Why digital design culture is more important than methods

As much as software is eating the world, according to Mark Andreessen famous quote, it’s now become obvious in the last few years that UX is eating the world. However, UX has become a normative science that limits the creative share that digital design could claim. In Europe and in France, digital designers are deeply influenced and fascinated by the practice of UX, as devised by Donald Norman. The good news is that large companies are all about hiring designers. But most of them have rebranded themselves as UX designers to be sure not to be left on the side of the road (they used to call themselves Digital Art Director, web designers, interactive designers). Design is developing as an evolutionary profession. Fortunately, French design ecosystem doesn’t shrink itself to UX practice, the same way design cannot be reduced to methodology and buzzwords. Design is part of America’s and Europe’s strong cultural heritage and, as designers, we should not forget to appeal its roots. Design is also part of the world’s industrial heritage. Klaus Krippendorff says that design is making sense of things. That’s what we mean by cultural heritage. Dieter Rams, a great German designer, is still a major source of inspiration for digital design. Bauhaus legacy is still relevant if we have a closer look to its accurate meaning: creating beautiful and useful objects, in the spirit of time and accessible to all.

Dieter Rams — Braun product design (1960's)

In France, the perception of design has been blurred for a long time now, greatly because the general acceptation of it is mostly fashion and furniture design. As a new field, digital design practice has been debated a lot in our country, when it has a specific identity thanks to Etienne Mineur, Jean-Louis Frechin, Giuseppe Attoma and small design studios.

NoDesign (Jean-Louis Frechin) designed the drone driving interface

Jean-Louis Frechin defines digital design (design numérique in French) as

The art of imagining, proposing and realizing useful, poetic and new objects, services and situations in the essence of the time.

These times, much focus has been placed on methodology and process. Books, articles and conferences are all about this problem-solving posture. Enough design methods, wrote Jon Kolko. Methodology and process are very interesting to talk about but, there is no point in denying that fact, but I fear that the digital design field has eventually produced much more discourse about (user centered) method than actual (good) design. By listening too much to the users, we end up without vision at all about the product.

When the essence of the UX discourse revolves around the “how to do” (methods, recipes, tools), we miss the aesthetic of use by making design a science that is sorely lacking emotion.

Design should be at least as much an act of (industrial) creation as a process. There is no way you can innovate with standardized design methods. To really be related to innovation, digital design has to formulate proposals for new uses, imagine unprecedented formal translations of interactions and situations, while knowing how to implement them with method. But not as an end in itself. However, “How” should not be the focus. “What” we should design is, says Jean-Louis Frechin. The truth is that design has both a part of intuition in its creative process and a part of rationalization. We have simply neglected one of the terms of the equation. By the way, I don’t believe in a strict distinction between UX and UI. Digital design must me useful, usable and desirable. To build a successful product, you’ll need the smart user journey and an appealing interface.

Coloop, by NoDesign (Jean-Louis Frechin)

Our membership of the world of images is stronger, more constitutive of our being than our belonging to the world of ideas.
 — Gaston Bachelard, Le Dormeur éveillé

In a way, obsessed with the need to become legitimate, digital designers have lost access to this world of images, to the imaginary world. Traditionally, digital designers derive much of their inspiration from science fiction literature and cinema. Science fiction is not the only source of inspiration for digital designers. Architecture, contemporary art, music, painting, history of (interaction) design, typography… can also be part of their imaginary.

Colossal, Philipp Bessley

The spread of computing through graphic interfaces, digital objects and space is one of the major cultural phenomena of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These objects and interfaces are part of our industrial heritage, just as previous industrial revolutions have shaped our environment. This is an underrated and neglected aspect of digital design, yet exciting to explore.

Composition with red, blue and yellow — Piet Mondrian, 1929

Design is culture and history.

Design is imagination.

Design is aesthetic (and not only usefulness).

Design is language.

Design is desire (and not only fulfilling user needs).

Design is meaning.

1, 2 ,3 Data — Exhibition @Fondation EDF, scenography by Trafik, curator: David Bihanic