"Design is not a therapy session"
Web designers need to grow up, leave their inner artist behind and embrace the challenge of usable design, says guest writer Kent Dahlgren.
A long, long time ago, I made the move from taking art classes to taking Graphic Design courses. If you are a kid who really likes art, Graphic Design is where you direct your creative energy if you want your family to stop nagging you about your future.
For me, it was a way of communicating to my railroad conductor dad there was indeed a chance in hell that his first born wasn't going to end up a commie hippy freak afterall.
But ... while my family may have been excited about my shift into a field that makes money on art, I wasn't. Not for a long while.
It irritated me that the instructors spent so much time on "non-graphical" elements of a visual experience. Coming from the self-expressive realm of art, I found this attention on white space and type and all sorts of other non-image tomfoolery lame and boring. I wanted to run through the flowery fields of pure uninhibited creation followed by flocks of pink doves chirping sweet audio nectar against the backdrop of a Juicy Fruit rainbow.
God, no wonder my dad thought I was a freaking weirdo.
One instructor in particular was emphatic that the fruits of graphic design weren't for us; they were for the audience, which sometimes included business folks. Fresh from the context of art, this seemed hopelessly "sell-out." Which is a bad thing to be as a youth.
Then one day that instructor said something I've not forgotten. "Design is the art of effectively communicating a message while making the communication medium invisible." Herein was a challenge, an artistic one, that captured me.
In retrospect, this painful process of re-directing energy from self-expression in art to effective communication in design was a necessary stage in the development of a Designer (with a capital D). Which is why I think Design as a field is suffering an identity crisis.
Today we have legions of "designers" who have not taken this step. They lean way too far towards artistic self-expression, because too many of them have never been exposed to classical graphic design instruction. Or, more importantly, have never taken a step towards professional design maturity by realizing that design is not a therapy session.
And why should they? Photoshop, Illustrator, and a PC, a color printer, and some time makes one a "graphic designer." How can an employer that needs designers tell the difference? "I can hire a guy with a degree for a bunch of money, or hire this kid for far less. From where I sit their deliverables are mostly the same." The market is full of these cheap alternatives, cheapening the name of design.
A synergistic opportunity between usability and graphic design? I'd say. I think design needs usability, if only to define itself as relevant and important and different from those designers who last year were pumping petrol into lorries down on the corner.
I don't know who is manning the good ship Design, but the field is suffering from a bad case of dilution, and usability can help get that rudder back in working order. Thinking broad and strategically, I'd expect the messengers who have taken the most abuse (Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman, Jared Spool and the like) to strike a deal with Design - probably at the academic level, but it could also be managed at the grass roots. Call a truce, share some ideas, and everyone benefits: users, employers, and designers themselves, as they are forced to grow into Designers.
In fact, it appears to me this very process is underway, evidenced by the sales of Jakob Nielsen's book Designing Web Usability, and its use among the design community.