Sometime in the late 2000s, I stumbled upon a plastic bag full of my dad’s work stuff and felt immediately humbled.
My dad was a graphic designer way back in the 80s and 90s, when computing technology was in its infancy and designers were simply artists with a few tricks up their sleeves. I found layout wireframes with meticulously painted block text, designs with photorealistic paintings of physical products, prototypes assembled on yellowing paper with halftone backgrounds pasted on, and fonts rendered painstakingly by hand. Also included in the packet was an actual physical manual for Photoshop 1.something :)
You just couldn’t design in the 90s if you couldn’t also art. In my own work today as a UI & UX Designer, though, there is precious little space for that.
Making sense of chaos.
In design, process is holy. And for good reason. Design begins at chaos. Over time, we’ve created maps and methods that allow us to unravel that chaos well and easily. We’ve developed systems that let us move fast, ways of arriving at decisions that minimise the risk of failure, and objective measures of success. UX is all-important, and research is (rightly) valued.
But as we move collectively from instinct to information, from exploration to research, from art and craft to systems, I feel a twinge of something I can only describe as… loss.
Design is not art.
But it is rooted in it. And in some primitive, reflexive part of your mind, the two things remain deeply intertwined.
For every 10 designers I interview, at least 7 tell me they were originally drawn to the creative aspect of design. Most of us made art when we were younger. We all enjoy designing stellar UI — but so few of us like to talk about it!
And why would we? Conversations around product design are heavily skewed towards highlighting the value of UX and process, of function over form. By contrast, UI discussions tend to be limited in their point of view, dealing mostly with How To’s or with that insatiable beast — design systems.
Design is an act of creation.
In my team at work today, we have product designers who are eye-deep in Lego, who 3D print and paint their own miniatures, build terrain, mod Hotwheels, dance, compose music, write, draw, paint, and make comics. In an ongoing D&D campaign that two of us have been part of since 2020, I live a rich parallel life as an elf-wizard with an obsession for cleanliness.
What do these things have in common? They involve the imagination. They are all forms of play.
Design speaks to the imagination. That’s why it draws in people who — in my limited and deeply personal experience — tend to be curious and creative, childlike in some way. So as our industry evolves, and processes and practices become ever more standardised, what happens to everything that runs shallower, or more deep? What happens to that craving we used to have for seeking art and beauty—creating it, appreciating it? What happens to gut instinct?
Striking a balance.
Don’t get me wrong — there are many, many products out there that are stellar examples of both the science and the craft of design. What concerns me is simply that the scales are so heavily skewed toward the importance of the former. The science is essential, of course. Without it, we’d be shooting in the dark. But the craft is exquisite and difficult to master. It is also a source of such delight.
As practitioners of both, we know this already. All I ask is that we express it consciously.
Creating space for the craft of design.
So, how do we create space for the craft of design? After a lot of mulling it over, here’s everything I can think of.
- While hiring, reject mindfully. Looking for a job is a dismal task. You have to put yourself out there, open yourself up to criticism and rejection, and be vulnerable. It helps to know why you didn’t make the cut. So, be empathetic. If you’re hiring for a UI/UX role and you reject a candidate because they turned in just a Dribbble portfolio, let them know it’s because their presented work lacks depth. Conversely, if you’re rejecting someone because you scrolled through reams of wireframes and flows and the final output seemed to be just an afterthought, leave some feedback! Young designers need to know that companies appreciate the importance of UI finesse, visual design, micro-animations and interactions.
- Find opportunities to spice up the products you design. Appreciating art is all well and good, but we know that the bulk of our work will always be about using basic building blocks to create tame and tidy flows. So when you do have an opportunity to throw in some pizzazz, encourage yourself/your team to spend some time on it. This is especially difficult to do if your design team is small and stretched thin and the screen in question is not key to the core experience. In that case, you may need to just get something basic out first, and that’s fine. Only you can evaluate whether whimsy is a valuable or wasteful use of time. But do evaluate it. Allow it to be a conversation and make the decision consciously.
- Make space for play and learning. Once a week, our design team meets up to spend an hour exploring non-work, design-and-design-adjacent stuff. Most of us do UI and UX. But so far, we’ve had workshops on illustration, typography, communication, design theory, and art history, and crash courses on learning new tools. We plan to conduct a UX workshop for a whimsical, imaginary product next week, and one designer has offered to take us through the evolution of art in album covers. None of this is key to our day-to-day work. But it is a chance to take our noses out from behind our UX textbooks, to discover incrediblebeautifulawesome things, to learn some skills and mainly, to feel inspired. It’s also the best way to reiterate something we truly believe — that to be a good designer, you need to be a wholesome, curious human first.
We spend most of our adult lives solving problems. If you’re lucky enough to have a job that offers you some chance of play, well, I hope you take it, ace it, and flaunt it in full glory.