Do good Art Directors make good UX Designers?

You just have to look at the search graphs on Google Trends to realize the extent to which the phenomenon of new job roles in digital design it just getting started:

When there’s a trend, it means that people are hiring. However, training in Experience Design has only really been available during the last five years, which means that there is a gap to be filled in terms of the demands of many companies seeking profiles such as UX Designers, especially for senior employees.

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I have recently been involved in filling a number of UX and UI type roles, and I have recognized an accelerating trend, namely the sudden appearance of a large number of “Experience Designers” who had previously defined themselves as “Art directors” on their LinkedIn profiles, for instance, where candidates suddenly change their expertise between two roles, justifying this by creating a digital experience for the first time.

“On their LinkedIn profiles, for instance, where candidates suddenly change their expertise between two roles, justifying this by creating a digital experience for the first time.”

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that, and simply taking part in the creation of a mobile app concept, changing software package from Photoshop to Sketch, or taking an online training course doesn’t entitle you to declare that you are now an Experience Designer. That’s because, above and beyond theoretical knowledge and software skills, there’s an entire way of thinking that needs to evolve.

A shift from Storytelling to Storyplaying

Historically, Art Directors worked on conveying a message via storytelling: fundamentally, an emotional exercise. Great visuals that are simple, often minimalist, to highlight the merits of a product or express a brand’s values, whether on TV, in the movies, or in the pages of a magazine. In short, the kind of content that is enjoyed in the traditional media (v1.0), with no interactive element.

Experience Designers specialize in precisely this interaction, integrating the rational element of the user’s experience into their design work, enabling them to locate themselves in a space, browse from page to page, and decide to take a particular action. Storytelling transforms, therefore, into Storyplaying, because the emotional brain combines with the rational brain to create a user experience. Neither works without the other, and neither element can be conceived in the absence of the other.

“ Storytelling transforms, therefore, into Storyplaying, because the emotional brain combines with the rational brain to create a user experience. ”

The true challenge is that user experiences respond to rules that are simultaneously highly precise and very subtle, and it is impossible to impose these rules on a user. Even with a successful visual outcome, the fundamental rule is that users who don’t understand something cease to be users. If they aren’t using a product, there is no interaction between the user and the brand. Therefore, observation is crucial (user research), followed by validation (user testing) and iterations to be confident that an experience design is relevant.

Falling in love vs. being a matchmaker

Another very important point is that most Art Directors are, as the name suggest, artists by background. That means that they express themselves via their projects, bringing a lot to the table: inspiration, elements of the Zeitgeist, and a lot of their own personality. Often, therefore, they are in love with their projects and will fight tooth and nail to defend their creations from criticism in order to establish their position as an artist and maintain their work intact.

By contrast, Experience Designers will consider themselves as matchmakers between users and ideas: their inputs are the users on the one hand and the requirements of the brand (in terms of business and image goals) as well as any technical limitations on the other. They, therefore, seek to achieve a balance between these two items to come up with a solution that is “Useful, Simple, and Effective” (U.S.E.) to meet a specific requirement. If their work is criticized, they tend to see criticism as a way to improve the current version of the project in order to move to the next iteration.

User testing: the real Experience Design school

Finally, after a few years of experience, I realized that the only true school where you can learn Experience Design wasn’t to be found in MOOCs, tutorials, learning different tools or methods, or creating dozens and dozens of different projects. It is often that you only see clearly when observing the reactions of *real* people during user testing and when you take the most violent uppercuts after working on a project for several weeks. Just the fact that a user can’t find a particular button, or misunderstands a label on the first page, can be enough for the entire user experience to fall apart. It’s impossible to decide that the user is dumb or just “doesn’t get it,” which is often the reflexive, defensive answer of many Art Directors. Instead, Designers have to go away and redo their homework to make the site or app more responsive or less confusing.

“ It is often that you only see clearly when observing the reactions of *real* people during user testing and when you take the most violent uppercuts after working on a project for several weeks. ”

This, therefore, is the question that I ask most often when interviewing for a UX designer role, particularly if the candidate’s background is heavily oriented toward graphic design: have they ever organized user testing, or even experienced it first hand? In every case I prefer a positive answer, accompanied by an example of how the digital experience was improved by this kind of testing.

Experience Director or Art Designer?

Currently, when I receive CVs, a lot the time spent reviewing them involves filtering applications from Art Directors who have recently, and subtly, changed label. My view is that they don’t automatically make good Experience Designers , for the various reasons I’ve described above.

That said, it’s clear that many Art Directors are shifting toward this discipline, and have many of the strengths they need to make it a success. However, the route to earning your spurs as an Experience Designer is a long one, because it involves a completely new way of thinking about the creative process, making an impact throughout the chain, from conception through to production, and which extends to the argument for the basic concept and the ways in which teams are managed.

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