Design is Dead. Long Live Design.

Welcome to the first in our “What About Design?” blog series, where our Board members share their thoughts on all things design. To kick things off, this is from our new AIGA CC President, Charmaine Farber!

Can I be so bold to try and re-define design? Why not? It’ll change in a year-or-so anyway! I see the discipline of design as the orchestration of systems and events that culminate in a shared idea or a shared experience. And I see designers not identifying with a particular medium of design, but rather work on team to curate ideas, make systems, and the oversee end-products — fully tested with customers.

Let’s step back in history for a moment. Not as far back as design being “Graphic Arts,” where signmakers used paint to create brands and meaning. But rather at the start of the Internet — the real innovator of Design. In the mid-1990’s, at least in the Midwest (I’m a Chicago girl), the way design was produced started to shift. Perhaps it was different on the Coasts at that time, although probably not because we didn’t have the same, ubiquitous media consumption driving forward production of ideas (Internet). Designers learned new concepts from academia, on-the-job, through conferences and books. We were still doing manual paste-up for publications, cutting letters out of Rubylith for posters, and often brought a printout to the printer for each of the CMYK color spaces, and sometimes putting information on an Optical or Zip drive (very proprietary storage systems) to hold our files for transport to the printer. We used a lot of spray-mount and Exacto-knives. The web was just beginning to be a commercial product, and designers saw an opportunity to make the consumption of information better/faster for more people via this medium, coupled by better software that was luring people away from traditional forms of analog production to (a perceived) faster, and cleaner, production.

As many designers at the time, I applied my graphic design knowledge to the web, and at that point, it worked seamlessly because web designs at the time were simply a static page of visual elements and text. Like a billboard on the screen. We didn’t really think about the behavior of the user beyond their eye movement across the page/screen to consume information, and we assumed that eye movement worked like the consumption of print media. Start at the top/left and zig-zag to the bottom right. Or make a clockwise path from top-left to bottom-right. When someone was done reading web information, they would click to another page — that’s it. And — that. was. GRAND. Hypertext, images, ASCII art, Gif animation — all a novelty. In the mid-1990’s, usability from an analog (product) point-of-view, visual communication and interaction design were separate. No one, designers included, didn’t see much of a connection.

As the web designer, you created the visual design, coded it with basic HTML and tables, got the design onto a server, and managed that server. Sometimes, you even created an information architecture before you designed the visuals to understand all the pages you would make. Designers didn’t have content management systems for easy update besides what Dreamweaver provided. And you were considered mysterious by all because they didn’t understand how to do what you did. And BTW, the medium defined what kind of designer you were — print or web or packaging or product.

Then Flash came along — which allowed us designers to consider things like feedback with button click sounds, more attention to visual design, animation, and the gamified aspects of interaction design. We could consider video and how people worked with the web “page.”

Industrial design and package design thought about the end-user because there were many more ways to use a physical product, like a box or hand-held tool than there were ways to use most periodicals. And the web allowed for clicking around on a page, or from page-to-page, and perhaps some very basic forms — and was modeled after 2D, periodical design.

And then, seemingly overnight, Flash was faux pax because Apple said so. A rough time for interaction designers for sure. We had to learn a new path.

Jump ahead some more…

Soon we began to integrate whole marketing schemes with visual design and web, and then adding mobile and other touchpoints. We combined three ideas, analogue product design, visual communication and web design, began to fuse. We began to work in teams instead of alone in our basements.

Today as a designer, you need to think about the business needs, the user needs, and the available technology — even if you are a visual designer. You work in an interdisciplinary team. Often, you lead that team! Hopefully we think along the lines of Transition Design — (simplified) is how our solutions and decisions affect not only the bottom line, but the health and happiness on the future of culture, environment, and people. As well as how to use the system of design to get there.

The definition of Design is changing (and needs to) as it both describes what the end goal of the user is as well as the methodology to get there. I believe that human-centered design is the only future for all design production methods and intrinsically shifts the meaning of “designer” from that correlated with a production methodology to the person creating high-level systems that are applied to the experience-making of a particular message. You might align yourself with “visual” or “product” design, but you still need to hold all these concepts in your mind through the system made to tackle projects.

Increasingly designers are asked to discover the medium to communicate with — and decide whether certain technologies are appropriate for the experience-making and/or message-making. Designers then use visuals to lead people, and rely on testing and measuring behavior-change to see if we missed the mark. We now attempt to design the entire experience, understanding that a person considers the Gestalt of the brand or message through all the various design touchpoints such as print, screen, customer service, and physical in-store.

Design is the attempt to curate or choreograph the thoughts of people to inspire them to act. If we can see ourselves as this person within the project, then we can understand how all the other people on the team fit in to make this experience happen. We can teach our team members the importance of and how to critique the visuals, we can include them in prototype testing (this includes how and where print design is consumed), and, as a result, we can better appreciate customers’ and team members’ feedback because we included them throughout the whole process of ideation and not just a specific drop-points.

Human-centered design is not just about designing for humans and considering their needs and behaviors, but about designing with humans and seeking differing viewpoints and concepts.

Designers have often been the creators of culture. But we can also take charge and lead the cultural experience of the team through systems-building. We create rules within a team, and we can be the keepers and educators of those rules — people seek culture because it provides comfort. Let’s be that comfort through the leadership design provides.

Let’s rebrand ourselves so that we can better do our jobs for the people that consume our work — and on the teams that work with us.

Untangling the discipline of design from the production methods of design is imperative for design’s future.

The output methods are too varied and complex, plus change too often to align with too closely, and designers need to think more systematically, human-centered/earth-centered. We need to rebrand our profession and start with rebranding our roles on the team. This can take place quietly, where you introduce a guerrilla testing for your designs or you have your team partake in a “Bad Idea Party” or the “5 Whys”, or even have weekly whiteboard challenges to get your teams working together and flexing their creative muscles. We need to help our teams understand that designers don’t own creativity, but we harness idea-making to help a team co-create, which benefits the end outcome for the user/customer and company. We need to tell our teams we are ready to lead!

At the heart of it, designers are the innovators, appreciating iterations and critique. Own in! We can teach these concepts to our teams to further any project! We can lead our teams and projects through human-centered methods. We can design for humans, through humans, keeping the environment and culture in mind — all while creating a kick-ass, new product or experience!

Thanks for reading our very first “What About Design?” blog post from AIGA CC President, Charmaine Farber. Stay tuned for our next post soon!

By Charmaine Farber | AIGA CC President
Published February 6, 2019
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