Faking the Shot

How Dribbble is hurting designers.

Post: “Man, iOS7 is terrible! Check out my version!”
Translation: “I don’t actually want to consider the millions of users that rely on a product, or the complications that go into retooling and road-mapping one of the first and most used touch-based operating systems; those things don’t matter, so I’m going to show you what it looks like with gradients reapplied.”

Post: “Icon I made for fun this weekend ;)”
Translation: “I made a forced perspective gooey grilled cheese sandwich because I want to make like-minded people believe I’m creative and talented.”

Post: “Web app idea…”
Translation: “This is literally just fodder. I’m sorry, but I‘m good with Photoshop and I’ve always wanted to make a music player. I hope you don’t notice the rampant usability / feasibility problems and poke any holes in it.”


Let’s rewind a little bit…

A couple of years ago, I initiated an internal Show & Tell on the last Friday of every month. This allowed all sectors of the company— Consulting, Product and Themes— to get together and share their latest design and development challenges and often the solutions that came from them. The format was simple: one or two presenters from each division would share their work on a big screen, and then open the floor to any questions that arose. The results weren’t great. Questions were rarely asked, and presentations felt rushed and nerve wracking. It was often difficult to hold the entire room’s attention. Each presentation garnered polite applause, and when it was over, teams dispersed and either went home for the day or hastily got back to whatever it was they were doing.

I felt this model was a failure. The “pitch” style process was a great exercise for the consulting team to parallel pitch meetings with clients, but it didn’t really draw the benefits of bringing talented, diverse people together. In response to this feeling, we altered the model, making the event a casual get-together at the end of the day, complete with beers, snacks and a loose “science fair” feel. Instead of strict presentations, people were encouraged to wander around workstations and strike up conversations with the designer or developer about their work. The result was much more positive: teams were sharing knowledge, and usability decisions were being openly challenged through useful feedback and insights.

Show and tell for designers, developers and other creatives. That’s Dribbble’s raison d’être. In theory, it’s a great principle. And to be clear, at MetaLab, we love Dan Cederholm + co. and their initiative to create this community: sharing, engaging in conversation and gathering meaningful feedback is one of the most important things a designer can do in his/her craft. Unfortunately, this is where the current Dribbble community ultimately fails.

Confusing encouragement with success.
The first implementation of our internal Show & Tell reminds me of Dribbble. For that matter, it reminds me of a good portion of online communities. They require little to no thoughtful input. It’s more common than not that a single click or tap is all you need to do to show your support for a photo, status update, or design snippet, even though what’s really behind that interaction is, and should be far more complicated. I’m not saying that every time you like an Instagram post you should follow that up with a thesis on the photograph in respect to its place in contemporary art, society and culture, but when feedback is requested, it’s your duty as a contributor to a design community to drum up something better than “Wow, awesome!” Currently, if I set up some sort of system to scrape the most commonly used comment terms on Dribbble, I can imagine it being a three way tie between “Looks amazing!”, “Love it!”, and “Nice.” Nobody has ever become a better designer by receiving endless empty encouragement, but I’ve sure seen a lot become entitled and difficult to work with. Sorry UI designers, you’re not Paul Rand. Stop blindly congratulating each other, and let’s grow together by challenging ideas and solutions.

Aesthetics matter, but they should rarely come first.
This is a tough lesson for any designer, but it’s an important one. The Dribbble community praises (read: worships) unbuilt, “perfect” looking interfaces, and we’re no stranger to that. MetaLab began designing pixel-perfect interfaces a time long before Dribbble, and as a young company, we often found ourselves obsessing over the visual minutiae of a button before we really considered what that button was doing in the first place. Attention to detail is extremely important in what we do, but more often than not, I feel like many Dribbble users are disregarding things like product viability, usability, interactivity, and purpose. Instead, they use aesthetic and attention to detail as a smokescreen.

Context is the key to understanding.
When I’m hiring new designers, seeing mostly out-of-context 400x300 shots on Dribbble as your portfolio is about as useful to me as seeing no work at all. To be honest, seeing your “full version” lifeless PNG doesn’t really help either. A great UI designer requires depth and understanding. After all, you’re designing interfaces normal people are going to use, and designers are certainly not normal people.

So what does it mean to be a UI designer? It means you understand the system and boundaries you’re working in, and you understand the context of a project and the user base it’s reaching. It means you understand when it’s ok to break convention. It means knowing that delighting people takes more than a pretty picture: it takes a story, it takes personality, and it takes empathy. Disregarding any or all of these things under the guise of “staying true to your style” isn’t courageous—it’s cheap. You’re not solving a problem, you’re doing production work.

I will say that Dribbble is far and away a net positive (no pun intended), but the community will continue to struggle to build better designers as long as it supports the vacuous practice of celebrating work purely on an aesthetic level. If more designers can de-couple their egos from their work, and use the platform to participate in more challenging discourse, we can stop misrepresenting and devaluing the young profession we’re building together.