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.)
In 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?
Like 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.
As 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.