UX Design by Way of Photography
How my experience behind the camera translated into design
I love photography. I’ve been taking pictures ever since I was in middle school, and in recent years, with the advent of innovations such as the iPhone, apps like Instagram, and massive advancements in camera technology, I’ve been able to take my photography to the point that I can call myself an actual photographer, not just someone who takes photos. Now, my photography is the manifestation of my artistic vision. I’ve also been featured by entities like Apple, Adobe, The Verge, SKYY Vodka, VSCO, and Instagram itself. However, even though I regularly get hired for photography work, I have never made it my full-time career.
When I told people that I was going to pursue UX design as a career, the most common response was “Oh, that should be a good fit for you because you’re already so good at photography.” The general consensus was that UX design should come easily to a photographer because both disciplines are visually-oriented. After a while, I heard it so much and actually subconsciously wanted for it to be true to the point that I started to partially believe it.
Boy, was I wrong.
When I started my design program, I quickly learned the field’s core tenets, some of which included:
- The importance of a problem statement, and how to formulate one
- The three levels of listening
- The essential need for empathy, and how that differs from sympathy
- The idea that UX design is the intersection of user needs and business goals
And so on. None of these things really have anything to do with photography. The concepts focused more on communication, psychology, business analysis, and empathy. Even when we moved on to more of the “sexy” side of design, the emphasis was less on making things look aesthetically pleasing, and much more on does this choice — whether it’s a feature, an interaction, the placement of an icon, or wording of a header — make sense to the user? Does it solve their problem and help them achieve their goal? More and more, I was discovering that the way I was learning to use my brain in UX design had very little to do with how I would think when engaging in photography.
As I worked on more projects and developed more of a design mindset, I came to realize that at the very core of the question What are the similarities/differences between Photography and UX Design? is: what and how I create in photography is ultimately to please myself, whereas what and how I create in UX design is ultimately to satisfy the needs of others. Of course, these are not absolute principles. I always post my photos for others to see and hopefully appreciate (which is why I still use Instagram, a topic for another post), and I am not comfortable moving forward with a design that I’m not personally happy with. But generally, I have found that in general, photography is self-focused, while design is outward-focused.
In a similar vein, this line of thinking also resurfaced a question that had been simmering in my mind for a while: Is UX design art? I used to believe that it was a possibility, which is partially what interested me in the design field the first place. And to be sure, other non-UX fields of design can get very artistic and creative. But, now I would say that while art is primarily a form of self-expression and creativity, UX design is a more scientific, utilitarian, problem-solving process. There is room for creativity in crafting the solutions, but ultimately, there’s not as much room for self-expression, because designers design for users, not themselves.
“Contrary to popular belief, designers are not artists. We employ artistic methods to visualise thinking and process, but unlike artists, we work to solve a client’s problem, not present our own view of the world.” (Erik Spiekermann)
With that said, there were definitely methods and principles that I was able to take from photography and apply to design, such as composition and color theory. When designing, I am a stickler on details, like making sure everything lines up correctly and colors match and complement each other. Also, something that I have found to feel familiar when I’m designing is the constant tweaking involved in ideation. I’ve encountered this across multiple activities, such as video editing, photo editing, graphic design, website creation, even writing. Creating something, then taking the time to step back to collect feedback from others — or reevaluating it yourself — will inevitably reveal things that need to be adjusted or removed completely.
Another commonality that photography shares with design is related to business. Not all of the photography I do is purely for myself. Most of it is based on personal projects and ideas, but whenever someone hires me to shoot something, I shoot to serve their needs. All of the photos I produce from a paid photo session will still be shot and edited in a style that is uniquely me, but the subject matter and locations are factors that are chosen by the client, based on their vision for the shoot, which will not necessarily be perfectly aligned with mine. In that sense, commercial photography resembles design because, once again, what I am creating is ultimately for others, not myself. This would be true for any contract/agency environment.
This probably goes without saying, but my opinions are rooted firmly in my personal experience. It’s possible that other photographers going into UX design may find the transition effortless and natural. But in general, I have found that training my photographer’s mind to think like a UX designer takes some getting used to. It is a definitely a different way of seeing the world, analyzing and making sense of complex situations, and approaching problems, even if I didn’t have a background in photography. But having that background certainly doesn’t hurt.