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.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Think Like a Designer?

What does it mean to think like a designer?

  • Knowing that the problem can and should be redefined
  • Knowing that there is never a single “best” solution
  • Knowing that abductive reasoning is an acceptable path
  • Understanding that users provide information... not solutions
  • Being able to iterate freely
  • Always returning to and questioning the problem
  • Being able to abandon one line of thinking and take up another
  • Realizing that an abandoned path can always be returned to
  • Understanding that you must make things, many things... quickly and as early as possible
  • Understanding that making things is research
  • Knowing that ideas can come from strange places and looking there
  • Embracing the idea that your design will be picked up by others and adapted for different uses
  • Being comfortable with ambiguity
  • Realizing the need to embrace complexity — simplicity is being replaced by clarity
  • Knowing how to set boundaries — everything is connected but that doesn’t mean your design has to address all the connections
  • Thinking in systems — look for leverage points and design them into the project
  • Understanding that it’s less about the parts and more about the relationships between them

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Playtesting as a Catalyst for Evolution

Over a year ago I started attending these things called "Protospiel." These are events organized by board game designers allowing them to playtest their games with other designers as well as with publishers and gamers. This last protospiel was my fifth and I can honestly say that I love them. Every time I attend one it seems there are surprises. There are always games that are very enjoyable and there seems to always be one that is hard for me to bear as it is just bad. But, it is all done in a spirit of camaraderie. I had been thinking of these events as a venue for user-testing and I guess I never really thought much about that until a few weeks ago.

At the last protospiel I took a bunch of photographs. When I returned home I sat with a professor from my research group and showed him some of these photographs. I was a little surprised at some of his comments and it has stirred my mind. One of his comments was that to him these events seemed more like design sessions than user testing. I like that! And I think to a large degree it is true.

Many of these designers come with games that are very rough around the edges. Some even come with only ideas and a bag full of blank cardboard bits, cards, felt tip markers, colored cubes and other raw game making materials. Over the course of one of these 3 day protospiel weekends games are not just tested but created, changed, designed, re-designed, overhauled, and in some cases fine-tuned. These processes can happen at these events in a very collaborative way and in an environment that is friendly and open.

I am a strong believer in "thinking through making." In the process of making, a designer is forced to think about the structure and behavior of the system that they are creating. Changes to a design can happen on the fly throughout the process of making as the designer thinks and re-thinks the design. But, I believe that in the context of playtesting at a protospiel there is more happening. It is not only "thinking through making." Playtesting and all that it encompasses at one of these events can change the way that a designer thinks about designing and designs. I believe that it can change their personal design philosophy. This happens not only as they work on their own designs but also as they playtest other creator's games and discuss concepts, themes and mechanisms.

The evolution of a designers philosophy can happen through the playing of a prototype. Something not just about the discussion over a game but something about experiencing the mechanisms of the game can change the way a designer thinks. Yes there are those "ah-hah" moments but more often it is an almost imperceptible, subtle shift. These subtle shifts accumulate over time and are manifest as a slow evolution of the designers personal philosophy.