WHAT IS DESIGN?
DESIGN RESULTS FROM human decisions. You can design with intention, which means you have a chance of doing it well, or you can let it happen, which means you’ll probably bungle the job. Design happens whether you’re aware you’re doing it or not paying attention. Nothing is undesigned. Things are badly designed, well designed, and points between.
What do I mean by design? Design is how we communicate what an object does, or its function, through its shape or form.
Take a baseball mitt. Study it for a bit, and it becomes obvious that your hand goes inside. That’s form. The minute you have the mitt on, you understand it makes it easier to catch a baseball. That’s function.
Design is also the process we undertake to solve a problem. It fucking hurts to catch a baseball with your bare hand. A mitt is the solution to that problem.
If you ask five designers to define design, you’ll get five different answers. For our purposes, and because we have actual work to do, the above definition works fine.
Let’s revisit our chair example. When you think about the design of a chair, you consider both how it looks and how it feels to sit on. A well-designed office chair corrects your posture and enhances your productivity, while a well-designed living room chair lets you lie back and relax, watch TV, play with your iPad, and take a nap. An airline seat is purposely designed to fill you with regret and levels of sadness unknown in human history outside the Spanish Inquisition.
If you and I were to design a chair together, we’d have to consider some factors from the get-go. Of course, we’d consider the seat’s size, the height from the ground, the angle of the back, the materials, and the fabric. Before we made any of those decisions, we’d ask ourselves about the chair’s goals. Who would be using the chair? What would they be doing? How would the chair benefit the person sitting in it? These answers affect how we communicate its function. When a person’s expectation of the chair matches their experience of sitting in the chair, they get more joy out of it. This is design done right.
Will those considerations ensure that the chair is well designed? No, but they certainly increase the odds. Not thinking about them ensures that our chair is badly designed.
Yet when we build websites or apps, we often wait until the last minute to bring in designers to “apply” design, or look and feel. This is akin to baking a cake and then hiring a baker to make it taste good. (We’ve mixed our first metaphor!)
WHAT’S DESIGN’S VALUE?
Imagine two chair shops across the street from each other. One shop takes the chair’s design into consideration from the start. They hire the best chair designer they can. The chair designer researches other chairs on the market to figure out where they’re lacking. They ask people what they like and dislike about their current chairs, research materials, consider the chair company’s budget and profit margin, and source materials and manufacturing to make sure the chair is built right. They test different designs. They make adjustments. They test again. They come up with a solid design that meets both the company’s goals and people’s desires. The chair goes into production. It sells well. Everyone is now rich.
The people at the chair shop across the street also make a chair. They select adequate materials and make a seat, some legs, a back. This is definitely a chair! Then they hire a designer and say, “Make this a comfortable chair!” The designer adds a sad little foam rubber seat cushion. The chair bombs. Everyone dies of dysentery.
The value of good design is the increased possibility of success. We understand its importance in everyday objects like chairs, clothes, watches, coffee makers, and a good mattress. When it comes to websites, we tend to think of design as a surface layer applied at the end. In truth, that website’s design started long ago. It can be intentional or happenstance. For design to be truly great, you need to build it into your projects from conception. Because if you’re not doing it, you can bet your competitors are.
To get design’s full value, you need to hire a professional. You need a designer. Would you trust any other valuable part of your business to someone who wasn’t qualified to do it? Would you let your cousin’s best friend do your accounting because they had a calculator? Or let your neighbor reprogram your fuel injection system because they have three cars on blocks on their lawn? Probably not.
We hire professionals because we can hold them accountable. If you get audited, you better believe you’re taking your accountant with you to the hearing. If the credit card processing system on your site goes down, you want to know that your engineering team is on it. You also want to be able to call them into your office and ask what happened. When your users can’t figure out your site’s interface, you want to know you’ve got people trained in designing effective interfaces on the job. When you ask people to take on tasks that are neither part of their job nor something they’re trained at, you have no right to complain if they screw it up. Gift horses and whatnot.
Can I guarantee that hiring a professional designer will result in good design? No more than a college can guarantee that studying there will make you smarter. But it certainly improves your odds. Especially if you find the right fit. We’ll go over that in a bit.
Look for thoughtful, inventive problem solvers with excellent communication skills. Don’t get dazzled by the “creatives” trap. If you catch yourself thinking, “We could really use some of this energy around here,” put down the Kool-Aid. Treat your designers (and call them designers) as adult professionals. Hold them responsible for measurable job performance goals, the same as other employees.
WHAT DESIGN CAN’T FIX
Let me tell you a story that’s playing out among every media company in the world. The editorial team is arguing to make their website look more modern, offer a cleaner reading experience with better typography, and hey, while we’re at it, let’s kill pagination. Across the table, the sales team is arguing for their ad units, for placement above the fold. (The concept of a fold will outlive every newspaper on the planet.) They’re arguing for three or four or five ad units on every page. To be fair, their job effectiveness is measured by those units. While I’m generally (always) on the editorial team’s side, I empathize with the sales team as well.
This isn’t unlike Stringer Bell pushing for the co-op as Avon Barksdale screams back, “I want my corners!” (This is the first reference to The Wire. Won’t be the last. Be ready. Everyone in business should watch The Wire.)
So the company hires a design team to help solve their problem. If the design team’s good, they’ll tell the truth: the problem is that the stakeholders have different goals. The site can’t solve the problem, because the two sides need to agree over the conference table first. Otherwise, they’re passing a compromised intent to readers.
In our experience as a design firm, it’s common for client team members to disagree among themselves. They get to the point where some people want one thing like exposed navigation, and others want it hidden. They ask us to devise a solution that meets both teams halfway. Or someone higher up has a drastically different reaction to the work than the core project team. So they ask us to design something that tricks the CEO while staying the course. Or worse: “Can you show us both variations to help us make up our minds?”
The answer is no.