I’m a shallow designer, it’s time to change.
We’ve all been there: sat staring at a Sketch document thinking about how to make it look better somehow. As designers, we’ve been asked to “make it sexy”, to “make it pop”, and for too long that’s been my primary goal. I often find myself trawling through places like Dribbble looking for inspiration. I’ve spent hours agonising over the placement of tiny features to try to create a balanced design. But there’s something missing.
When I was in university there was a common debate of form and function — should one be ranked above the other. The further I get into my career the more I would say there is a clear, indisputable winner.
Function should always come before form — in fact I’m beginning to think that form should be one of the last things to be considered.
We are designers but we are also consumers. Think back to the last time you were frustrated with a piece of technology, was it because the corner radius wasn’t to your liking? Probably not.
I love how Apple’s iOS 10 update looks, but the fact that I struggle to unlock my phone every time I have wet hands drives me insane.
When I’m furiously mashing the home button, attempting to get it to register that I want to access my stuff, all appreciation for the visual details disintegrates. Everything is tinted with a red haze!
As designers we want to produce beautiful products. That’s not a bad thing, but it can sometimes be a dangerous distraction from what really makes a product great for a user. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it so easy to obsess over the aesthetics of a particular element that I can forget why I’ve chosen that approach in the first place.
A colleague introduced me to this great video illustrating the words of Ira Glass, about the gap between our taste and our ability to produce great work.
It talks about how creatives get into their field because they have great taste, but don’t have the skills initially to produce the quality of work they dream about. It seems to me that when we become designers we often have very shallow goals. We want to produce the most beautiful interface design. We want to have exciting interactions. We want interesting elements to pop out left, right and centre. But does anyone want or need any of that?
It’s true that a beautiful interface can increase trust in your product, and animations can help nudge people towards the actions they want to perform. But if I think about how I often split my time, designing the look of an element can get a hefty percentage without me even realising it. And it’s in these moments, focused on beauty, where it’s easy to stop thinking about the user’s needs. It’s easy to put form over function.
But what if I want to develop my taste in function? I’m trying a few techniques to bring that up to the same level as my taste in form?
1. Being strict with time
It’s massively tempting to dedicate all your time to the visuals. But how useful is the perfect checkbox if it’s in a part of the journey where no one thinks to use it?
Intercom recently wrote about their 15 minute rule for finding answers to problems. This is something I’m trying to apply to my design process.
Now, obviously problems can often take more than 15 minutes to solve, and there comes a point where you need to put the time in on the visuals. But I’m finding that constantly questioning the core solution to a problem before looking too deeply into the visuals can help to avoid wasting time.
2. Being more receptive to feedback
Feedback is hard. We’ve poured all our energy into a project, then the first person you show it to rips it to shreds. I went to an event recently where the feedback process was compared to the process of going through grief. We feel sadness, we feel anger, all in a single conversation, and the only thing we think we can do is immediately push back.
There are times when we genuinely do have the right solution, but we need to be aware that there are also many times where we’ve missed a crucial part of a user’s journey.
Though the initial reaction when getting negative feedback is to fight your corner and justify your decisions, this can lead you down a worse road in the long run.
3. Reading great books
My manager bought a selection of books for our team to learn from and be inspired by. One of these was “Neuro Web Design. What makes them click?” by Susan M. Weinschenk. I can confidently say it’s one of the most valuable books I’ve ever read.
It talks about the different parts of our brain: how we were original programmed to think and how modern day humans choose to think now.
It’s a book that takes you right back to the basics. All design theories it contains are based on the uncontrollable and irrational part of our brains. We’re well aware that our users live busy lives that are full of distractions. But it’s an eye opening concept that as humans we often physically can’t help how we respond to these distractions because of certain parts of our brain. We’re programmed to respond to movement, and different subject matter in different ways in an attempt to satisfy our basic requirements for survival.
There’s no doubt that these deeper insights, into areas that are not directly linked to product design, have a really positive impact on how we create experiences for human beings.
4. Learning to code
This is an odd one. I’ve been learning to code. It’s hard, but every time I learn something new I turn into a 5 year old child and rush to show everyone what I’ve built.
For a while I was trying to build a site by adding in cool effects whenever I came across them. However, I would constantly hit blocks or things would break because I hadn’t thought about the structure properly. Old habits die hard — I’d jumped straight into trying to make it look pretty first.
Code doesn’t let you get away with things that you can get away with in Sketch. As designers we can quickly mock something up to get an immediate idea of how something will look. With code that’s a lot harder to do. The fact that you need to know the structure of a webpage while building, forces plan and consider everything carefully before going wild with stylings. Button colour choices come later!
The pull to focus on form is always going to be there — that’s why I became a designer. But hopefully, it’ll become easier to put form to one side, and let my new taste in function shine through.