In Defense of the Evidence

A case for valuing, saving, and exposing the artifacts of design

By Chris Risdon

Current trends in product and service design are causing a baby-out-with-the-bathwater scenario, where the justified desire to deemphasize documentation has also devalued the importance of the artifacts we generate — the evidence of our processes and methods.

There is frequently a debate, typically termed “portfolio vs. process” with the question being, “What’s more important, someone’s portfolio or their ability to articulate their process and thinking?”

I’ve never understood this debate, as I think that one should not exist without the other. Clearly it’s fine to recognize that someone’s ability and experience should not be judged on the basis of a series of images of wireframes and sitemaps. But also what’s clear is that a discussion of someone’s process and methodology is just theory without the evidence to support the words.

Artifacts are the record of our informed decisions, our synthesis and analysis. They are precious.

Maybe the issue is semantics. Maybe we shouldn’t be borrowing from visual arts — photography, graphic design, illustration — by calling the artifacts of our work a “portfolio.” Maybe we need to frame them with more context and have case studies be our calling card. Or, simply, supporting artifacts, or evidence. Indeed, we shouldn’t limit these “portfolios” to neat and tidy wireframes, interfaces, and flows. They should include images of sticky note-filled walls and whiteboards, sketches, and research protocols. I know that I would never hire someone who didn’t have some visual supporting evidence of his or her work.

The graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister has said that he enjoys doing work where the “story of the making becomes part of the design.” Sagmeister famously had the text for an AIGA poster carved into his torso with a razor blade by an assistant. This could’ve been Photoshopped, but revealing the authentic process had so much more impact. The process exposed, becoming precious in itself.

It may sound like an odd juxtaposition, but this can relate directly to the Lean UX approach to product design. I hear many practitioners who learn about Lean UX and come away thinking they need to try and avoid producing, saving, and documenting any artifacts. I’m a proponent of Lean UX, but always clarify that deliverables and artifacts are different things.

Artifacts may be even more important in Lean UX because they tend to expose the actual synthesis of information more directly than any detailed specification ever could.

Again, let’s talk about sketches, or prototypes, or whiteboard drawings. Quick iterations of sometimes incomplete products, the process and final product more closely intertwined. These artifacts may be even more important in Lean UX because they tend to expose the actual synthesis of information more directly than any detailed specification ever could. Yes, we want to treat these as a quick and disposable means to an end. And this is likely a good attitude while producing these artifacts, as they free designers to focus on the content of ideas, and not the formality of their presentation. But in the end, these products of thinking should not be disposed of summarily.

Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, known for large scale environmental works of art — most recently the 2005 Central Park Installation The Gates — document every step of the development of the installation, including drawings, collages, prints and movies. They sell these artifacts to help fund the project. These artifacts become precious because of the permanent record they provide for an otherwise transient project.

And if there’s one thing about digital products and services that is true is that they are transient. (Had I realized how much I would value the thinking and designing I was doing in the ‘90s, I’d have saved all those 25MB zip disks with all my Word and Visio information architecture documents!)

Interfaces change and evolve rapidly. Where are the artifacts that serve as a record for once-new interaction models, design patterns and frameworks? It may seem superficial, but I’m thankful for the blogs and photo groups that document flows and wireframes. It may be unhealthy to fetishize this ephemera, but they grow in importance as they become further removed from the previous iterations of interface design they informed.

Sometimes napkins and scraps of paper become precious for the illumination of thinking behind them. The idea for Twitter was documented in some pigeon scratch on a piece of paper that showed the main concept for the status update interface. The idea captured. The evidence of inspiration.

And while I will be happy if I never have to produce another specification-level document in my lifetime (having produced them since the late ‘90s, I think I’ve paid my dues!), it doesn’t mean that some polished deliverables can’t be valuable for the clarity of their communication. Flickr’s concept model has been published multiple times as an artifact that helps visually describe simply an otherwise complex set of relationships between product features and users.

We need to value our artifacts, save them, and expose them. They are a record of our decision making and, in some lucky cases, our innovation. They are our precious evidence.

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