heard speak at last years SemiPermanent conference said that his company had 500 employees, had been going for 20 years, and the total sum of their work was 10.5 hours of animation. Yet I don’t think many would disagree with me when I say Pixar is one successful company. Did you notice when the blue fur on the back of Sully the monster’s neck shimmered in the sunlight? Probably not, but if it hadn’t happened your experience would have been slightly less rich for it.
My old lecturer used to tell us that if people notice your design, you’ve failed. And this is the reason design often gets assigned a secondary role. Because good design isn’t always immediately obvious.
While I know that some people will pay through the nose for a design that will stop people in their tracks (and there is of course a place for this), I believe the more important role of design is to guide the user’s experience.
So what is this term user experience, or UX? And for that matter what is UI, ID and AI? User interface, information design and information architecture are all sides of the same dice. They are how we design and order information in a way that offers the best possible experience for a user.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re designing a brand, a mobile app, a website, a piece of software, or even a new way of doing business, what it comes down to is what would be best for the user? The CEO with the yellow curtains was asking us to design for his wife, and was not thinking about his actual audience.
OK, so if design isn’t only about colouring in, what is it? There are only four of us within Enspiral who call themselves ‘Designers’. But we’re not the only ones who design.
When you got out of bed this morning, without being completely aware of it your experience had been designed for you. There is a lightswitch inside your bedroom because someone thought your experience would be better if you didn’t have to go outside to turn the light on. The feel of the carpet under your toes was the result of thousands of years of design refinement and adaptation. Industrial designers and scientists with degrees as long as your arm came together to produce the stick with bristles you cleaned your teeth with. As you moved through your house navigating between these activities architects, interior designers and builders had thought about how you would use this space and how they could give you the best experience for your money (or not depending on how much rent you pay).
Right now I’m designing the way these words fit together. There’s someone sitting on the other side of my desk eating a cake they probably designed last night. It’s making me hungry – I’d like to go and buy one myself, but it’s not lunchtime yet. Lucky Enspiral is trying to redesign the 9-5 job and I don’t have to worry what my boss will think about me ducking out of the office whenever I like.
As a designer, I’m often called into a project when much of the development is already done. And would I please make it look good? This kind of approach can lead to a sub-standard user experience. You just need to look at Apple’s massive success to see what design-led business can achieve.
So when you embark on your next project, don’t think about design as the icing on the cake, think about how it’s baked into the mixture itself.