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Is the science of design killing it's soul?

When was the last time you were listening to a Justin Bieber track and thought to yourself “My God, this is a musical masterpiece, filled with passion, heart and soul – surpassed only by the the late great Curtis Mayfield” ?

I would hope never.

But what is it about about Bieber’s contribution to music that differs so much from that of Mayfield’s? The logical understanding of creating a song? The skill in which to play an instrument? Or is it something nebulous, deeper that we can’t place a finger on?

The struggle of digital design

Web design was an unknown discipline. A new frontier filled by people sitting in their PJs trying new stuff out. It was by definition nebulous and undefined. We knew it’s power and potential but we had to change it’s image.

We have worked hard to do this and make design a serious thing. It’s no longer an afterthought left to us to “sort out”. Today, more and more companies understand the value of design and the return that it can bring.

We have quantified design, placed it at the heart of our industry and proved that it get’s results. So much so, that we’ve invented brand new careers which focus on certain aspects. Roles like:

  • User Experience (UX) Designers
  • Product designers
  • Interaction designers
  • User interface designers
  • and my personal favourite Creative Strategists.
  • The latter is still unknown to me.

Our new roles and processes have broken design into smaller and smaller components. We can analyse, test, scrutinise and iterate until the “perfect” outcomes are achieved.

Design is now a serious thing where serious people can place a serious number against it.

This is great! We’ve reached our objectives to get people to finally see, moreover value our industry.

We got what we wanted right?

We all design great websites and applications! They’re all usable, well ordered, balanced with stunning hierarchy and clarity. The users are well researched, the information architecture (IA) validated and the wireframes tested. All this packaged in a neat agile way of working.

We have nailed the process.

Our industry is no longer nebulous, undefined or uncertain but visible and transparent.

Where did all the love go?

We find ourselves in the world of corporate Pop music. We have teams of people who can craft the “perfect” pop song.

But some of us see through this. Yes it’s a catchy tune, yes it’s quite pleasing to the senses but we know that something is lacking.


Our approach to new techniques

Animation is the current, hot topic for design. Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to create workshops, coin a phrase and be seen as leading the wave.

Our default approach to new techniques is to structure and order it. And it makes sense. Get the principles out, define boundaries and we can create consistent, user friendly patterns.

But are we over analysing things? Is our ever quest to create order from chaos leading to homogenised design? Good, clean and well structured. But design which adheres to the same principles and the same patterns, never taking a risk to break them.

The rod we have made for our own backs

We have cleverly made design a science. We have created analytical tools which can measure qualitative and quantitive research. We can map out user journeys and mental models. We can back up our ideas with hard factual numbers and with these numbers we can reduce risk and keep things safe.

What we’re actually selling is not creativity but safety.

As a product owner, who doesn’t want to hear that? The chances of this not blowing up in my face is down, I keep my job and the boss is happy. It’s a box ticker.

It’s this ticking of boxes which extinguishes the small sparks of originality and genius.

Risky business

Tobias Van Schneider said something interesting in an interview on pencil vs pixel. He made the analogy of his young self as a skateboarder. When he was young he had no skills, he would see a set of stairs, get excited and try and jump them. Nothing held him back and at first he fell. He tried and tried until, eventually he made it. As an adult, a set of stairs presents itself with a different experience. He can analyse the jump, work out the risk, remember the pain of the falls and stop before the first step. Could he have made it? Who knows but he didn’t try.

We need to fold risk into our industry to develop it and not let it get held back by fear.

We already have the consistent, well trodden patterns. We can fall back on them if it all goes wrong. Why not spend a little time taking a risk?

Design is in a rut

This is not a “Design is in a rut” post. I believe that the level and quality of design on the web is better now than it has ever been and is only getting higher.

This isn’t either a call to arms for designers to go and inspire themselves, although please do.

This is a reflection on where I think the state of design is. How we as an industry approach new challenges, techniques and technologies. And what is the impact of the decisions we make on design.

I don’t care if you call yourself an interaction, UX, product designer or whatever. Our purpose is to create great experiences which will last and resonate on an emotional level. Obviously we must use the rules and learnings we’ve accumulated over the years.

But let’s break a few 😉

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