Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Keeping Up

April 4, 2007

I’ve written before about how many programmers’ failure to keep up with programming standards and innovations causes harm to our industry and wastes money. Well, we designers have to keep up as well, else similar problems arise.

* This article first appeared in .net magazine no. 157. It has been slightly edited for publication here. *

In keeping up with our evolving environment and responsibilities we have to think multi–dimensionally about our endeavor. As interactive designers we’re designing user experience, which means that we have to consider a host of interrelated issues. In addition to concerns about message, composition, typography, and aesthetics, our baseline considerations must also now include:

…and more, all of which impact design decisions today. We’ve got to have a clear understanding of all of these elements in order to allow the design to do what it’s supposed to do: communicate appropriately and create the right sort of user experience. And not just in the intended or expected context, but in a host of possible contexts and environments. In order to do this we need information on these contexts and environments.

Design is beholden to constraints that are often partially defined or described by certain statistics, but design is not something that occurs merely within a pre-defined groove. Rather, design is often the machine that cuts the groove.

More and more there is information pertinent to these aforementioned issues available to assist us in our design efforts. But we must know where to find it, know how to make it relevant, and understand how not to abuse it. Yes, statistics can be a poison pill if we neglect what is arguably our first responsibility as interactive designers – to be advocates and intuitive crafters of experience.

Design is an intuitive human endeavor, not merely the result of a congregation of seemingly pertinent, seemingly objective information. These statistics are important to designers as a guide, but must not be misused or relied upon too heavily. It is a designer’s responsibility to first understand statistics before incorporating them into a design process. We must be practiced at seeing into the information statistics offer and we must possess an appreciation of the context in which the information was collected. And it’s usually prudent to also understand the culture and purpose of those who gathered the information in the first place, because so–called objective data is not always as pure and unaffected as it’s represented to be.

As I’ve observed before, design is not the realm of statisticians, but rather the realm of competent, well–researched but intuitively creative individuals. Design is beholden to constraints that are often partially defined or described by certain statistics, but design is not something that occurs merely within a pre-defined groove. Rather, design is often the machine that cuts the groove.

It is sometimes best to go against what conventional wisdom would otherwise dictate. It is sometimes best to make a move opposite to what statistics seem to suggest is wise. These seemingly unintuitive choices are our responsibility to understand and, sometimes, to champion. How do we gain this sort of insight? Well, by being curious, being skeptical, and by paying attention. To everything.

So when I say that designers have to keep up, I mean that in a holistic sense. We have to keep up with the whole world, not just a narrow sliver of it, in order to be effective designers. We have to keep up with the whole world in order to understand how a wide variety of information and concerns can best serve our purpose (…our purpose as designers serving clients) and how it can pervert our purpose.

Education is not a first step in our profession. It is an ongoing process that is a vital part of our profession every day of the week. Like programmers, if we rely on our current grasp of the world, of our endeavor, and of our professional landscape, we’re falling behind. Like programmers, we have an obligation to keep up.

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