The intersection between graphic design and user experience design produces some interesting philosophical dilemmas.
Graphic design tends to concern itself with the æsthetics and subjective appeal of the design output, whereas UX design tends to focus on user needs, and facilitating the fulfillment of those needs.
There is a point where they actually come to a head. Where we, as designers, must ask ourselves for whom the design actually exists.
Does it exist for the brand and the entity behind it, to express itself in what amounts to a somewhat self-centered, ”inside-out” approach? One that can potentially be interpreted as the brand being uninterested in or even dismissive of the desires of the audience, which might actually serve to disenfranchise consumers?
Or, even worse, does it exist for the designer him- or herself, to compose eye-pleasing tableaus that mainly satisfy their creator?
Or does the design exist for the audience and the consumer to identify with, and feel connected to, in what would amount to a more inclusive approach of outreach and dialogue?
Viewing design through the increasingly restrictive and wholly subjective lens of aesthetics is becoming more and more indulgent and less purposeful, particularly in this age of increasingly distributed media consumption and sophisticated audience targeting. I say this on the backs of hundreds of A/B, Multi-variate and Machine Learning tests, where it has been very hard to argue or prove that subjective æsthetics actually affected the outcome in any measureable way. Or, even if they did, why? Which leads to a provocative question:
Does the audience actually care about æsthetics?
Having your brand experiences shackled by a single-minded set of aesthetic preferences risks alienating your customers. It means you risk coming off as tone deaf to the needs and wants of your audience, which can be the equivalent of talking really loud over people at a party, without listening.
As a designer operating in an inherently interactive medium, I think dialogue is of prime importance. And seeing how this aspect of marketing and communication is growing (especially in this age of remote controlled screens and touchscreens of all shapes and sizes), and taking on an ever more important role in how brands engage with consumers, it leads me to conclude that the era of selfish, self-centered, static brands is over.
We need to engage with our audiences if we hope for them to interact with us, and the brand as well as the visual identity needs to invite to that.
We need for the design to be a handshake, not a pose.
This is admittedly a bit of a departure from my usual UX- and design-related topics for this blog, but bear with me. There is a creative relevance at the bottom of this, especially in terms of creative concepting and the need for emotional resonance. It touches on a broader issue that I feel is not uncommon in the creative world: the need to kill your darlings, or at least work through your conceptual issues so that your ideas connect with people on a more general human level.
I will be using the recent Pixar movie ”Soul” as my benchmark. While this post is a indeed a review of that specific movie, the conceptual and executional problems in ”Soul” are not uncommon, and broader analogs can be found in almost any creative endeavor.
I watched the movie ”Soul” last night. Not my favorite Pixar outing to be honest. I wanted to love it, I really did, and it is quite spectacular looking, but it just didn’t do it for me. Didn’t quite connect the dots. Got a bit too cutesy and indulgent with the concept, didn’t quite bring it home and land it.
The script feels somewhat unfinished, a little bit like a draft. The concept is great, heart’s in the right place, but tackling something as heady as the Meaning of Life needs more than good intentions. Sorry. I’m filing this in the same folder as ”Inside Out” and ”Coco”, two other Pixar movies which I thought had similar issues.
I think Pixar have gotten a bit sloppy with their scriptwriting, and they’re being too cutesy and abstract with their concepts. It seems form has overtaken function, or maybe they’ve just gotten too comfortable with their metaphors. It’s not uncommon in creative concepting and execution.
The thing is, Pixar used to be very good at boiling a story down to its essentials. Connecting the dots between the abstract, conceptual aspects – depicting the inner workings of a psyche (in ”Inside Out”), or creating a convincing scenery for the afterlife (in ”Soul”) – and the emotional aspects of real life, so that they’re not just vague fictional constructs, staged for mere entertainment purposes.
Lately, however, they’ve failed to connect those dots fully – they leave a lot unresolved and sketched in, and it affects the emotional resonance of the story. What was Joe Gardner’s true purpose in ”Soul”, if not music? Aren’t we supposed to care about that? They made a Big Deal of that in the premise of the movie, then left it hanging.
CONCEPT <——————–Soul is here————————————Wall-E is here—-> RESONANCE
In very concrete terms, I thought ”Wall-E” was much more successful in capturing the nature of loneliness, and the desperate hope of seeking companionship, than ”Soul” was in outlining someone’s search for a purpose in life, or than ”Inside Out” was in exploring the emotional facets of one’s core identity.
To be fair, I enjoyed both ”Inside Out” and ”Soul”, but they didn’t really affect me the way a truly tight, well-constructed story with credible people and outcomes will do. What’s at stake in ”Soul” is merely pencilled in and hypothetical, not heartfelt. The goal of the main character is simply to get on stage and let his musical inspiration flow, and though this is indeed a critical limitation of that persona – that he has not given more thought to his life’s goal – it also becomes a limitation for the story. I cared a lot more about Woody or Flik or Wall-E or Sully & Mike or Remy or the old man in ”Up” than I do about any of these more recent characters. Cared a lot more about the Incredibles even – who are caricatures and superheroes – than I cared about Joe Gardner, who is a regular guy with a rather common dream.
I found most of the afterlife scenes in ”Soul” bewildering and aimless – kooky for the sake of being kooky, not to create an emotional connection. It’s like a concept artist playing around in their own dollhouse. Why should I care? Same situation with the boy in Coco: his life and what was important to him got lost in the conceptual trappings and stylistic flourishes of the Day of the Dead. Pixar is presenting me with an imaginative and really ”out there” concept that doesn’t help me connect with the character or the theme – in fact, it actually obstructs that connection, and the heavy use of metaphor doesn’t help. They need to transcend that obstacle but seem uninterested in or uncapable of doing so.
The chase to get to the jazz club, which was stalled by a series of mechanical plot twists with no relation to the story (getting the haircut, fixing the suit), was just a tedious distraction. Served no real purpose. And that is beside the fact that what they were trying to accomplish was to connect with a zany hippie who somehow would be able to switch them back into their own bodies – a corny Deus Ex Machina solution that really detracts from my sympathy for the character. His travails are not relatable, and the solution does not apply to my life even in the most abstract of ways.
The whole body switch thing, in fact, is just a stale old scriptwriter construct with no relevance to the theme of the movie. Feels a bit like copy-and-paste. Again, the relevance of the story suffers.
They need to tighten this shit up.
Dynamic Creative In User Experience Design
All design is inherently subjective.
How people perceive and are affected by design depends on who they are, what their circumstances look like and what their expectations are. Subjectivity applies not only to media and graphic design, but to art, fashion, architecture or any other form of visual expression.
We judge with our eyes.
This is especially problematic in the world of user experience, which to a large extent revolves around functionality and usability. The usefulness of browser- and app-based experiences depends on how well they enable users to accomplish what they’re trying to do. Accomplishing goals, on the other hand, also depends on how motivated users are. This adds an emotional dimension to this otherwise highly rational discipline.
Structuring a website (or an app) so that the user merely understands how to use it is simply not sufficient. If the user does not want to use a website, the empirical knowledge of how to use it is largely inconsequential. Therefore, content must be packaged in a way that the user is emotionally motivated to partake of it and here, design has an important role to play.
A survey conducted by Carleton University in Ottawa, published in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology, determined that users form their impressions of a website and its visual appeal within the first 1/20th of a second of visiting it. Even more surprisingly, these first impressions colored the entire experience of the site, whether or not the whole site actually turned out to match that initial perception. The conclusion of the survey was that this first impression was “unlikely to involve cognition” – meaning it is largely an emotional response.
However, presenting a differentiated audience with a unified, undifferentiated design – however well optimized – will not account for the variances in people’s preferences and goals. Such a design will never be entirely effective. Given that users are different and have different preferences and expectations, effective UX design has to be personalize-able. This is quickly becoming an expectation, if not the norm.
A recent study published by Salesforce found that 80% of users expect online experiences to be personalized and tailored to their needs. This means that brands simply cannot afford to broadcast the same uniform message to a single, undifferentiated audience. Marketers need to find ways of communicating to individuals, not audiences.
This posits a problem of scale.
Very few marketers or publishers of content can afford to employ armies of designers and content producers to tailor experiences to each individual user. More importantly, they cannot do so in real time.
Enter dynamic personalization.
By devising smartly constructed, modular design systems based on creative componentry that can be freely interchanged, it is possible to compose entire user experiences based on incoming media signals. These signals can reveal behavioral-, demographic- and psychographic details about each individual user, allowing the experience to programmatically flex and adjust to some of those factors.
This ensures a successful, results-oriented communicative solution that scales. In addition, it may even be able to predict favorable outcomes through the application of AI-technology such as machine learning. Done right, it will allow marketers to dial in the most effective combination of content and design with increasing accuracy.
Testing naturally becomes a central element in such solutions, where a multitude of creative options can be fed into the learning engine. The ideal mix can thus be determined, assembled and verified as users arrive on site. In iProspect’s own testing, we regularly demonstrate incremental conversion gains through dynamic, personalized experiences. However, fully capitalizing on this opportunity requires a shift in how brands look at design and how brands go to market.
The era of the static, monolithic brand is over. Modern brands need to understand their audiences, find ways of communicating on a personal level, and truly become interactive.
Never just create a one-off asset when you can construct something reusable
Never just create a reusable single template when you can design something modular
Never just design modular components when you can devise a framework
Never just devise a framework when you can architect a design system
Never just architect a design system when you can define a user experience
Never just define a user experience when you can plan out a user journey
Never just plan out a single user journey when you can improve lifetime value
As part of a side project, a blog, which collects various musings of a mostly political nature, I have produced an art book which I’ve called Excavated Wisdoms.
The title requires an explanation, which I figured might in turn make for an interesting design blog post in its own right.
It started a few years ago with me wanting to push myself, and to not always behave like a nice, well-taught, neat and orderly graphic designer. I periodically grow tired of that professional imperative, a bit like a petulant child who doesn’t want to go to bed, or eat his oatmeal porridge.
I was thinking to myself, ”What is the worst I could do as a graphic designer?”
The answer came pretty quickly: ”Make something illegible!”. ”Make a mess!”
And it occurred to me that I actually LIKE making messes. I’ve always found that the rational side of me acts as a bit of a censor, and that the creative side of me embraces the messiness. Messy design seems to tell a story, whereas tidy, minimalist design seems to wear its corporate suit-and-tie and put on a show that is not necessarily genuine. Picasso said it best: ”The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”
At the same time, I was rueing the entertainment-ification of our news, and the proliferation of ”Fake News”. It was bothering me that it was so easy for people to make lies seem plausible, and that even the truth was being boiled down into less credible and increasingly categorical, poorly nuanced soundbites.
It was bothering me that all this focus on brevity and clarity, all this spreading of bite-sized information, didn’t actually help us determine what was true. It seemed to not prompt us to think and try to verify the information. If anything, the ease and the speed with which we were consuming information seemed to make us more oblivious to the truth, and more likely to swallow actual falsehoods.
Around this time, I came upon a very fascinating magazine called ”Found”. I bought an anthology of it for my wife for Christmas (OK, it was really for myself, I confess). If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It is very engrossing and fascinating. It’s basically a collage of found bits of communication: discarded letters, postcards, torn out ads with handwritten notes, shopping lists, thrown away print-outs etc.
Given the obvious lack of context for these artefacts, they always seem slightly mysterious, but also very appealing. You’re trying to understand what’s going on in a person’s life that would make them write the message you’re deciphering, and this detective work is very satisfying.
The artefacts are also obviously difficult to decode, typographically as well as linguistically, since they are usually handwritten, or at least poorly written. And many of the artefacts are worn, crumpled, grimy, ripped. To say they have ”patina” is being charitable. But I found this didn’t really bother me. In fact, it only seemed to enhance their credibility and ” truthiness”, and motivated me even more to try and decipher them. Which really seemed to activate my brain on many levels.
It occurred to me that what I was doing seemed akin to excavation: I was digging through layers of time to try and make sense of something. And that also seemed like an apt analogy for my own writing process: I have a feeling that there is something already there, buried inside my brain. I just have to dig it out, and the words act as my shovel. It turns out, Michael Ondaatje had the perfect description for this: ”As a writer, one is busy with archaeology”.
So, I decided to take nuggets of wisdom – good quotes that I found to be especially profound – and add layers of grime to them, to deliberately make them harder to read and understand. To treat them as artefacts of buried truth rather than texts to be read, or messages to be communicated.
Why quotes? Well, here I am going to lean on W. Somerset Maugham, who supposedly claimed that ”Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.” There has to be something of value at the end of the excavation process, and wit is certainly valuable.
So, here we are. I’ve produced some 60+ ”excavated wisdoms”. Most of them are witty. Some are less legible than others. All of them are messy and grimy, but all of them contain a nugget of truth, if only we are prepared to dig for it.
So: let’s start digging!
I’ve never been able to understand how the intent of an artist can ever be divorced from the execution.
To argue that it can is to suggest that execution has no net effect on how a piece of art is perceived, and that is clearly untrue. If you for instance study art used for fascist purposes, you are learning to paint like a fascist; to express fascist sentiments. If you learn rhetoric from a fascist, then you learn how to convince people like a fascist.
Art is like any tool; it can be abused. And if the abuse can be lethal, we need to create awareness about it and be very careful about how we use that tool.
Skeptics ask if you can infer ideological intents behind art. I would say yes, and not only that – it is very often the actual purpose.
Art has always existed for purposes of emotional expression and effect and I would submit it is rare for that to not be the case. Surely Picasso wanted his execution of “Guernica” to reflect the horror, chaos and pain of the subject matter? Likewise, it seems obvious that medieval church architects and painters wanted to instill a certain awe of God through their work.
I’m not saying we cannot strictly judge technical aspects of art, but we should not turn a blind eye to why they are there, and we should encourage greater awareness of how images can affect people’s perceptions – anything less is tantamount to naiveté.
For instance, in the case of nazi propaganda art, it seems like a clear case of intentional glorification: the perspective and rendering typically has Hitler looking more powerful, the compositions typically designed to convey an impression of strength. These artistic choices are not accidental.
But do we absolutely HAVE to consider the intent when viewing art? Of course, you can look at any detail of an image in isolation, but it seems to me that if you’re really interested in the craft, you’d want to be aware of the purpose for all the artistic choices involved. Exceedingly few artists make those choices unwittingly, although I suppose some do it more intuitively.
If we step out of the political realm, the choice of paintbrush is connected to the desired visual impact. For instance, an artist might want to forego the brush altogether in favor of airbrushing, if they want to create a feeling of flawlessness. Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?
I suppose it’s a personal preference where you want to start, whether at the beginning or the end of the creative process.. I personally always prefer to look at art through the lens of intent and purpose. In fact, I think the technique becomes even MORE interesting if seen through that lens.
There are artists who are one-trick ponies and apply the same style regardless of subject matter, but the ones who are really admirable imho are the ones who are astutely able to choose an appropriate style and composition that elevates and amplifies the subject matter.
However, this doesn’t necessitate a moral judgment. I am saying art, in every aspect including the executional, is subservient to the creator’s intent. If you want to express fascist sentiments, that leads you down a completely different path of artistic choices than if you, for instance, want to teach children about the birds and the bees. The objective is usually (whether consciously or intuitively) to affect how someone perceives and internalizes the subject of the art piece. I would assume that most propaganda painters also made/make different technical choices depending on what they’re painting. Hence, the intent seems like an obvious part of the artistic equation, and therefore obviously matters.
The point is, because intent matters, it’s worthy of observation and critique. Which, again, doesn’t necessarily require a moral judgment. There are good propaganda painters, who skillfully apply appropriate techniques to accentuate relevant facets of the subject, just like there are unskilled ones who are unable to do so.
But if we disregard intent, we lose out on a dimension of appreciation, and equate poorly executed art with the good.
That’s not to suggest that we couldn’t, or shouldn’t, discuss the moral and ethical implications of art, but that is a very different discussion. I think it’s somewhat different to suggest that someone’s painting style betrays them as being a fascist, and simply noting that they may (sometimes) have painted with an intent of conveying fascist sentiments.
The former makes a judgment of them as human beings, while the latter merely associates certain techniques with certain ideals. To reiterate, I am making this point to argue why the intent cannot be divorced from the execution. However, a certain communicative intent doesn’t necessarily mean someone sympathizes with the ideology behind it; it’s just indicative of the considerations that go into making artistic choices.
You can obviously also ask the very relevant question of what was the chicken and what was the egg? Fascist ideals did not arise out of nowhere, and art certainly informed some of them.
Anything can be misinterpreted and misappropriated, but I don’t think that invalidates the importance of intent in regards to executional artistic choices. It just makes the labels a bit fuzzier, but we should really be able to discuss intent in art without the shorthand of simplistic labels anyway.
I quite often find myself on the controversial side of a modern UX axiom – the Mobile First manifesto, which basically dictates that design of responsive experiences need to start with mobile layouts.
While I have long considered and fully understand the benefits of this approach from a development perspective, I don’t agree with the Mobile First tenet from a visual design and spatial segmentation perspective. I think it is over-simplifying the process of design at the cost of a universally functional responsive site experience, across all viewports and breakpoints.
Basically, I don’t think sacrificing a functional Desktop experience on behalf of a Mobile experience is necessary or even meaningful. Mobile designs can always benefit from the process of laying out Desktop pages. Desktop designs, however, rarely benefit from Mobile design considerations in my experience.
To do this, you need to see as much of what’s designed in one glance, not view it piecemeal, as if through a keyhole. Otherwise, you will lose context and cohesion.
The complex cannot always be a mere repetition of the simple, or an indefinite combination of many simple elements, but the simple is always by necessity a reduction of the complex.
Mobile can be considered within the whole of a Desktop layout.
The opposite is not true.
Mobile typically contracts to a single column, where spatial structure is linear and vertical.
Desktop introduces another dimension – the horizontal – which adds complexity, and this needs to be accounted for early on in the design process. Focusing only on Mobile, and thereby ignoring possible spatial complexities on Desktop, means you’re designing with one eye closed.
As long as your design will also be rendered on a Desktop device, you will at some point have to account for both the vertical and horizontal dimensions. Leaving that consideration for later, because you’re starting with Mobile, is likely to cause unforeseen difficulties. Just because a Mobile viewport dictates it doesn’t mean that all things can or should be separated vertically – some need to be displayed side by side, or benefit from such an arrangement.
A single Mobile column can be kept as one on Desktop (which is a very common lazy practice these days, leading to swaths of content that are unscannable, and excessive line lengths that are essentially illegible).
But a single Mobile column can also be split up into two, three, four etc on Desktop. Columns may not be identical – one may need a background, a box or a border for horizontal separation and contrast. One may need bullets, one may consist wholly or partially of an image, etc. Multiple columns require the creation of and adherence to a grid (with gutters, indents and ragged vs. justified columns), but this need and these complexities largely disappear on Mobile, where elements simply stack, and you want to avoid anything that restricts usage of the full column width.
This creates an illusory simplicity which is often deceiving.
Furthermore, text alignment matters on Desktop. Not as much on Mobile. You can center a column on Mobile and it will still not be perceived all that differently, since the column width is restricted.
A single centered column across the full Desktop width, however, will make for a very tiring reading experience, with line lengths that may vary greatly. This also holds true for very wide, single column left justified text, where the eye will need to travel much too far from the end of one line to the next.
The considerations of line length can and often do get lost when basing an entire layout on a Mobile single column visual structure.
3. As a designer, you always seek to reduce, never add.
All design is largely a process of reduction, to arrive at an ideal level of necessary detail. Never more than what is needed. In the process of reduction, it is easier to determine when you have gone too far, and you have lost cohesion. In the process of addition, however, you are always tempted to add more, even when that is unnecessary. It is generally easier to determine what is not enough as opposed to what is too much.
Designs generally need to avoid clutter. Composition and overall visual cohesion requires that shapes and visual structures are shaped and whittled down from a greater whole, not by adding multiple smaller components together and build outward.
You don’t build a house brick by brick – you need a blueprint first, to ensure that all spatial considerations and proportions are weighed before they’re locked in, and create possible dependencies. If you don’t resolve such dependencies on the planning stage, when you lay out the entirety of your design, you may find that you’ve painted yourself into a proverbial and sometimes quite literal corner, when you’re exposed to the actual, full size and proportions of that which you’re designing.
4. As a designer, you always consider visual patterns, repetitions and rhythm, in order to assess if elements are given sufficient contrast to guide the eye, or if the content is rendered too repetitious.
On Desktop, this is a necessity, to ensure you’re creating both cohesion/adherence and contrast across a larger space of which elements are a part.
On Mobile, you don’t see enough of the design in one glance to achieve that overarching balance: a section can be over- or under-emphasized compared to another, but because you don’t see them together, you can’t make that holistic assessment.
5. As a designer, you always want to spend the majority of your design time upfront, to ensure that you’re not hit with any unforeseen delays later on.
What needs the most time to design is what you should start with, so that finishing the design is less time consuming, and can be given an accurate commitment date with increasing precision.
Given the added horizontal dimension, Desktop layouts are almost unequivocally more complex than Mobile ones.
The more complex issues you leave for later, the harder it is going to be for you to accurately predict when you will be done, and you may even find at the very end that complexities have compounded to such a degree that you need to start over, to rework the layout.
Delaying all these critical design decisions, if you hold off on fleshing out the Desktop view until last, only kicks the can down the road.
Design thinking is not:
- A new way to design things
Design thinking is:
- Thinking about business through the lens of design
Design Thinking is not the same as the act of Designing.
Design thinking means applying design as a methodology to work through strategic issues in a clearer way.
Design thinking means using design to organize and visualize thoughts.
When thoughts and ideas are properly visualized, they are much clearer to everyone involved, and much easier to have concrete discussions about.
They are also easier to iterate productively on.
Each update to the visualization of the thought, the idea, or the organizing principle, means the update has a tangible outcome, and is easier to quantify.
In that sense, Design Thinking can very effectively bridge the gap between Strategy and Execution.
As a side note: when people say: ”I’m a visual person”, what they typically mean is that they are visualization deficient. They are unable to see for themselves what you are describing, and need YOU to visualize it FOR them.
(A truly visual person would be able to visualize something without paint-by-numbers instructions).
So, what people really should say is: “I can’t visualize this. Can you show me?”
And what you would apply in order to do this is (you guessed it):
Because you’re helping them to think about a concept through the use of design.
You’re helping a group of often visualization-deficient people process their thoughts collectively by feeding those thoughts back to them in visual form, and thereby helping them be more deliberate and effective.
And that is much more than a buzzword.