The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Visual Design might be a thing

– February 2nd, 2015 –

If you recall, a few years ago, I wrote about my belief that the term ‘visual Design’ was propagating through the UX community and the potentially damaging effect that was having on the problem-solving roots of graphic design practice. This was swiftly followed up by a longer piece for The Manual.

I’ve had a lot of comments from people since then – either agreeing or disagreeing (y’know, the web) but over the past six months or so I’m coming around to the idea that Visual Design might actually be a thing. It’s just incredibly rare and is dependent on a number of rarely addressed factors.

Following the problem

Michael Bierut explains in his piece ‘You’re so Intelligent’ that graphic design has long suffered from what he calls ‘Problem Definition Escalation’:

Like many designers, for years I used a tried-and-true tactic to hoist my way up the respect ladder, a technique I will here call Problem Definition Escalation. If you’ve listened carefully to the lyrics to “Gee, Officer Krupke” in West Side Story you already know how this works. The client asks you to design a business card. You respond that the problem is really the client’s logo. The client asks you to design a logo. You say the problem is the entire identity system. The client asks you to design the identity. You say that the problem is the client’s business plan. And so forth. One or two steps later, you can claim whole industries and vast historical forces as your purview. The problem isn’t making something look pretty, you fool, it’s world hunger!

This behaviour is everywhere I’ve looked and worked for my whole career. From designers to content strategists, product managers to researchers. Almost always though, unlike Mr Bierut, I don’t think this is a need to elevate ones self through any sort of professional low esteem. I like to look at this a different way.

This is a result of people trying to find the problem. It just so happens the problem is rarely the logo.

From board room to your users and everywhere in between

If you think of Visual Design as being on top of a stack of other activities and functions, it might look something like this:

  1. Visual Design
  2. Stuff
  3. Customer needs / Value proposition
  4. Board of Directors / Leadership
  5. Organisation environment / culture

‘Stuff’ of course is a big, fat catch-all for all other tactical product design and development.

Customer needs have to be balanced with the product value proposition and opportunity. This is built up on a capable and supportive leadership team. But the bottom layer is probably the most important of them all. The environment.

The environment has to be right for all of the other things to happen. Unfortunately, ‘environment’ or company culture is hard to define and replicate. But how we use processes – such as agile, or defining market opportunities, through to how you refer to customers and evaluate designs - is probably the most important of them.

The Problem Story

It wasn’t until I saw Leisa Reichelt talk through how the UK Government Digital Service team work – from the Creative Director through to the developers and researchers – that I saw a corporate culture and structure where Visual Design could be a thing. Why? Because the problems had been defined, researched, worked through, solved, iterated upon in the layers below. Doing this means that probing the problem results in answers quite quickly. And the more the problem is probed, instead of it all unravelling, it builds into a cohesive narrative. The problem has a story that can be easily tracked back.

Visual Design might be a thing

If the problem has a story that can be traced back, the environment is supportive, and answers are available, then I can certainly see instances where designers learn not to go hunting for the problem. And, thinking about it, I wonder if this behaviour is more probable in in-house work, rather than agencies? Why? Because agency designers are used to clients coming to them with bigger problems than they initially present. This is how agencies generally get more work from larger clients – we follow the problem and, together, make projects to address them.

But, anyway, back to visual design.

If the problems are solved. If the designer is used to not going hunting for the real brief. Then, and only then, I think visual design could be a thing. When a designer has the right information, is working on the right graphical problem where she can focus on, what Michael Bierut describes as:

our miraculous fluency with beauty, our ability to manipulate form in a way that can touch people’s hearts… the gifts that matter, and the paths through which we create things that truly endure.

Yeah. Maybe that’s when visual design might well be a thing.

Filed in: Design, Process, My Handbook.

Further reading