Free of style

In digital product design, style is a crutch. Designers don’t need to leave a signature stamp on a project.

This isn’t about pushing a personal agenda. We’re not artists. This isn’t ego or self-expression.

Having a style means you don’t start from first principles. Style assumes that you’ll apply the same solution to a new problem, and expect it to fit — or that your pre-conceptions are accurate. Style gets in the way of doing the work, of testing all the variants until you’re confident that you’re expressing the idea in the most appropriate format.

Design is how it works, not how it looks. We’re going to spend our careers balancing between direct, utilitarian paths and guided, branded experiences. Keep it clean, keep it light, and collaborate closely with the brand and marketing folks to ensure that the identity and customer experience are consistent across other channels. This isn’t fashion, where we try to either define or chase trends.

As product designers, we:

  • identify and advocate for the best experience for the users of our product (through cycles of user-centered design),
  • skew towards doing, not talking (show, don’t tell. a prototype is worth a thousand meetings),
  • push for the biggest gain on metrics that should matter the most to our business sponsors (which may not be the immediate, short-term dollar),
  • help scale a business (by thinking in terms of systems)
  • conscientiously build toward the best internal working environment for our collaborators. (multi-functional teams where all inputs are valid and considered, transparency, minimal documentation, feedback from real users, etc)

Nowhere in here do we do vanity projects. Or rely on crutches like pushing to use modals on every site, or the same style guide template, or a tabbed menu bar, or the same titling font, over and over.

Inspiration is important, but learning through rigour and repetition are more important. Put in the work: brute force it until it works, within the project constraints. Test everything you can, iterate on what performs best, repeat. You have to try it, you can’t just assume. Nothing is arbitrary. We don’t design because we ‘had a feeling’.

We work in teams to solve messy problems. Be proud of your work, but understand the distinction between staying engaged & motivated, and feeling emotionally attached to your work as though it was an extension of you. You’re not a singular visionary. You don’t want a style.

Hero image of Plaza del Bebederos de Los Caballos, by Luis Barragan. c. 1960. via.