The Difficulty with Articulating Design

We don’t need a return to design. We need to explain what it is we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what we expect to get from it.

Jeremy Keith over at Adactio brought up an interesting point a couple blog-years back (2-3 weeks ago). He pointed out that the whole fixed-width, liquid-width layout debate was a sham (my word) because there was, at the bottom of it, no solid reason for a designer doing one thing over the other. Instead, they simply copied others. He felt cheated because so many designers chose fixed-width and he assumed that there was a good reason for them doing so. When he found out there wasn’t, he was frustrated.

Do We Need a Return to Design?

Jeremy’s post reminds me of the common call we hear now and again from designers: they call for a “return to design”. A return to design would mean a return to the craftsmanship of building things right, and not by copying others or by building things in homage of the latest buzzword, be it user experience, usability, findability, or what-have-you. It would mean to design deliberately, for our audience, and for them only. Keith Robinson over at Asterisk recently shared this frustration.

Though I agree with the sentiment, I don’t think we necessarily need a “return to design” or a “return of design”. I think we’re doing fine in that category: designers are doing what we’ve always done, and some are doing it exceptionally well.

We’re Not Talking About Design Enough

The real problem is different, I think. I think the problem is that we’re not sharing our victories and defeats, our lessons learned, our reasons for doing this or that, our fears about what works and what doesn’t work. We’re not sharing our most intimate thoughts about what we think and do. In other words, we’re not talking about design enough!

Now, before I go any further let me say that there is a ton of “chatter” about web design. We’ve got many, many design blogs out there with folks writing hundreds of words a day related to design (this blog included). We’ve got superficial judgments everywhere, we’ve got redesigns galore, we’ve got arguments about HTML vs. XHTML seemingly every minute. What we’re missing is not volume of discourse about design, we’re missing an articulate discourse on design. It’s kind of like going to a baseball game and talking about steroids instead of baseball. We can talk at length about all the things that happen around it, but we don’t talk much about the thing itself.

It’s Hard to Know What Works

Let me explain. For all designers the greatest trick is to make somebody else happy: to design something that is a pleasure for someone else to use. We are servants to them, laying ourselves down at their mercy. They decide what is good and what is not good. The problem with this paradigm is that it is amazingly hard to tell when we’ve succeeded or when we have failed, even if we get to talk to users. Problems with self-reporting crop up: people tend to complain about symptoms of a problem and not the problem itself. In the end, we often simply don’t know if we could have done better, if we’re missing something important, or if we’re designing the best web sites in the world. We have very little objective feedback upon which to evaluate our designs.

What would be helpful is that designers, at the very least, reveal their strategy for design. In other words, answer questions like: Why did the designers do this? Why didn’t they do that? What were they thinking when they put that, there? At least then we’ll know what designers are trying to do, whether or not they’ve succeeded is still another, more elusive, matter.

Revealing Design Strategy is Scary

The trouble is that the moment we reveal our strategy, the moment we provide insight into design itself, we invite judgment about it. And that’s a scary thing, because judgment is so often negative. For some inexplicable reason it is human nature to share negative judgment before positive judgment. A possible reason for this is that negative comments produce change: positive comments produce nothing (new).

To put it into a more Yoda-like terms: strategy leads to judgment, judgment leads to accountability, and accountability leads to the Dark Side. Few designers want to be accountable for the work they do on the Web. Half of us would be fired, simply because most of us cannot control the contexts under which our designs are used and we don’t often have the resources to find them out.

What if We Don’t Articulate the Hard Stuff?

So, what can we do about this? Do we need to do anything? Should we start sharing our design strategies more? What if we don’t?

I think that the more we fail to articulate what we’re trying to do in design, the less meaningful our design decisions are. In other words, if we fail to communicate what we’re doing then we marginalize both ourselves and our work because there is less of a change that others will be convinced of its worth. If people can’t understand why we made our layouts fixed-width, and we don’t tell them, then they have just as much right to lead the next design project as we do.

I think this happens a lot: designers fail to articulate the nuances behind their design and so get into a kind of designer-roundtable discussion with non-designers. This results in discussions where every part of the company tries to design the home page, set priorities for what-goes-where, and decide what color pallette gets used. These are all decisions that the designer should make, but are they really the ones who make them?

Articulating Design

So I propose that instead of, or perhaps part of, a “return to design”, we start a serious discourse about “articulating design”. I think we need a common language to do so, we need to name all the parts of design, and we need to clearly explain what it is we’re doing every step of the way. Sure, this might make us accountable for what we do, but we’ll have a leg up: if we’re the only ones who are accountable on a project, smart managers will begin to understand that we take our work seriously, and we’re at least meeting our challenges head-on. Compared with other folks, we’ll start sitting pretty.

Ask Ourselves the Hard Questions

Imagine if there were a question fairy who asked us constantly: why did you design it this way? Why did you do a fixed-width layout? Why did you use that font? In answering these questions, we both reinforce our design decisions to ourselves but more importantly are much better equipped to communicate our knowledge and skills to others. It is rare to have a conversation with a manager in which the manager sincerely asks why something was done before they go ahead and try to change it.

Articulate our Own Designs

We can start by articulating our own designs to ourselves. If you’ve got a blog, you’re all set. I’ve even started doing this myself. I must warn you, though, it probably won’t be as enlightened as you had hoped. Instead of “I received Divine Intervention about the layout of my web site” it will probably be something like “I used fixed width because it was easier to translate from the Fireworks mock-up”. (this is my personal reason)

Design blogs, a genre in which Bokardo resides, are unique in that they are about themselves. In other words, design blogs demonstrate their content even as they’re displaying it. You could call it meta-design. In the spirit of meta-design, it is my sincere belief that we need more articulate discourse about the work that we do. This will ground ourselves in the present, help us ignore silly diversions, and drive us forward as a profession. I think others will take us more seriously, give us more freedom with which to do our jobs, and we’ll do better work as a result.

Published: April 28th, 2005