Ignore The Design, Please

“Hey, I want to show you something I built. Ignore the design please, it is not finished yet.”

From school science fair projects to real world product prototypes, if I had a nickel every time I heard that sentence I would be a lot richer by now. The truth is that a lot of people ask us to ‘ignore the design’ simply because we humans tend to judge anything new that is shown to us by its looks.

It is a universal truth. You can talk until you tire about how looks should take the seat behind functionality, usability and any new ‘ility’ that people might come up with in the future, the ugly truth (pun intended) is that good looks are important to warrant a second look. Functionality comes next. Neither can do without the other. In spite of this a lot of people gamble on the looks of a product and in extension on the overall design by underestimating design and thinking that design is easy.

Design is Easy!

Let’s take the help of art to explain why a lot of people think design is easy. If 10 people are given the task to make a pencil sketch of Mona Lisa, you can be rest assured that all 10 of them will try to do it irrespective of their drawing skills, but if the same 10 people were asked to solve an arithmetic problem the number of people who will even take a shot at it will be less.

Why? Because solving the math problem requires you to have a basic knowledge of the rules and principles involved. So we can safely assume that the first barrier to any task is the knowledge of the rules and principles involved. As the number of rules and principles involved increases the cognitive complexity of the task also increases and fewer will be the people taking a shot at it.

Now let’s analyze the outcome of the two tasks, out of the 10 people who attempted the Mona Lisa sketch, may be one of them who had ample drawing skills might have made a good sketch. The rest will be an insult to Da Vinci. However the fact that everyone took a shot at the first task while very few could even attempt the math problem creates a wrong impression that the first is easier compared to the second.

Design is a Luxury!

Difficult problems need complex solutions. Complex solutions demand specialized knowledge and extra cognitive effort. The more the cognitive effort and higher the knowledge barrier the lesser will be the people who are going to take a shot at the problem. The lesser the people taking the shot at the problem, the more revered the task and subsequently the one who does it will become.

Art doesn’t solve any major problems and it doesn’t have to, but design does. Unfortunately, for most design is a subset of art and it is this pathetic fallacy that leads people to think of design as an excess; a luxury you will indulge in after everything else is taken care of.

Designers are Easily Replaceable

You can’t be a doctor and suck at your work because sooner or later you will go to jail. There is a certain level of expertise you expect from a physician whom you trust your life with. Similarly, you cannot be a civil engineer and get your mathematics wrong every day because then you will be building shaky bridges and putting people’s lives in danger, but you can be a shoddy designer and get on with it without hurting anyone… well at least not directly. The lesser your work impacts other people’s lives the more the chance you will pass under the radar.

Image Source: Bridge over rapid mountain river

All the other jobs mentioned have a risk, some obvious and some hidden and nothing pays well more than taking a risk. Risk, money, recognition and the ability to influence other’s lives attract the best people.

This is not to say that design has to be content with second grade people. The pool is sadly narrowed down once all the other professions have had their picks. Design is happy with people who are very passionate about what they do but unfortunately this passion is not always matched by skills, ambition and an ability to think-better. The ability to think-better attracts respect amongst peers.

Unless there are more of that kind of people in a profession, the profession itself falls below in the organizational hierarchy. Design has long been thought of as an extension of creativity rather than a means to solve problems. It is due to this very fact that for a long time all the thinking were done for us by another set of people and we were invited to decorate and give color to their ideas.

Fortunately, there has been this renewed interest in design as a specialty and a lot of credit for this has to go to Steve Jobs and Apple. Many start-ups have followed the path laid down by Apple and recognized the importance of design; many even have design co-founders but unfortunately not every product is made in the Silicon Valley.

The state of design and designers has not changed much elsewhere. A lot of companies still think that designers can be replaced easily and a new designer can easily pick up from where someone has left off. Such a callous attitude to design and designers is one of the main reasons why a clear dissonance exists between the various products of these organizations. These people hamper the visual language of their products by lacking an eye for design or designers.

An Eye for Design

There is no single right way of doing something creative. There are no formulas, processes or rules that you can follow to bring out the best in you. This lack of a proper framework makes it impossible to quantify creative work. The failed attempts and the moments spent waiting for inspiration are all part of the work but can never be included in any time sheet. Judging something qualitatively is tougher than judging it quantitatively. It requires talent combined with years of travail. In the case of design we call it an eye for design.

Not everyone has it but that doesn’t stop people from judging creative work because there is no fear of being proved wrong. One can always hide behind the ‘it is my opinion’ argument. Sadly, many disillusioned armchair critics constantly bend the line between words and deeds to such an extent that having an opinion combined with a way of words suddenly makes you a design thinker.

These people don’t realize that playing the game is much different from standing on the sideline and watching it.

What Limits Design

Before design became a specialty, it was intertwined with engineering to an extent that viewing the two as separate was unheard of. Both design and engineering of the product were done by the same set of people. These set of people, the generalists, were the pioneers of almost every field.

They have the gift of being good at multiple things and people who are good at multiple things might not always be the best at each of these things. Hence their creations often lack in certain spheres. Specialists who make their entry later on fill this void. The one essential difference between generalists and specialists is the respect they have for what they do and everything else.

Generalists realize the universal truth that the whole is a sum of individual parts no matter how tiny or irrelevant these parts might seem. Specialists, on the other hand, sometimes fail to see what is beyond their realm of interest. If you have worked in this industry for sometime, you might have definitely come across designers who hate code and coders who underrate design. Sadly these people have managed to separate technology and design into two different planes.

Unlike art, design is greatly influenced by technology. Be it interaction design, product design or automobile design, the extent to which design can take you is often dictated by the technology in existence. Pushing engineering to the limit requires deploying considerable amount of resources and imagination and nothing does it better than need and design.

The best example for this will be the construction industry. It is often the architect’s imagination that pushes the limits of engineering. Who would have thought there would be elevators traveling at speeds of 35 km/hr were it not for the people who dreamt up and built those skyscrapers in the first place. Unfortunately this fact doesn’t hold up when it comes to design in the online medium.

The sleek interface and pleasing typography can excite any designer but try to get a web-page look the same across the various browsers in existence today and you will realize the harsh reality. How an interface looks vary from OS to OS to browser to browser to screen to screen. When it comes to the online medium, design often has to wait for technology to make something possible to do first and then take a shot at it and more often that not all of this gets lost in the mesh of licensing, patents and corporate BS.

The Cost of Bad Design

Small decisions that you pass off as irrelevant often come back to bite you. To most, design decisions are as small as it can get and even after the callousness backfires people fail to realize what hit them. Perhaps the only way to make this people realize the importance of the problem is to convert it into monetary terms.

Bad design costs a lot of money, 300 million dollars to be exact according to Jared M. Spool who worked on the redesign of the check out process for a client’s website.

While conducting user studies in the lab, Jared’s team noticed that a lot of users were abandoning their purchases in the penultimate step. Just before the users were preparing to checkout from the site they were asked for their login info. Many people didn’t remember it and those who went on to reset their passwords couldn’t remember which email address they had used to register. Consequently a lot of people left the site in frustration and the costs of abandoned checkouts totaled to a staggering 300 million dollars a year.

Bad design can even cost lives as the Bluffton University bus accident tells us. Jerry Niemeyer was driving a motor coach carrying the Bluffton University baseball team when he mistakenly entered a left HOV-only exit ramp from the HOV lane. As the bus was traveling at highway speed he could neither stop nor turn the bus when it reached the T-junction at the top of the exit way and subsequently lost control of the bus. The bus slid sideways and the momentum of the bus wrecked the concrete wall and security fence plunging it 19 feet below into the freeway.

Drivers usually expect the exit lanes to be on the right side. A lack of proper highway signage in the area has been pointed out as one of the major causes for the accident. Niemeyer, his wife and 5 members of the baseball team lost their lives in the accident.

Who is to Blame When we Undersell Ourselves?

People can feel appreciated in a number of ways, from a simple pat on the back to a big fat paycheck. Designers are often grouped at the lower end of this spectrum, mostly by choice.

The creator’s ego forces us to seek approval and appreciation for our work on a day-to-day basis and in this quest for appreciation we often forget that getting paid decently for the work we have done is also important.

For every designer who is particular about getting paid, there will be 10 others who will work for peanuts. Since the entry barrier to this profession is as hazy as a winter morning there will never be shortage of people who are starting out in this field and willing to do the work just to bulk up their portfolio.

This desperation for approval and getting a foothold in the industry is well exploited by the clients who hire us. We cannot fault them if we undersell ourselves, can we? In fact the buck stops with us designers, if we don’t respect the profession we are in enough, how can we expect others to do it?


  • stephadelic

    I humbly disagree with almost every point in this article. Good design is NOT “easy.” It is learned and mastered through experience, education and an understanding of “rules and principles” in good design.

    “A lot of companies still think that designers can be replaced easily and a new designer can easily pick up from where someone has left off.”
    The same goes for EVERY profession, not just designers. I don’t see why a seasoned designer couldn’t pick up where another one left off, even in the middle of a design, provided the project was properly planned. Again, that goes with every profession.

    The Mona Lisa comparison was way off, in my opinion. Anyone can answer an arithmetic problem, just not everyone can answer it correctly. The same goes with a drawing – anyone can do it, just not everyone can do it competently. Sure, you might get someone who just has a knack for it, but the same goes for anything, just like there are people that just have a knack for math.There is a science behind design, and there’s also techniques to make design look as intended across browsers – it’s something a good designer is just expected to do. So I’m not understanding the reference to “taking a shot at it” and having it get lost in a “mesh of licensing,” etc. Perhaps you can elaborate on this for us.Also, design does not “wait” for technology. Technology is often pushed forward by a designer’s imagination, just like building architecture and construction. (I must also note, there is a difference between a building’s designer and a building’s architect. We can compare a wireframe to a blueprint, and a PSD to an designer’s sketch.)

    One last comment I have to point out in reference to the last paragraph: Yes, there is no shortage of designers that will work for peanuts, but that is what helps separate those that are truly talented and take their job seriously from the weekend warriors who are perhaps students or newbies trying to beef up a portfolio.

    I hate to sound so critical, but I do appreciate this article, even though I disagree with it emphatically – we grow by sharing ideas, and reading this has gotten my cogwheels moving this morning, as you can tell by the lengthy comment. ;)

  • I’d like to add a couple things, please.

    1) Art (e.g., drawing Mona Lisa) is highly subjective. Math on the hand is objective and mostly absolute. People aren’t going to volunteer to show how dumb they might be. On the other hand, most people believe they are visually creative because: (1) There are no rules, per se. (2) most of what they see is shite and either consciously or unconsciously they believe they are at least that good. Familiarity breeds contempt, yes?

    2) “Design has long been thought of as an extension of creativity rather than a means to solve problems.” Well, yes. But who’s fault is that when 9 of 10 designers pride themselves on being artsy-fartsy, and not providers of practical biz solutions? It’s 2012 and we’re still seeing plenty of self-absorbed output that somehow gets passed off as “design”. If designers want to be perceived as problem solvers then the amount of public masturbation should be trending down, not staying steady or perhaps even on the rise. And if they want to be artists, fine. Just stop claiming to be a designer (i.e., problem solver).

    3) To that I add, quite often the designer is simply managing implementation phase of a solution. Someone describes and the designer takes that input and realizes it. Their actual value add is low. With that in mind, there’s a difference between say Keith Richards and a studio musician, yes? Pretty isn’t good enough. On the other hand, (for example) understanding a logo needs to be “social media friendly” (i.e., identifiable at 60 x 60) is important. Yet how many logos are still being cranked out that fail the “social media friendly” test?

    In short, I think it would help if the actual definition of good design (i.e., it solves a problems) and designer was discussed. And then we can move on to some of the finer points of this well thought out article. 

  • sreeramanmg

    1) When I wrote ‘Good Design is easy’ it was more of sarcasm and a continuation of the the previous paragraph where I wrote “In spite of this a lot of people gamble on the looks of a product and in extension on the overall design by underestimating design and thinking that design is easy.”

    2) When it comes to organizations every employee is replaceable. If someone leaves, somebody else will take up that position. However this process is not as smooth as it sounds which is exactly the reason why a lot of companies pay thousands of dollars to retain talent….Ever heard of a designer being paid so much to retain him?

    3) I agree with you when you say that the Mona Lisa comparison was way off. Well, I didn’t want to be too subtle there. I just wanted to show how obvious it was that the two tasks were difficult in their own terms but still people fail to realize it. You seemed to have missed that point.

    4) Again for the point I made regarding browser technology you seemed to have understood something else. Of course there are ways to make a design look the same across browsers. I was merely commenting on the plight of the technology where a company makes the worst browser in the market on one hand and then releases a video showcasing how promising the future of touch technology looks like. Whenever a breakthrough is achieved in technology the creators often license their creation and threaten to sue anyone who tries to build on this technology and start competing with them. If you read techcrunch you can notice that not a week passes by without a story on one company suing another for license/patent breach.

    5) “Also, design does not “wait” for technology. Technology is often pushed forward by a designer’s imagination, just like building architecture and construction. (I must also note, there is a difference between a building’s designer and a building’s architect. We can compare a wireframe to a blueprint, and a PSD to an designer’s sketch.)”

    a) I didn’t say design waits for technology. I said design in the online medium often has to wait for technology. An excellent example for this would be typekit, google web-fonts etc. Until these came along designers had to rely on fonts like tahoma, georgia and arial to make sure that the same fonts were available in all the operating systems. You had to make use of images, systems like sIFR instead of using non-regular fonts in your website.  

    b) I am totally lost on the observation you made regarding the building designer and building architect. If the argument is just on the basis of semantics I agree with you but if not please elaborate on it a bit further.

    6) “One last comment I have to point out in reference to the last paragraph: Yes, there is no shortage of designers that will work for peanuts, but that is what helps separate those that are truly talented and take their job seriously from the weekend warriors who are perhaps students or newbies trying to beef up a portfolio.”

    I guess we both meant the same thing here.

    I typed out this comment pretty fast as there were lots of points and counter points bubbling in my head…If I sounded rude somewhere, please understand that it was not intentional.

  • I have to wonder if you even read the article Stephanie. You seem to have missed the point of the entire thing. It is sad to see how negative and critical you decided to be.

  • stephadelic

    No, you didn’t sound rude. You clarified a lot of points for me, actually!

    1) I totally missed your sarcasm there, my mistake!

    2) I’ve definitely heard of designers being paid retaining fees, but that sort of this isn’t limited to this field or even the creative spectrum. It’s easier in any type of important project to retain your original hire to make things run smoother. I guess my point is, competent designers aren’t so unique in the workforce that they can’t be replaced by another. An exception might be an illustrator or graphic artist with a distinctive style. On the same train of thought, it would be interesting to explore the distinction between an artist and a designer. Or is there a distinction at all? While one needs experience in the field to understand good design principles, I’ve seen young children that can pick up a pencil and draw a life-like portrait with no lessons whatsoever.

    3) I guess I missed that point as well! On that note you might have missed mine too. I got that you were saying that because anyone can make the attempt to draw anything if there were so inclined, people mistakenly believe that good drawing/design is easy, which we all know it isn’t. I’ll admit, I barely scraped by in my math classes (and failed a few) – my brain just isn’t wired for equations and numbers. But I *can* attempt any math problem you throw at me. I just won’t solve it *correctly* because I have no grasp on the principles and techniques. This kind of ties in with the question I have over the distinction between illustrators, artists, and designers.

    4) Not quite sure the relation here to design. We all know Apple and Adobe license their products as they do for money.. but we have open-source browsers, and no one has to pay a fee to use technologies like CSS3 and JS.

    5) Before Typekit, we used images if we wanted to dabble beyond system fonts. If we didn’t want to do this, it was acceptable to stick with Arial and Times, since all our clients’ competitors were doing the same. But I think we’re both right on this – design pushes along technology, and new technology leaves room for us to expand the limits of design. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship, one that most fascinates me about this field. :)
    The designer/architect thing goes back, once again, to the illustrator/designer/artist distinction I mentioned.. I’d love to see an article about that, even if I have to write it. Something I’ve been pondering on for a while.

    I love posts that make me think! I might not agree with you on every point (although your clarifications did help me see your points more clearly), but you’ve got basis in everything you’re saying and you’ve given me some good food for thought. Cheers :)

  • Guest

    I have to wonder if you even read my posts Sara…. it’s sad how negative and critical you decided to be :(

  • Great article for web design.Thank you for sharing.

  • Marty Glaubitz

    “Designers are easily replacable” ? NO! Ok, there’s seriously the Possibility to learn some basic rules to create some alround apliable designs, but to be really creative is an Art as well as the ability to write good Programms/Code. Such things are gifts and you can’t “easily replace” them

  • sreeramanmg

    All the sub titles are sarcastic and shows the wrong perceptions out there. A lot of people seem to have confused that I am making those statements :)

  • Great article. I see a third in your future, call it “Ignore the Sarcasm.” ;)

    Unless being sarcastic online with a post, appearing controversial, is actually a brilliant tactic to stir up discussion and comments… ;)