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Mobile vs. Desktop

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.

Here’s why:

1. As a designer, you always design the whole before the details.

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.

2. As a designer, you always consider and solve for the complex before the simple.

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.

If you had started by resolving the biggest layout complexities upfront, you are by far less likely to run into such problems.

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.

Thinking About Design Thinking

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):

Design Thinking.

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.

Input vs. Output

Any designer worth his or her salt knows that it is never appropriate to begin to solve a need with design. The design should, to be purposeful, be an output, not an input.

This is akin to the famous Magritte painting of a pipe, accompanied by the text ”Ceci n’est-pas une pipe” – this is not a pipe. Because the work is obviously a painting of a pipe, not an actual pipe.

This reminds us that an image is not reality, it is a reflection of, or an expression of reality. It may even be purposely created as something entirely different from reality: a fantasy, or an abstract concept.

Likewise, design is not reality, and it is in itself not the solution to the client’s need – it is simply an expression of that solution. The desired communicative outcome represents the actual solution: how the audience responds to it, and how they choose to act based on that.

What does this mean?

It means that, as designers, we should not design for design’s sake. The kind of visual expression that exists for its own benefit is called art.

Design is a tool. A means to an end.

Design Ethos

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

On Business Leadership

One of the most stressful and painful experiences in my professional career has been to watch up-close the attrition of valuable experience and the dissipation and squandering of considerable, hard-earned intellectual capital, because of passive handwringing and a mystifying unwillingness to lead.

Immense value is lost simply because people in leadership positions simply will not stand up and assert ownership of the disciplines which are under their stewardship, or step up and drive from a position of real and tangible subject matter expertise. Such delicate assets are so very easily lost in the cracks of, or ground to dust by, the wasteful and inconsiderate machinations of corporate politics.

Ultimately, the biggest responsibility of business leaders is to realize, champion and harness the capabilities of the human capital placed under their control.

A failure to own this responsibility is nothing short of a betrayal of the promise that talent brings.

The Interactive Agency – a Creature of the Past?

Twenty years ago, the media landscape was vibrating with the buzz generated by a brand new type of communications service provider: the interactive agency. In the wake of the dotcom crash, however, things quickly changed and it would now seem that the integrated marketing- and IT services once offered by the interactive agency have been assimilated by and split up between the ad agency and the IT-consultancy. So, is the interactive agency thereby out for the count, or is it still a viable business? Is there still a need for it?

1. The Interactive Agency: a Conduit Between Marketing and IT

As a digital creative, I much too often start working with a new client, meeting with either the marketing side or the IT side of a corporation (depending on the nature of the assignment), and eventually inevitably stumble upon the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the board room that no-one wants to talk about. There is a rift that goes straight down the middle of the organization: Marketing and IT just won’t talk to each other! They often see each other as completely unrelated even though they often serve as opposite sides of the same coin. Sometimes they even outright sabotage each other’s work, in what amounts to a petty turf war over budgets, or the ears of the board of directors.

This is in itself not a mystery – IT and marketing people come from completely different worlds and don’t speak the same language. IT people deal in logic and talk about usability, functionality and the distribution of information. Marketing people, on the other hand, are purveyors of emotion and talk about impact, communication and the purpose of persuasion.

I submit that the interactive agency is the cure for this communicative ailment, simply because interactive agencies straddle the divide between IT and marketing.

On one hand, interactive agencies are savvy to how networked computers form the nervous system of a modern corporation. They realize what information technology can bring in terms of opening up communication channels, both within and and outside a company. They understand how procurement-, inventory-, logistics- and sales processes relate to business system platforms. They know how to make data work for you and how to make data in any form a shared and moldable commodity across the organization, ensuring that it can be properly capitalized upon.

On the other hand, interactive agencies also understand user experience and how to make it adhere to strategic brand directives. They can translate core values into interactive principles and help maximize both the impact and retained emotional and intellectual substance of a marketing campaign. They can integrate a multitude of media types and help marketing transcend the limitations of one single channel. They know how to make marketing more precise, talking one-to-one instead of blindly broadcasting to an unknown, unspecified mass audience. And, most importantly, they know how to let interactivity take your marketing from mere communication to actual transaction, involving IT on the commerce end, producing measurable results that go straight into the books.

In fact, one-on-one customer interaction should really be considered critical for all types of businesses, in order to create new opportunities and capitalize on them. Appropriately, where traditional marketing usually takes the form of a monologue, web-based interactivity creates a dialogue between sender and recipient. This closes the gap between communication and actual transaction, creating clear return on marketing investments. Interactivity also paves the way for increased brand awareness and customer loyalty and lays a foundation for strong, sustainable long-term customer relations. This way, interactivity can help marketing achieve concrete sales effects that are clearly visible on the bottom line.

And this is where marketing and IT need some help. On their own, their budgets are often spent one-dimensionally on somewhat lopsided, more or less self-serving efforts, where true ROI is but a distant goal.

Next: Part 2. “Marketing: the Lure of the Pitch”