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The goals of design

What we do, in the end

When I talk with various people about design, the most common understanding of it seems to be to make something pretty. Since designers, like doctors, work in many exclusive specialties, most designers I know absolutely despise this condescending generalization.

There are designers of course that argue passionately for a focus on aesthetics, as there are many that argue against the rule of the visual. I grew up with design for screens and made my first techy-abstract looking wallpapers in 2000. My main motivation was to make something so cool that others marvel at it, which made me cool (somehow). The wallpaper design community back then was all about one-upping one another.

As I matured with my career, I came across many different clients that all had very different needs. Representative organizations, real estate developers or hospitals needed my skills to communicate their value to their target audience. Still, I started my work with the question

How can I make this boring website look pleasing?

My hard crash to realityland happened in my first ever user testing session. A woman in her sixties, who required regular dialysis, could not figure out how to get to the dialysis subsection on the hospitals website, using my fancy UI. She simply quipped

What help is this hospital to me, when they cannot even tell me which ward to call or how to get there?

I failed not only the hospital, but another person in need. I pleased myself by designing a website to my taste alone, while ignoring the people that benefit from the health services. It’s digital wanking, you can see a ton of it on Dribbble and behance.

Diversify your perception

The definition of design is to make a plan. This is where the eternal struggle between planners and builders has its roots: The designer has no real inherent influence or power. A plan can only guide a builder, until a question arises that the plan does not answer. The builder still has to deliver and diverges from the plan. The designers work devaluates, since the builder is reaching the end result without the designers input.

This might also be where the stereotype of the grumpy designer comes from. I’ve heard many times “working in design means enjoying rejection”. The more you see your work being altered or dismissed, the grumpier you get. What this masochistic comment doesn’t tell you is that more often then not, someones ego was hurt, and the offered solution just wasn’t thought out enough.

The solution to avoiding grumpiness is to think through many points of view. What does the pesky PO want? What goal does the dude from marketing work towards? What does the director of product mean with his email? Missing understanding is the number one issue that I encounter again and again in my career. So many people could save so much time, money and energy, if they would just talk to each other in friendly terms. Of course, one has to start and swallow their own ego to break the ice first.

Interestingly, research has proven that well meaning, cooperative strategies turn our to be the winning approaches for the long game.

Successful design is helping others

We learned that design is making a plan. But a plan for what? A plan for a developer to follow, to code a UI according to the designers specs? If your satisfaction in design comes from the beauty and cleverness of your solution, then you are helping nobody, you are pleasuring yourself.

I became a designer to create beautiful designs!

Great! You are not a designer, you are an artist. Art is the expression of the self. Others looking at art are seeing what the artist has to say, in their own way. Always remember this:

Art asks questions, design answers questions.

If someone has to think about your design, it is opaque and as such in the way of the solution, that the design is intended to bring. My favorite example: nobody ever thinks about the design of a car door. It is a heavy, bulky, highly technical piece of electronics, metal, plastic, fabric and glass, yet can be operated with one finger, or even completely touchless. You open the door, get in the car, close the door and be on your way. The door keeps you safe and cozy, without ever being in your way, except when you need it to. That is brilliant design.

Successful design is ensuring anothers success

If someone can effortlessly cancel their flight, make an appointment for a elderly care service, shop groceries online or manage their mortgage with your design, you are successful. Just like nobody knows the name of the worker who perfectly paved the highway thousands drive on every day, nobody will probably know the name of the designer of the services we depend on. If that designer is you, there is your chance to pave your highway and make the world a better place for everyone.

It’s positive karma.