Just design


I have a pet peeve. Besides cashiers making comments about my purchases as they scan them, it’s this: People saying, “You get to do just the design? Must be nice.” Or, people who act as though, as a designer, I’m on vacation while they’re all hard at work doing real things. Do you think I just color with crayons all day? (That’s what my weekends are for.)

crayonsIn a lot of ways, my job as a designer is a lot like your irritating friend’s Facebook page. If I’m good at what I do, I make it look easy. You see the highlight reel, the MySpace angles, the polished end product. Everything designers share is carefully curated–our presence on the internet one giant, public track record of our professional growth and abilities. Lines blur and selves becomes brands. In other words, you don’t see the pictures of my head on my desk at 1am, the self-rejected drafts, how a design looks just 3 hours or 2 days in. And it’s impossible to translate the cocktail of urgency and doubt that’s thick as quicksand before the breakthrough in the creative process.

I don’t just design, whatever that means to you. I do a little front-end. A little project management. A little copywriting. A little web strategy. I know how to code my own work well enough, after a couple years of doing it myself, to understand why a design element is a good choice, or an impossibly poor one. I also know enough about my talents and passions that I’ve made a decision to focus on creative and brand design, which is one of the reasons I joined a team. And even as the direction of web design challenges this position, calls me to cross over, I don’t want to be a hybrid. I believe unicorns are magical creatures…insofar as they do not exist. I’d rather spend my life becoming really, really good at one thing. I have more to offer by focusing.

The place of art in web design

I started my career in print. Not even in design, but as a writer and editor who routinely weasled my way into production, and finally design. My print life was a time of fewer constraints and variables, with almost no focus on user interaction and absolutely without iteration. Print design is a great place for art, where the designer (mostly) runs the show and is generally free from the work as soon as the ink dries. Is the web a great place for art? What’s art? What does it all mean?

vennLike most anyone reading this far, I live and work in a constantly evolving world of web design. One that’s roughly represented by venn diagrams, in which an increasingly large intersection between creative designers and front-end developers exists. We’re all trying to figure out what it means to design in a mobile-first world, from within the browser, in a device agnostic way, and how to adopt an agile design model for clients of all types and scales. We want to understand how to make it work, and how to get everyone really excited about it; how to be more efficient and more awesome; how to be one step ahead. We’ll figure it out, and when we do, it’ll all change again. That’s what it means to be in this business of web design. Hold onto your shorts.

But I struggle to determine for myself the place of art and creative in web design. To create something truly beautiful, carefully art directed, for an end customer to maintain (and not break). Something to be appreciated by a vast audience with widely different tastes. Something that will scale all the way from a phone to a TV, load quickly, be read easily–and still make someone inhale and say “wow” when they see it for the first time. And the second time. And every time.

From where I stand, it’s not enough for a web site to be usable. Functional. Flexible. I want every site to be a masterpiece. And chasing that notion drives me mad every minute of every day. Maybe one day I’ll get there, maybe one day I’ll die trying.

Packing lightly

backpackAs we move forward in this evolution of web design, it reminds me of a feeling I’ve had before. We were packing for a long, cross-country trip. 4 kids, 2 parents, 1 white cockapoo–all in our Ford Aerostar. As we packed our suitcases, the contents of mine spilled over…into several more suitcases. More outfits than I needed (way more), at least 2 curling irons, all my Gameboy games, and of course My Magic Diary. As the back of the van got too full, I was asked to edit down my things and take only what I needed. I could have gotten by with a few outfits, 1 gameboy game, and a hair tie–yes. But I refused, and so traveled across the country with my extra things on my lap. 100 miles in, I wanted to throw it out the window and watch that green Jansport hurtle backwards down the long stretch of I-80.

Maybe I’m still that girl. The girl who’ll always love print design, and creating art, because it’s like the comforts of home, having all the control, and the convenience of unlimited options. By contrast, I feel like web design is life on the road: Just the essentials, and the ability to nimbly adapt to a set of ever-changing circumstances. It’s the art of looking like Kate Moss in nothing but a white t-shirt, worn jeans, and a black leather jacket.

And it’s maybe a little bit terrifying

As much as I want to watch that green, overstuffed Jansport hit the road, I’m clinging like a third-degree Hoarder to the creative, which I constantly fear will become edited out in this new era of design (am I looking at you Apple? I might be looking at you). As the demand for designers to be well-versed in html/css/jQuery/whatever rises, does the role for the purely creative designer fade away? Is the role of a visual designer just a bunch of crap anyway? Maybe. But I’m going to hide out in Photoshop while you guys sort it out. (Kidding. Kind of.)

I look around and see how it becomes easier and easier to imitate good design–not just by virtue of the current design trends, but also with the relatively recent availability of first-rate stock graphics and off-the-shelf themes–and more difficult to innovate it. It’s like Tim Gunn’s just dropping a few hex codes and web fonts on your station and saying make it work.

And the truth is, we’re all trying to make it work. A good designer doesn’t know it all; a good designer is still learning. And if you’re really smart, you surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and figure it out together. (That’s my plan anyway.)

I do not believe this problem can be solved with one type of designer, or one breed of developer. I believe we are entering a phase of greater collaboration and dialog than we’re used to, with a less linear project process. It used to be a relay race. Now maybe it’s a group marathon. Is that one too many metaphors?

As designers, we do well to talk about how design without a plan is just decoration. We champion function over form in our talks, lest we look superfluous to a bunch of people who think we just color with crayons all day. And for some of us, or for some of you, that’s your passion–creating functional, future-proof systems or beautiful user interfaces. That’s your art, and I truly celebrate you for that. (I mean it). The functionality stuff, you’re right, is the most important, but it’s not what drives me–it’s what I drive around. I do really want things to be absolutely beautiful. Never at the expense of usability, but the beauty is what I care about. Why I get out of bed in the morning. The reason I nudge things back and forth 2 pixels at a time into the wee hours of the night.

So am I wrong? Am I missing the point? Should I give up and get out my crayons?

No, because you need me. You need me, and I need you. And we both need those engineers we love but almost never understand. This new phase of design is about collaboration, iteration, conversation. It’s about making sure we all firmly advocate our positions–for pretty things, for semantic things, for performant things–and meet together at the end with a more beautiful product.

And what makes it beautiful, for each of us, will be different. But I want it to be beautiful to all of us.



  1. I love everything there is about developing and design. They are two different mindsets and it comes great to change from one to the other. Maybe I won’t be a master at either, but I love both so much to give on or the other up.

    I too, relate to your post. People think I do shit in Powerpoint and it just comes up. Hard to explain. But in the end, I really don’t care what they think of what I do. I love what I do and in the end, I am just a nut in love with his job. This is what ultimately matters, not what people think of me.

    At least I can relate to fellow peer and this post sure is one of them :)

  2. James Dalman says:


    Lots of great stuff packed into this post!

    I actually tell people I color all day when they ask me what I do. :) I think the reason is because I do many things. First and foremost I am a designer, but I am not limited to that. It’s difficult to explain to people that I design, do strategy, write content, product training materials, etc. Some titles are not always entirely accurate or true.

    I totally get your ideology on wanting to create beautiful masterpieces and not just focusing on function. It’s a struggle. Having designed a thousand or so websites, the battle is not wanting to do just another “standard” website … but there are also proven methodologies and layouts that work. They aren’t creative but they accomplish the objectives of clients, something we also have to make a priority.

    Anyways, I am just rambling useless diatribe. Great thoughts here and all challenges for us design people.

  3. John Minnich says:

    As a developer that also designs, I can confirm that there are functionality-only types of people that don’t view design as important or necessary to maintaining good user experience for a product, and they can be dismissive of the immense difficulty and importance of the work a designer does. Even the work web developers do is sometimes dismissed as the “easy” kind of programming by other software engineers.

    I also think, though, that once developers (and more importantly, managers) in a team or group have a good understanding or appreciation for what designers do, the class wars between the two roles need to be reduced to healthy push-back. Maintaining an “us-against-them” attitude is entirely detrimental to a good, collaborative environment. We understand; your job is hard. So is ours. So is the real goal: creating a cohesive and pleasing product for our users. Let’s put our energies toward that end and see what we can all come up with.

  4. Megan, reading your piece and learning about your background sounded eerily as if we had been separated at birth. I too started out as a journalist and editor, went into design in my late 30s because I loved print design. I have since become a nearly 100% web designer, but I, too, feel that my co-workers see design as playing with crayons (I am CONSTANTLY introduced to visitors to my workplace as the one “who makes things look pretty,” which sounds so patronizing it makes we want to puke), and that I spend far too much of my time not on beautiful design but on wrestling with technical development tasks and designing on the fly because there is little content planning to start a project. And I SO identify with your comment on wanting to focus on one talent that you can keep developing, and not be a hybrid. You should see my rant on how I hate web design. You’ll nod your head. http://designtank.tumblr.com/post/40108913999/why-i-have-come-to-hate-web-design

    • Megan Gray says:

      That’s the benefit of joining a great team. A great team not only empowers you to do what you do best, but also understands and respects your value. And it works both directions, of course. I know developers who do their best work when they’re inspired by a good design and are working with a designer who respects their craft. And when you add some serious Project Managers into that mix, well, you really are free to just design. It’s a beautiful thing.

      • Chris Raymond says:

        I envy you. I do know how rewarding it is to work with a good team, but alas, not my current circumstances… boo hoo hoo for me!

  5. Dave says:

    This is awesome. I think you just spoke for 10’s of thousands of designers everywhere (maybe more). Sometimes it’s nice to hear that you’re not the only one who feels a certain way.

  6. I’ve always had crazy respect for designers. My overly-analytical brain lacks the creativity and ability to make things look beautiful, regardless of the medium. To some degree I can see “good design,” but sitting down and creating it from scratch is where I fall short in a very big way.

    I don’t really have much to add other than I don’t see what you, or any other designer does, as “just design.” It’s freaking art.

  7. Jon Bellah says:

    Well said, Megan. I’ve tried to walk the line between developer and designer as much as possible, but am quick to admit that design is by far my biggest weakness.

    Now, I tend to look at myself more as a developer who has an eye for good design, rather than a developer/designer.

    Anyone that says “you just get to design” has obviously never tried to design anything, especially in a collaborative setting or for clients.

    And here’s the image you’re looking for to go along with the “group marathon” metaphor: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-IAlaaYRzDK4/UaAUrGuoKBI/AAAAAAAADt0/yctSY4Ncp5o/s640/3legged+race.jpg :)

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