Design plays a bigger role in your life than you may think.
The output of design is usually pixels. Pixels are what everyone consumes for seemingly endless hours each day as we work, play, watch, scroll, read, write, shop, eat... and so on. Our everyday life has so many interactions with, dependancies on and sadly addictions to, things that involve pixels.
It’s just a fact - life in this century includes pixels.
So even if you aren’t a designer, pixels have an impact on your life. This impact will either be a help or a hinderance, essentially a good experience or a bad one. So I think it’s in everyones interest (not just designers) to play a role in shaping how pixels impact our life, and I believe it can start with re-shaping our perception of 'design'.
I've heard all this before
Yes you have. This is certainly not new. The definition and value of design has been discussed for decades, but yet we are still here. I still see it daily with my customers, partners, colleagues, across the internet, and in the media - design is misunderstood, overlooked, minimised as only a functional element of business rather than vital. 'Design Thinking' is still an unknown or at least an ambiguous concept to most, even though it has been around since the 80’s and organisations like IDEO and InVision have been championing the cause.
"Decades ago, Thomas J. Watson Jr. grew IBM on the premise that “good design is good business.” Today, this sentiment has never been truer, and yet no less difficult to sell."
It’s a two-fold issue. On one hand, most people still have a shallow and incorrect perception of what ‘design’ actually is. On the other hand, too many designers simply accept this shallow perception of what their role is. The result is therefore compounding and hence hard to overcome.
Let’s be clear - I’m not aiming to solve the issues here or offer a silver bullet, because there isn’t one. But I do want to join the discussion and challenge some thinking, perhaps specifically on a smaller scale, and very practical level - for small business, grass roots Not-for-Profit (NFP) orgs, smaller design teams and freelance designers. Firstly, I wish to challenge those who think design is merely a functional part of their organisation that just produces pixels. Secondly, to all designers I want to challenge you to embrace your role as not just one who outputs pixels, but as a creator of meaningful experiences.
"I think the opportunities are absolutely boundless and I think design underpins all of it, because I think if technology is being delivered and developed it for its own sake, it doesn’t have a purpose. I think the design is what gives it a purpose."
Creativity is synonymous with the design industry. Creativity is an essential part of creating, and design is really all about creating things. The most talented and purely creative people can produce some spectacular things. Creativity is an attractive attribute. People desire to be creative and like it when people exclaim something like ‘you’re so creative…’!
Creativity on its own, however, doesn’t necessarily produce meaningful things.
Meet the ugly and under-rated sibling - Process. It is always overshadowed by its more famous and attractive sibling Creativity, but in fact, with out Process, Creativity wouldn’t really have the limelight and success it enjoys. Process sits in the background doing critical behind the scenes work that drives the final outcome.
As the pixels we produce become more and more complex, I believe designers need to lean into process even more. If we become more intentional about process, then I believe we will start to produce far more meaning in our work.
"...if all design does is say, “We’re the guys that use Sketch and Studio and Photoshop or whatever it is, and we produce a bitmap of this size,” then I think they’re totally missing the point in that I think the design is the responsibility to say, “How did we get to this screen? How did we get to these pixels in this format?"
Now any designer who’s done their time will know that pride doesn’t have much place in design. Most often pride rears it's head when the customer or the boss overrides what you think is a brilliant design. Sometimes however the process will take over, in fact it should take over. Process done well means you can submit to the process and exclude any pride.
Even more importantly, process should bring in, or at least give more room for, the critical element of empathy. Empathy might be like the long lost sibling you never knew you had, and when you meet them you can’t imagine life without them again because when you put the 3 siblings together, you’ve got a formula for creating some exceptional pixels with real purpose.
Process In Practice
Working on a branding project for an independent school, I took them through a process to explore the identity of the organisation, understand the needs of the school and listen to the voice of the passionate school community. The output at the end of this process was of course pixels - a new logo.
Now in my professional opinion, the resulting pixels weren’t as beautiful as they could be. I actually preferred some previous iterations of the design to the final. This was even confirmed by another designer who commented on the final design mentioning things that could have been better or different to, in her opinion, improve the design - and I did agree with her on some levels.
Is the process right? Well, design is very subjective, but if the path to these pixels has been defined through a process of planning, research, ideation, prototyping, iteration, testing, the final outcome should be reliable and will be exactly what the customer wants. Subjective opinions are valid, but can be addressed by pointing back at the process.
A basic model for design thinking process (source)
When I look at the final design for the school logo, and consider the feedback from others including another designer I respect, perhaps there is some regret from a pure design perspective. But I have to point myself, and the other designer, straight back to the process. Via the process, we did a thorough job of listening to the needs of the customer - the board, the executive, the teaching staff, the students, the parents - giving them all an opportunity to have a voice and testing the designs across the school.
The end result was exactly what the school wanted - not what I wanted, not what my subjective opinion or pride wanted. The school and the stakeholders loved the new logo which is really what we set out to do at the start - meet the needs of the customer, not just produce some pixels.
The process gave structure, allowed for empathy, then combined with creativity, delivered the right outcome. This, I believe, is good design at work.
Design Is Vital
Design shapes the pixels we all consume each day.
'Design thinking' and such topics are often reserved for big corporations, large design teams or university studies, but I believe these princliples can be applied at any level - small businesses, tiny NFP's, schools, freelance designers, etc. If everyone has a better understanding of design as not just a simple functional task but rather a vital element that has depth and can add real value to your organisation, then we may start to see change at a very practical, everyday level.
So, if you’re not a designer, please broaden your perception of ‘design’. Don’t ask a designer for a quick output of pixels, but rather expect more - ask them about their process and give them scope to play out a process. Give your internal designers a voice, your senior designers a ‘seat at the table’. If you want great design that delivers meaningful output for your customers, you want a designer (or agency) that of course has creative flair and talent, but most importantly, they must have a solid process. If you just want cheap & nasty design, you’re just doing humanity a disservice by adding more meaningless pixels for our already overloaded eyes to consume.
Designers - we have responsibility to produce more meaningful pixels. We’re in the business of creating pixels and far be it from me to simply contribute to meaningless pixel overload. I want to create pixels with real purpose - user centric pixels that help to serve us in very useful and practical ways.
Creativity is already part of your job, but process may not come as naturally to you. Lean into process and start to overtly think about how you create, own the process, not just the output. Push back on those who just want you to deliver some quick pixels without any thought or process - slow down, sell the value of process, and in turn you also will increase your own value to the organisations you serve.
If more designers start to operate this way, we will start to fulfil our responsibility to produce more meaningful pixels that genuinely meet the needs of the customer.
Anthony is the founder and Director of Elevate. After family, faith, and business, he loves to surf, play soccer, RIDE and take a decent photo.