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Design is Broken

I was getting nowhere. For the previous four years, I had been self employed and had managed the transition from print design to web design. I was enjoying life, but then a desire to build on my success as part of a forward thinking and dynamic team motivated me to submit my CV to a number of local agencies.

But I was getting nowhere.

I had had a few interviews, and turned down one or two opportunities on principle. I knew the market was competitive, but the skill set I was presenting - that of a web designer - wasn’t generating enough traction. Or at least, not the right kind of traction.

Then I hit on an idea. I would change one word on my profile in order to highlight web development instead of straight design. Yes, it’s true that I loved design. I could argue about typefaces until the cows come home, I’d fuss for hours about alignment, think twice or three times about how colours I used might create the desired resonance for a piece of artwork or a page on a website. But I also loved wrangling with Sass, delving into PHP and had begun to tackle JavaScript seriously. I admit I had a way to go to perfecting my skills but I was ready for a challenge, and was honest about this in my approach to prospective employers.

So I switched the title from Web Designer to Web Developer - and then things started to change.

What is a designer?

“A design is an ecosystem. Disrupt one thing and you disrupt others. A designers work is to foresee what will be disrupted and how.” - Robert Hoekman Jr

What struck me when I began to read The Tao of User Experience is that design is no longer design.

Design is still about wrangling with the placement of elements on a page - so that content could fit within the desired space and convey the desired message. But it has become so much more than that.

The far larger part of design used to comprise of nuances of spacing, of detailed discussions about Gill Sans, it’s history and pedigree. About spot colours and page bleed. All these are vital factors in print but these elements do not factor in web design.

Where it differs

Rather than a reader, you have a user. Instead of a page, you have a system (known as a web site) and designers can no longer afford the somewhat arrogant approach of being unchallengeable masters or stroppy perfectionists because they are ‘creatives’. This approach simply does not work in modern web design.

Designing a website is not mere decoration. To design a site one must properly examine what the end users will do, coupled with the business objectives of the client, and going on evidence to back up approaches not just to appearance but to interactive elements as well.

Especially to interactive elements.

A user doesn’t interact with a page by reading it. He may scarcely read anything at all. But he will interact with it, and this is becoming the vital factor in web design. What happens when that button is pressed? How long does the page take to load? At what stage in the users journey are they likely to encounter this page? What happens when interactivity is driven by touch rather than a mouse?

These factors mean that the definition of design has changed. We are no longer designing static documents, we are designing interactions. Designers are also architects. We must be. Otherwise we must be merely decorators.

And I’m not in favour of allowing a decorator to draw up plans for my house.

Design is changing. It’s time we changed with it.

“Wisest are they who know they do not know.” —Jostein Gaarder