Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Graphic Design and IX/UX

Ramble, ramble, ramble... rant, rant rant...

Recently I had a conversation in passing with people deeply embedded in IX/UX design. I was surprised to learn they considered graphic designers as less promising candidates for IX/UX design. I was so stunned in fact that I was left a bit speechless and frankly a little depressed. So, I have been reflecting on this a lot lately. Perhaps it is my own training that leads me to believe that graphic designers have high potential to be the very best IX/UX designers. My early training included the notion that the "concept" is foundational for any good design. Layered with this were strong emphasis's on understanding systems and semiotics (though I did not learn that it was called semiotics until later). I was taught that understanding design principles allowed a good designer to cross design disciplines. In my undergrad I designed 3D, 2D and time based projects.

The focus on concept was so strong in my undergrad education that student's portfolios coming out of the program were often lacking in visual appeal (at least that was my experience). Developing a compelling concept is a key factor in designerly ways of framing and redefining a problem statement. This pursuit of concept forces a designer to constantly revisit, rethink, re-frame and re-write the problem. It also is a catalyst for iteration as the problem evolves. It creates an integral feedback loop that joins the problem with the design space.

Systems thinking is what sets a good graphic designer apart from a mediocre one. A good graphic designer not only understands that there is a system across visual elements, pages, media and artifacts of all kinds but that the system includes the user, the context of use and the sociocultural context. Good graphic designers understand that designing in-between the elements of a system is crucial — i.e. it's as much or more about the relationships between the elements of the system than the elements themselves. It is in these in-between areas that leverage points can be designed into the system. This is where real and powerful design happens.

An understanding of semiotics is perhaps the most important quality of a good graphic designer. Many may not have an explicit understanding of semiotics. But all have at least a deep intuitive understanding. This understanding is a knowledge that every physical/visual element or system of elements that you create MEANS something. Making sure that users interpret your design the way that you intend is what makes you a designer. If you create a semiotic system that is misinterpreted you have probably failed. Semiotic systems not only create meaning but also enable people to use your design and can evoke emotion. Affordances and signifiers are inseparable — so, a poorly crafted signifier makes a design function poorly or not at all.

Good graphic designers are trained both formally and through experience to think/work in these ways. This makes them prime candidates to move into IX/UX design. These abilities can function for them on two levels. At a low level these skills allow them to work within design teams as a communication hub — crafting custom visual languages that unite the team and move projects forward in unique and powerful ways. On a higher level it makes them a valuable asset. An intuitive understanding that all design is about creating an experience enables a good graphic designer to transfer their abilities into the IX/UX design space.

All this rambling and ranting are based on my personal experience as a designer. I'm not entirely convinced that experience is shared by all graphic designers — I suspect there are many who do not share a similar experience. I believe that many graphic design undergrad and graduate programs fail to provided the foundation that I feel I have been so fortunate to receive. There needs to be a shift in such programs to help students establish a foundation first as designers and second as graphic designers.

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