A Responsible Craftsman and Good Design?
I consider myself to be a craftsman, and like many craftsmen, I have much respect and love for my craft. I believe that I, my fellow designers, and the design industry as a whole, should be responsible for what we design. No truer words have been spoken than when Victor Papanek once said, “…design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself)”. I believe that as designers — whether it be those of us who focus on user experience (UX) or others who focus on other aspects of design — we must continually improve and hone our craft. I recently embarked on a mission to better understand the world of design, mainly the aspects of the UX by Learning To See, because “learning to design, first of all, is learning to see.” Specifically, I aimed to improve my visual design ability and to answer the question: what distinguishes a “good” design from a “bad” design? objectively.
The first step was to obtain a measuring stick, or a set of principles, that could help me with answering this otherwise seemingly subjective question. After reading several articles on the principles of design, I was convinced by Dieter Rams: ten principles of good design. In his assessment of design, Rams points out ten principles that can be used to see the difference between good and bad design. Good design must be innovative; it has to make a product useful; it must be aesthetically pleasing; it needs to make a product understandable, unobtrusive, honest, and long-lasting; a good design is thorough down to the last detail, as well as environmentally friendly, and it is as little design as possible. With this measuring “stick”, I decided to see if I could improve on my visual design skills.
Ulysses is a writing application for writers, authors, and Bloggers. The application is designed to help writers with the organization of their work in order to allow writers to concentrate on their craft.
I landed on Ulysses rather accidentally, or perhaps, serendipitously. I had been thinking of my next novel to read, and I did what I imagine most people to do: I Google searched “best books”. James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses popped up and directly under that search find, Ulysses the writing app came up. Intrigued by the app, I clicked on the link, and I am so glad I did because I discovered the well-crafted design interface of Ulysses. From the onset I was impressed. I knew immediately what the purpose of the product was and for whom the product was designed. I do not consider myself a writer, but the word ‘Ulysses’ in the middle of the page made me feel that with the help of this product, I could write an epic novel like Joyce, Steinbeck, or Garcia Marquez. The imagery served to convey the feeling that the user could take Ulysses anywhere. If I needed any reinforcement of the purpose and usefulness of the product, all I had to do is click on the informational video. It left me emotionally connected and eager to write my magnum opus. Bottom-line, the interface design for Ulysses is a good design because it is very inspirational, highly purposeful, clearly useful and easily understandable to both aspiring and active writers.
Simple offers an online banking service. Simple is made for users that are looking to break away from the traditional banking system. It aims to disrupt a long-standing tradition of brick and mortar banking by offering no fees on bank accounts.
The Simple site is another fantastic example of good design. Like Ulysses, Simple utilizes the use of video to reinforce both their relevance in a person’s daily life and to show they empathize with the many challenges that people face while trying to realize their dreams. The visual design makes clear that the problem that is being solved is a human problem; unlike traditional banks that throw out numbers that seem abstract and irrelevant to human needs, Simple shows how their savings accounts make dreams come true. The interface presents the product — online banking — as useful and unobtrusive. It shows how the Simple banking experience is how you can use this product in your daily life. To emphasize their depart from traditional banks, Simple banking services are presented as innovative with the use of the phrase “The way banking should be”. This phrase inspires a novel feeling that the bank is performing in new and exciting ways that benefit its customers. The overall visual language that this site conveys is that Simple makes saving money easy; it portrays banking as a useful, but stress-free component for achieving one’s aspirations.
Coursera is a platform that offers online university courses. Coursera has been designed to offer university level courses from top-ranked schools to a global audience. This product has been made for the life-long learner, people who want to advance their careers, and for the user who is looking for a different learning experience.
Coursera is good design. Aesthetically the site provides a clean, simple and purposeful user experience. Just like the two examples above, the site states the product’s purpose in the middle of the page. The wording in the purpose of statement not only defines the purpose, but leads the user to imagine the future possibilities as a result of taking one of the ‘world’s best courses.’ Also, the word ‘online’ at the end of that sentence is a powerful use of language. The word ‘online’ is powerful because it is a word that provides hope and accessibility to the user that be located across the other side of the globe and/or may not have the financial resources to pursue a traditional university education. Visually there is the use of a hierarchy with the color blue. Blue is used strategically to help guide the user to ‘Sign Up’ and if not, to browse the catalog. Overall, Coursera’s use of imagery, language and use of typography hierarchy leaves the user with a sense of empowerment. Users feel that pursuing courses on this platform can potentially help them re-define their academic journey and ultimately their professional one.
Vanguard is a client-owned fund company. Vanguard aims to provide its users a different investing experience than other investment institutions. It does this by eliminating all broker fees, therefore allowing clients to gain more money on their returns. Vanguard also provides a unique experience by permitting their clients to be both client and owners. Vanguard’s product has been made for the investor who is is tired of the ‘middle-man’ and the extra commissions that are associated with the practice.
I decided to visit Vanguard because I had been curious about them and their product for quite some time. Unfortunately, their site left me confused and uninspired. I never got the feeling that their product could solve my investment problems. The Home page failed to tell me their purpose or state the value the could bring, or their relevance, to my life. The message seemed more catered to a seasoned economist than a to an ‘average Joe’ like myself. The site was confusing, lacking any real direction. I got the feeling that the site wanted to say many things and ended up just saying “blah, blah, blah.” It left me intimidated and disconnected. The interface did not showcase how the product worked, nor did it tell the story behind it. Simply put, the interface failed to indicate Vanguard’s purpose and use. The visual design made me question the idea of wanting to invest my hard earned money with them.
LibroShare is a global book exchange. The LibroShare objective is to “democratize the right to define great literature”. LibroShare’s user focus is on readers who appreciate the power that literature has to transform ideas about how people think about “other” cultures, places and people.
Before I go into my analysis of LibroShare, I must disclose that I serve as Co-Owner and Co-Founder of LibroShare. A few months ago, if anyone had asked me what I thought about the site I would have said that it was good. Now I know that LibroShare has great potential, but the current design is limited at best. The interface needs a lot of work: the visual language fails to describe, define, or tell the LibroShare story; it does not indicate the purpose, or the use, of the product that LibroShare is offering; the product is not understandable because the user does not know if the site is an online bookstore, a platform to download e-books, or what. The design is bad because the interface looks like it has been designed with many holes and not thoroughly; this can leave the user confused, annoyed, causing her to run away from site. Furthermore, the language is unclear and sloppy. Which gives the impression that the wording was arbitrarily inserted as opposed to researched. Although the product could be meaningful and useful, the current interface design leaves the user puzzled as to why they would want to be involved because it doesn’t communicate what value it brings to their life.
This exercise was useful because I am now better able to determine and answer what makes a design “good” or “bad”? Being able to utilize Dieter Rams’ ten principles as the framework guided me from making arbitrary and subjective opinions about determining “good” from “bad”. The sites/products that I considered “good” were designed with the ten principle, and those considered “bad,” either ignored or did not follow them. Analyzing the discussed sites/products deepened my understanding that design is not an arbitrary craft, it is in the words of Papanek, “the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order,” and it also has helped me to improve my craft.