Visual Design might be a thing
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:
- Visual Design
- Customer needs / Value proposition
- Board of Directors / Leadership
- 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.
My Handbook – Environment
I’ve been doing a talk this year called ‘My Handbook’. it’s a rather silly little title for a bunch of principles I work to. They are my ‘star to sail my ship by’, and I’m going to start documenting them here over the coming months, starting with Environment – a post about how, for me, design is more about the conditions in which you work.
I’d describe myself as an armchair mountaineer. I enjoy reading about man’s exploits to get to the roof of the world, or to scale precipitous walls under harsh conditions for no other reason than the same reason George Mallory said he was climbing Everest: ‘Because it’s there’.
In any expedition to a mountain, great care and consideration is taken over the kit, the climber’s skill, the team around them, the communications, the list is seemingly endless. But, the biggest single factor in a successful trip are the conditions of the mountain. Will the mountain let them up. And back down again. Assessing the condition of a mountain takes experience, time and careful consideration; it may be snowing, too warm, too much snow on the ground, too cold, too windy. The list of variables is endless, but the climber considers all of them, and if necessary moves to adjust the route, or simply doesn’t attempt the climb.
Now, let’s shift to design – not necessarily web design, but commercial design of almost any kind. Let’s say you take a brief for a project, you begin the work and suddenly in the project, other stakeholders come on board and start to have comment on your work and direction on strategy that was unknown to you. We’ve all had projects like those, right? Suddenly, your work becomes less about what you may think of as ‘design’, and more about meetings, project management, account management, sales, production work. You know, all of those things that have a bad reputation in design. Meetings are, apparently, toxic. Well, I’ve started to look at this in a different light over the past few years.
As I’ve grown as a designer, like many, I’ve found myself doing less ‘design’. Or, rather, less of what I thought was design. Five years ago, I thought design was creating beautiful layouts, or building clean HTML and CSS, or pouring over typefaces for just that right combination. Now, this is design. But, so are meetings.
Experienced designers spend time making the environment right whilst they are doing the work. Because, frankly, you can push pixels around forever, but if the conditions aren’t right for the work to be created and received by the client in the right way, the work will never be as good as it could be. But, what do I mean by ‘conditions’? Here are a few practical things:
The physical space: I see a large part of my job as making the environment in the studio as conducive as possible for good work to happen. That means it’s relaxed, and up-beat. Happy people make good things.
A Shit Umbrella: It’s my job to be a filter between client and my team on certain things. Someone recently described this as being a ‘Shit Umbrella’.
Politics: Wherever you get people, you get politics – because people are weird. I spend a lot of time on client projects trying to traverse a landscape of people to understand motivations, problems, history or direction. Once you understand the landscape, you can assess, and work to change, the conditions.
People first, process second: We fit the processes to the people rather than the other way around. Our team runs things that works for us, but that’s the result of a lot of trying & discarding. Like tending a garden, this is a continual process of improvement.
Just enough process: I’m a firm believer in working to the path of least resistance. Being in-tune with how people work, and changing your processes to suit, helps create a good environment. But we ensure we impose just enough structure. To much, and it gets in the way. This doesn’t work if you don’t do the previous point, in my experience.
Talk. Do. Talk.: It really is true that the more we talk, the better work we do. We talk in person, on Slack, on Skype, on email. Just like meetings, there is an industry-wide backlash against more communication because the general consensus is we’re getting bombarded. But recently, we’ve been working to change that perception in the team so that talking, and meetings, and writing is the work. It’s tending the garden. Making the conditions right for good work to happen.
Making things is messy: This is actually another point from my ‘handbook’. Since the 1950’s clients and designers have been sold a lie by advertising. Design generally isn’t something that happens from point A to Z with three rounds of revisions. It’s squiggly, with hundreds or thousands of points of change. A degree of my time is spent getting people – clients, internal clients, the team – comfortable with the mess we may feel we’re in. It’s all part of it.
I see all of this as design work. It’s also my view that much of the disfunction from large agencies to other organisations is that this work isn’t being done by designers because they don’t see it as the work. It’s being done by other people like account managers who may not best placed to get the conditions right. Designers need to take responsibility for changing the environment to make their work as good as it can be. Sometimes, that means sitting in a board room, or having a difficult discussion with a CEO.
Mountaineering is so often not about climbing. You may do some if the conditions are right. Design is so often not about designing beautiful, useful products. But, you may do some if the conditions are right.