Spoiler: not about furniture

The Perils of Armchair Design

I’ll be perfectly frank: I’ve done it. I’d be willing to wager that you’ve done it, too. Design inspiration sites are chock-full of it. The entire web community of designers, UX gurus, and “creative thought-leaders” are guilty of it every single day:

“Ugh, this design totally blows. I could make this look so much better.” Open Photoshop > New Document > My-Better-Layout.psd

Armchair designers have been around since there was design to critique, and long before the Eames brothers would give them a comfy place from which to do it. You can’t swing a dead pixel in Dribbble without hitting a shiny, new interpretation of a popular app or digital service.

Granted, this is often rooted in a well-meaning and natural reaction — natural, but dangerous. Of course we want to improve, beautify, and simplify what users see. But what we usually end up with is the frosting without the cake: all sweet, no structure. And that even sweeter cake is made out of context.


Delicious Decisions

Sure, taking things out of their intended framework can be funny, but it’s often excused under the convenient guise of a lazy design critique. Judging someone else’s work is easy — even easier when you have absolutely no reference for the decisions they had to make. Everything becomes subjectively analyzed, and well-considered choices are boiled down to petulant and personal preferences.

When a new site or app or what-have-you is unveiled to the world, what we see is only the end slice of a long, intensive, and largely secluded development process. You and I have only just met, but my guess is that you weren’t involved in that process. Months or years of blood, sweat, and caffeine have been poured into that solution along with a bevy of factors that had to be taken into consideration.

Goals & Limitations

This probably isn’t the first design rodeo for the fine folks who built this thing, and they’re bringing insights from many other projects over many years. Those projects had defined, measurable goals to keep everyone on track and ensure it was going to be successful. And any designer worth her salt will base those goals on data and research on what she’s trying to accomplish.

Project limitations are ideally established at the outset of any endeavor, and their presence should inform every design decision from start to finish.

  • A piece often overlooked by the armchair designer is the intended audience — a group to which you may very well not belong. Perhaps the intended users don’t have much tech experience, or require some sort of legacy formatting or verbiage from a previous iteration so they don’t get confused.
  • Data could be pointing a designer away from established conventions if they’ve proven to be ineffective in past specific situations.
  • Resources like time, money, personnel, and skill sets dictate a lot about how a project can develop. Crazy-talented problem breakers can do a lot with a little, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still humans. Big projects are about the slow burn, and they’re not doing anyone favors by grasping too far beyond their reach.
  • You’ve only got yourself and your Twitter followers to please with your redesign, but the designer has stakeholders who are invested in its success. And you can bet those decision-makers had much to say about how the project should look and function. They’re probably the ones paying the bills, after all.
  • Hopefully this design was tested, retested, and tested again before emerging into the world. Smart money says that those tests yielded invaluable stats that informed a number of design decisions.

Don’t Judge, Just Nudge

All right — for as much as I’ve harangued about them, I do have to admit that redesigns can be fun and a cathartic way to polish your skills. The trick is acknowledging your distance from the problem that the original was designed to solve, and not inserting your own voice in lieu of an established brand’s.

The inclination to “patch the cracks” in others’ solutions is a natural part of being a creative person. However, it can be even more powerful as a springboard for intentional, thoughtful conversation. Nobody appreciates their efforts being torn apart and dissected by uninformed strangers, but folks are quite fond of genuine interest in their work!

So the next time you feel the urge to nestle into your armchair and pass judgment, start up an open and honest dialogue with somebody who was involved. They’ll probably be super juiced to talk about it.