Designers Don’t Understand Design

Let’s consider for a moment there was a book everyone was talking about, but you weren’t quite sure if you were ready to invest the $29.99 let alone the time required to plow through its 438 pages.

As a result, you turn to your trusty search engine, type in the title, and begin combing through the reviews.

“This one came up first, so it’s probably pretty trustworthy. Let’s check it out,” you think to yourself.

So you scan the article and quickly learn the reviewer was not a particular fan of the work:

“While this author has been widely recognized and acclaimed for his past works, this one makes me want to pop out my eyes with a rusty spoon. The immense lack of attention to detail that permeates every single corner of this book is a manifestation of all that is wrong both the author and those misguided souls who continue to buy his work.”

“That’s pretty harsh,” you think to yourself—wondering what ideas, advice, or even writing style the reviewer felt fell so far beneath his expectations. Then you read his reasoning:

“The line spacing is absolutely atrocious, none of the chapter headings align properly, and do not even get me started on the justified formatting of the table of contents.“

You continue through the article in search of a single word about what was actually written—its content—only to discover your search is in vain.

“Wait, did this reviewer form his opinion about this book solely upon how text was aligned within it?” you wonder in disbelief. After reaching the article’s end you discover that he did indeed. That was it. His whole premise.

Welcome to the world of designers.

A Critique of iOS 11

While the story portrayed above is of course, fictional, it’s not far from reality—at least, in design land.

Recently, I was browsing a number of design articles (I typically read a blend of design, development, and marketing sites) when I noticed an article entitled “iOS 11 Sucks.” Intrigued, I clicked and read.

I did this, as most people would, hoping to get a quick overview of the latest features to gauge whether any of them would actually prove relevant or useful to my daily workflow. Or, seeing as how this was a design site, a good overview as to how the OS in its entirety embodied good design fundamentals (or failed to do so).

What the article covered, however, was something different entirely and was, I’m sorry to say, standard practice for much of what’s considered “design commentary” of the day.

iOS 11. Image credit: Mac Rumors

Before glossing over a few of the OS’s new features, the article provided example after example (and link after link) of how UI elements in iOS 11 don’t line up properly. The search bar doesn’t align with the list of items below and the headings don’t share the same amount left-hand pixel padding across apps. That, apparently, is the standard by which the design lives or dies.

I’m not talking about how Apple has adopted Apple Music’s jumbo-sized interface for the rest of its apps. No–that just makes me want to pop out my eyes with a rusty spoon. I’m talking about the lack of attention to detail that permeates every single corner of this operating system—a manifestation of all that is wrong both at Apple and with the people who keep lining up to pay $1,000 a pop for Cupertino’s Samsung S8 knock-off.

[…]

Particularly eye-twitching are the headings that don’t align consistently with the search bars in apps like Mail but align just as Apple’s own interface guidelines dictate in Notes.

[…]

This inconsistency and lack of attention to detail are not new at Apple. The Apple Music interface was plagued with problems when it came out. I’ve harped on the lack of optical typography alignment in the iOS Calendar icon or the Calendar itself many times—until Apple finally fixed it, only to make the same mistake in the macOS version.

“Plagued with problems,” you say? Was it missing the play button? Were albums inaccessible? Perhaps purchased content wasn’t showing up under your account?

Oh no. Something far, far worse. Some of the things didn’t visually square.

To apply this reasoning to my book example: the chapter headings weren’t typeset properly in this edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, therefore, the book is a total failure.

What Design Is Really About

I know what you may be thinking: “Ok, so are you saying visual alignment and general attention to detail doesn’t matter?”

No. Nothing the author mentioned in regards to element alignment is factually inaccurate. These are indeed, design flaws. They are oversights, inconsistencies, and to some degree, a lack of attention to detail.

The problem is entitling an article “iOS 11 Sucks” and then arguing the premise with no evidence other than “some of the things are visually misaligned.”

Design Critic
What I envision when I read an article nitpicking visual alignment and calling it “design criticism.”

This is a case of “the tail wagging the dog” and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what design is. Alignment is an element of visual design, but it is not design itself. The positioning of design elements are an aspect of design, but they are not the design itself.

Alignment is about 2% of what encompasses a good design.

The question I like to ask myself when it comes to judging the efficacy of any design isn’t merely “does it look good,” but rather “how well does it work?” Does it solve a specific problem, meet a specific need, or fulfill an intended end? The question of its visual appearance is interwoven into these questions—the functionality and overall customer/user experience.

On Designers

In the aforementioned article, the author himself concedes: “the mistakes are sometimes tiny, and may not always be noticeable for the average user . . .”

Bingo. Most people don’t care. And that’s the whole point.

Most users care more about how their music is organized, how to add filters to their photos, or the ease in which they can post a new thing on Facebook.

In other words: users are concerned with the design.

Most designers, on the other hand, are concerned with a small portion of the design process with which they often equate with the design itself.

This is why I’ve encountered so many clients and customers over the years who have expressed to me their distaste for working with designers.

It’s not to say these clients don’t care about gradients, buttons, and other visual elements looking pixel-perfect; it’s that they only care about them as the means to a greater end: namely a more effective brand and more enjoyable customer experience. They do not view them as many modern designers do: an end in themselves.

A Different Approach

I enjoy working with clients. Rather than wielding design principles as a weapon against all those woefully unaware of the faux-pas of utilizing skeuomorphic design patterns, I enjoy finding creative solutions to visual and design-centric problems.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with John Meese on a big redesign and rebrand of Michael Hyatt’s Platform University.

During this process, I worked with John with much give and take, ideas tossed around, and a final result that was based entirely upon solving user’s specific needs.

The new Platform University brand identity.
The new Platform University membership site.

That’s why I’ve never liked the common attitude embodied by many designers: “me vs. the client.”

Instead, I personally enjoy learning about the brands, platforms, and organizations with whom I work so that, in some way, I can help them more effectively deliver on their brand’s promise.

Conclusion

The purpose of this article isn’t to stereotype or hit all designers with a big stick (I’m a designer myself!). But rather to illustrate many misconceptions about design that have become prevalent in the design industry.

At the end of the day, I want you to build the most effectively designed brand possible and part of that involves knowing what good design is as well as what it is not.

Question: What role does design play in your brand-buiding efforts? Feel free to leave a comment below—I would love to know your thoughts!

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Thomas is a Graphic Designer, Web Developer, and founder of Rightly Designed. For over a decade, he’s had the privilege of working with a wide variety of individuals and organizations, spanning from traditional publishing houses to numerous independent professionals.

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