Monday, April 4, 2011

Design: The Essential Element

Often when people think about "design", they narrowly focus on external visual aspects of an object, like looking at the exterior of a car. To these people, design is this practice of taking a functional object with a set of features, then wrapping an elegant wrapper around the object. In that way, the functionality lives in one dimension, and the design, the artistically styled wrapper, exists in another. Offering one in pink, for the ladies, is what constitutes design for people with this mindset.

Design as an add-on is one reason why so many products suck. Design as an add-on means that you don't have an understanding of what and why. It means that users will have to penetrate a layer of wrapper to access the functionality that they need. But it's worse than gift wrap, because the lack of design means that what's inside the wrapper is a mismatched collection of cool stuff and useless garbage, neatly bundled in a colorful garbage bag.

Colorful garbage bags are often spawned in an environment where the push to do something leads any planning or vision. While one group might look at the popularity of the iPhone or the iPad and say "let's add a touch interface to our Windows platform," design weighs the functionality and utility against the cool factor. Design asks, "how does this help" and "does it make it easier".

Design is an editorial process. It's honing and focusing the what and how into it's most simple, straightforward essence. Design is about analyzing the why it is and it's interrelationship to the what. Design isn't just art, design is process -- one that we all follow with various levels of self-awareness.

Design is how we organize our closets or our kitchens. It's how we organize the remote controls for our television and our entertainment center. Imagine all of the places you could designate as 'the place you put the remote control when you watch TV'. Besides the obvious ones like next to you or in front of you, think about reasons you might use to justify some of the really stupid ones.

Too often though, people don't solve problems as designers. Instead of asking, "why do I have to get up and walk over to the remote control storage next to the TV in order to get the remote and change the channel," they ask, "why do I need to change the channel." Few people would consider the remote location as a design problem. And yet, as designers, sometimes our biggest challenge is to overcome people's undying commitment to arbitrary ways of structuring the problem like, "Dad could never find the remote control. He always put it by the television, so I put it there because I can always find it." Design deconstructs and rebuilds in order to explore how the idea is engineered and constructed.

Ultimately, design requires analytical thinking skills. Often, when people 'grow up' in environments where they simply follow processes and mindlessly repeat instruction sets, they don't practice critical analysis nor explore alternate conceptual frameworks. These kinds of environments, be they social, political, educational or workplace, maintain barriers and disincentives to original, analytical thinking.

In the end, the analytical thinking used in design may make you a hero, but it may make you the goat. It may make you an obstacle in the path of someone who doesn't think or understand -- someone who just wants to 'get it done.' There may be no glory in your approach, but trust your instincts -- you'll be glad you did.

1 comment:

jjsakura said...

I think you're also talking about usability and really understanding how your customer plans on using your product. Sometimes a customer will tell you that they plan to use a product one way (I'm using the iPAD for everything) versus the reality which might be (I use it for surfing, emails, playing games, etc. I still have another system for creating docs, spreadsheets, etc.) The customer may always br right, but they don't always know what's right for them.