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?

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