Musings on designing experiences & (re)engineering complexity

May 2022

Some Truths About Design

What are some things which may be true about design that seem to be ignored or looked over? Could there be truths about communication and design we would be best to run with, rather than continue with tradition? Possibly. Let’s explore a few.

For example, how long does it actually take to “do design?“ That depends on what someone means by doing design. For many people, design is strictly aesthetics. And because it is looked at as strictly aesthetics, the truth about design is not really realized because other support structures are put in place to make up for not paying attention to the things that are beyond the aesthetics (user flow, training, surge efficiency, network performance, security, etc.). When you do pay attention to these items, it doesn’t make the aesthetics any less important, but you do end up with seemingly simpler aesthetics, and a product whose functionality enhances the beauty of what you see or interact with. So, when someone asks you about “design“ make sure that they are telling you specifically about the interaction, not just the aesthetics.

Going back to that time question, so how long does it actually take? That depends on the competency of the designers that you are working with. Our definition of design encompasses five areas: design, code, continent, research, and strategy. Each of these five areas can be adapted to the individual more junior, or to a mature team or organization. However, each of these five areas exist fully in any project design. If there is any slack in any of those five areas, then “design“ will take longer. If you’re dealing with persons or teams who are quite mature, their tool set is proficient, and they are actually thinking not just of the user, but of the business’s return on investment, then you can have something that is done in a fairly decent timeframe. That said, nothing gets done overnight, ever.

What about the different aspects of design you might’ve heard about? For example the recent trend has been to talk about “human-centered design.“ Well, there is a such thing as being human centered. And one should make the distinction as to which design is being focused towards - the human, the product, an experience, a policy, or something else. Unfortunately, human-centered design often asks focuses on the user (not necessarily the consumer) of a particular product. If your design team is mature, they are going to help you highlight this, and focus on the correct audience(s). Otherwise, you’re going to aim to please every human, and still end up with an over-engineered, underdelivered product needing a good deal more support than initially expected.

One other truth about design is it’s complexity. Remembering an axiom, the simpler an item appears, the more complex it likely is. Re-engineering complexity is what good design proposes. And at the same time, just because a design feels good does not mean it that it is good. Clarity, focus, intentionality, accessibility (and more) are the actual components of good design. Good design may require creating a whole new tool to create or execute or implement. Bad design may also do the same. The difference between what is bad and good comes down to the value extended to the intended audiences. If the product or service adds value in a way not dependent on the thing that was designed, then you can equate the design as being good. However, just because something is good today does not mean it’s going to be good tomorrow. Good design also takes into account its limitations. Great designers understand these limitations and communicate effectively to the business and technical teams (and sometimes even to the audience) the limitations present, even if the value is extremely positive.

It’s truths such as these any team or organization should be looking at when evaluating a good design or designer for particular project or initiative. Some of these truths are going to be difficult because they challenge the very thread a business or technical stack stands on. However, remember the point about good design equaling clear communication. If the design is to be counted on, and it adds positive value to someone’s eventual investment of time or resources, then it should be no problem for the design and the designers (and the company supporting them), to communicate the truth of what they are bringing forth and why design matters.