Product Principles: Design is Not Art
While reading an article the other day, I had the antithesis of an “aha moment.” The article was meant to be a funny read about how people often don’t understand what designers do. A particular cartoon in the article resonated with me on the difference between art and design:
Image by UXDesign
I had a good laugh, while I cried a little on the inside. Sadly, many people believe that art and design are the same thing. If you’re a designer, you know what I’m talking about—if not, by the end of this article, you hopefully will!
The idea that “design is not art”, is one of the core principles behind the way we design products at Levvel. It informs the way we work with our clients and with each other. Telling the difference and being able to explain it to our clients is one of the most important challenges we face as a team.
Design is Objective
Art is subjective. While an artist may have had their own personal thoughts, views, and emotions poured onto a canvas, it can mean something completely different to me than what the artist intended. Art is a personal experience. Art can be beautiful, ugly, political, completely biased;it can be whatever it wants to be because art is subjective! Design, however, does not have that same freedom—nor should it.
Design is objective. It’s not influenced by the personal feelings, interpretations, or beliefs of the designer—it’s about solving problems and creating solutions that work for people. Design isn’t about how the interface looks but rather how humans will interact with it. Unlike art, a design that’s beautiful but doesn’t perform its function well is a failure.
A great example of this is the “Juicy Salif” juicer, designed by Phillipe Starke for Alessi.
Juicy Salif juicer designed by Phillipe Starke for Alessi.
The juicer is beautiful. It is a piece of art, but it is not well designed. As an art piece, it stands out as a bold and thought-provoking statement. As a design, it forces users to hold it down with two hands and spill juice all over the counter. In other words, it succeeds at art, but it fails at design.
We place a lot of emphasis on research and evidence in our design process. We conduct user interviews at the start of a project to understand who is using the system and why they’re using it. We do as much competitive research and testing as we can to inform the design challenge in front of us. This is because design is objective and is based on the users’ needs, not our own subjective judgements.
Design is Collaborative
Art is usually an individual sport. The artist goes to her studio, lets the creative juices flow and eventually emerges with a work of self expression. It sounds silly that web and application design could be done that way, but that is precisely what so many traditional design agencies do. They work in a vacuum, hiding their thought process and iterations from their clients, then lay it all out in a big reveal presentation. This is called the “design genius” approach.
We prefer an open design process, welcoming client collaboration and feedback at all stages. Unlike artists, we’re not personally attached to the designs. Early iterations are simply disposable discussion starters that help us validate our understanding of the problem domain and move us closer to a real solution. Good design requires us to work with clients as team members.
We continue our evidence-based approach, even after a design is implemented, by offering metrics strategies for new products. What does the client expect to happen after their product is launched? What does success look like? What metrics would be able to tell the client if the product is succeeding? Unlike art, design evolves. The first iteration is just that and requires diligent attention to continue improving.
Design is Teachable
Design is not based on artistic genius or mythical inspiration, it’s a deliberate process of investigation and questioning. Accepting this means that it’s a teachable skill that can be improved over time.
At Levvel, we’re very conscious of this and do everything we can to cultivate our team members’ design skills. We staff most projects with at least one senior and junior designer to maximize learning opportunities and collaboration. Working alone would make it too easy for designers to form creative attachments to their work and fall into the design-genius mindset.