Ask a designer what the best solution for a particular problem is and you’re likely to hear everyone’s favorite answer: it depends.
And it’s true. It’s not that they can’t come up with an answer. It’s that the answer to most design questions are dependent on numerous factors.
Based on the question, the answer could depend on who your users are and their expectations or behaviors. It might depend on where and in what context or setting they’ll be using your product. Maybe it depends on what your business goals are and how they conflict or align with your user’s goals. Or possibly, it depends on the other interactions that users have with your product or service and how they relate to the question at hand. It could be one of these things, it could be a combination. The list goes on…
Know what else it depends on?… It depends on which designer you ask.
Design, while it draws conclusions from various sciences, is not concrete. It’s open to interpretation. The more I work in this field the more I’ve come to see it as a type of informed decision making that, as a designer matures, is guided by philosophy and style.
It’s these two elements that fascinate me most about designers (and creatives in general). Because in the business world of UX Design (and many other design worlds) there doesn’t seem to be a whole heck of a lot of interest in, or room to talk about, a designer’s style. At least not in my experience.
Now I’m not talking about the design community and all the various clubs and cliques that make it up. God knows that differences in style and philosophy come up all over the place there, even if it’s not directly cited. Hell, if we couldn’t talk about anything that arises out of differences in the community, I think designers would all start mistaking each other for mutes.
But see, this is a challenge for design teams, particularly design agencies and consultancies. These groups are trying to build a brand around both how and what they design. This is who they are. This is how they become known to potential clients. But, give every designer in an agency the same problem to solve and chances are they’ll come up with a different solution. More than that, they’re likely to take a different path in getting there.
On my own team I know that I have a very different style and approach than more than a few of my teammates. Some differences are small, some are friggin’ ginormous. And as I talk to other designers, I hear them talking about the differences on their teams as well.
Differences are good though, right? Why is this a problem?
Well, the first problem is repeatability. Imagine you have a repeat client. On one project they work with one designer, and on a second a different designer. Over the course of the second project, the new designer will make recommendations based both on research (hopefully) and their style. But their style doesn’t quite match that of the designer the client worked with last time, so something doesn’t jive.
Depending on the client’s attentiveness, they may pick up on it. The client didn’t hire each designer on their own, they hired the agency. One agency. Why two different answers?
Often, where I’ve seen this play out is in deliverables. Sure most teams, agencies, consultancies, etc have templates, but often a designer has some say about what information and contents to include and how.
So again, a client engages with the same agency for two or more projects, with some of the same deliverables listed in each of them. But because each project has a different designer, each with their own approach and philosophy, those deliverables come out quite a bit different.
And trust me, these things happen. I’ve seen it. I’ve heard about it. And I’ve felt it.
The second problem is, of course, identity. It’s great to be able to build a strong brand on the work you’ve done. Or, more appropriately, the output of the work you’ve done. Because very often, that’s what people are looking at and remembering. But more and more now, we talk about pulling back the covers and talking about our processes; about what kind of thinking went into something and how decisions were made. And holy f**k, if that’s not important. But it is friggin’ hard to build an identity based on these things when there can be so much variation between the people actually doing the work.
So what’s the answer to these challenges?
Well, most often, what I see is groups trying to lock shit up. Deliverables become so locked in that if you want to include something not already there or change something, you’re shit outta luck.
And processes become so blanket-based that designers begin struggling. Because either they’re forced to do things that don’t fit with their approach (which would allow them to produce better results) or they’re kept from doing the added things they think the project needs, because the process doesn’t allow for it. Everything just becomes this pre-defined, step-by-step, fill-in-the-blanks, assembly line of design.
Recently, Ryan Carson wrote a post titled Hitting 40 Employees And Going Vanilla on his observations of teams genericizing things as they get bigger. He doesn’t cite differences in style as a reason for this, but I think it is as much as the reasons he does cite.
The funny thing is that, when I talk about this challenge to other designers, their comments lead me to believe that they would in-fact, LOVE this vanilla, genericized mode of working. They just want it based on their style, their approach, their philosophy.
I do think that plain-vanilla is a bad path. But I also think that these differences present quite a challenge to teams. Particularly larger ones that still want to build their brand on not only the work they’ve produced, but the people producing it. Ignoring differences in the styles of the designers working under the same organization can waken or confuse that organizations identity. And increasingly what I see is individual designer’s brands becoming more recognized than that of the organization they work for.
Maybe it’s not a challenge that can ever be solved particularly well.
Maybe it’s a good thing that I often hear designers talking about what it’ll be like when they go solo or start their own firm.
Maybe breaking down large groups into individuals and smaller teams with much more cohesive identities will put a spotlight on the differences in our approaches and beliefs and lead clients to choose us based on those; not the fact that we can run a usability study with our eyes closed, crank out some nice wireframes with our hands behind our backs, or map out a site-map/task-flow/user-journey as easily a we can spell our own names.
Or maybe not.
I think that’s probably enough of my rambling for one night. Congratulations on making it to the end. Even more-so if you were able to make sense of it :)