Let’s stop pretending design is not art

The story of the ascendance of user experience design as a “must have” for business and government is a fascinating one. A crucial part of it is not just about the work itself and value that it brings to digital products and the enterprises behind them, but also about how it has been sold. Many forces worked in favor of pulling design up from the dank trenches of the traditional IT world and giving it a seat in the sunny executive conference room, but the selling of the value of design is perhaps the most important.

The first iPhone, however viewed, epitomizes what designers always say we should do to sell the value of design: show, don’t tell. The interface and the gestures that went along with it blew people’s minds and forever changed our understanding of the power of design in the digital age. All our efforts to keep arguing for a greater voice while smooshed into an ill-fitting corporate IT organization fell on deaf ears. A few minutes on stage one California morning did what we never could: it sold the power of design like never before.

As design, and specifically user experience design took off, so did our careers and our world. We were given more opportunities, new opportunities, and we were trusted to change the fortunes of those who had bought Steve Job’s pitch. And that’s what we did, and have been doing ever since.

But along the way we did something harmful to ourselves. In order to keep selling our value we had to keep pitching, usually to very skeptical masters. Yes, they wanted great design, but when the rubber hits the road, all that can go out the window. Numerous other business and technical priorities arise that push design aside, and hey…they’ve seen that iPhone thing. It only lasts so long, so what else do we have up our sleeves?

And so our new pitch was crafted. Design is not art, some aesthetic afterthought that is put together to simply show off the artistic chops of a designer, beauty for beauty’s sake. Design is a technical disipline that relies upon business information so that it can serve the business. It is practiced only when it rests upon valid data about the users, about usability, and about utility. Yes, there is beauty, but that’s only a tiny piece of the puzzle. Seriously, would you rather have ugly?

And we fucking sold it. And still are. Data-Driven Design. User Research. Usability Studies. HEART Metrics. Design Sprints. Multivariate Testing. Human-Computer Interaction. Human Factors. Heuristic Analysis. Standardized Components. UI Toolkits. And process diagrams out the wazoo. Proof that designers are not just screwing around on pretty Macs making pretty things, but rather doing some serious “business” work. Designers do everything in a methodical, predictable, measurable, and manageable way, because THAT is what every single manager and executive wants to hear.


Because at the end of the day — actually, in the beginning and the middle, too — traditional business people have absolutely no clue how to manage and understand the value of things that are not perfectly methodical, predictable, or measurable. How do you set a deadline for creativity? How do you measure a rounded button versus a squared one? How do you know what if a designers is being as productive as possible or not? How do you know if you are paying too much or too little for design?

And so, instead of trying to help business understand that there is sort of a Third Way, that design can have unique methods, predictability, and measurability if managed in a unique way, and then helping them to understand this and actually do it, we throw in the towel and pretend that we are not artists, but scientists of sorts. We don’t practice art, but rigorous disciplines that fit in perfectly with a Six Sigma or MBA type mentality.

This pitch works, but not only is it largely a lie, but it hurts designers. Constantly saying we are not artists but Designers, as if the first was not part of the second, crushes a big part of us that went into this field in the first place, by intention or driven by our passions. We want to create, to explore, to play, to imagine, to try, and yes…to fail. We relish that playground of what could be in order to find what should be. It is what fires us up and makes us enjoy the daily grind and everything else that we have to put up with in order to turn our creative fire into something that pays the bills.

By pretending we are not artists, we are also only further ensuring that business will not truly understand the unique benefits we bring to the table. Yes, we do all the formal things I mentioned above, but after nearly twenty years doing with work — long before it was called UX — I can honestly say that in the final analysis the best work, the most successful work, resulted from 80% individual creativity and experience, and only 20% from hard data, testing, and so on.

Yup. Eighty percent art, twenty percent science. Data is just numbers, and those can be interpreted nearly any way we want. Sometimes we do a good job, and sometimes we don’t. How do I know? Because even those organizations that are highly data-centric in terms of design — i.e., Facebook, Amazon — they are constantly tweaking the design to wring new benefits out of it. No matter what the data tells them, the world is constantly changing, people’s expectations and desires are constantly shifting, and constraints and opportunities are constantly changing. Consequently, new things have to keep being tried to wring new value or to reclaim falling value.

And this is where art comes in. Art is about leaps and curiosity and violating expectations to discover something even better. Data will never tell us when or how to leap or which conventions to violate, it will only provide a general direction we may wish to move in. Art provides the rest.

And art is not something we can simply teach. It is part of who we are as designers, it is a unique talent that we have that has nothing to do with process or numbers or anything except for our ability to internally synthesize a tremendous amount of information (yes, data), but then do something extreaordinary with it, something unexpected, and something that just might be vastly more valuable than anything a formal methodology can every do.

I strongly believe in the purposeful value in all the formal disciplines and practices within the user experience design realm. I believe it is important that we continue to help business understand how these can help them. But I also believe we need to stop pretending that design is not art. It is the art of discovering the best form for a given function, and no data or process or management tactic can ever do it better.

Let’s celebrate and proclaim the value of art in design as much as we do all the crunchy bits that business likes so much, and maybe we can begin selling them on that, too.