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Design Is Solving Problems, Not Adding Sparkles

In all of my scanning Al Gore’s tubes for useful information about what I do on a daily basis, every once in a while I come across something that shocks me. No, not like politicians shock me or like XKCD shocks me, but that shock me in that it makes me seriously wonder what other people think about when they hear the word “designer” — because it’s pretty clearly divorced from reality.

People like the unfortunately named Yong Fook, which I have to assume is an actual name and not something someone chose to go by, have this notion of design…well, let me quote the post:

Stop creating s***ty startups that look amazing. A product or service that is indispensably useful yet looks like a** is infinitely more likely to be successful than a product that solves zero problems but looks like a work of art. Stop this cycle of creating beautiful novelties, getting your 15 minutes, then disappearing. Create value.

…this from a blog post entitled “Design is Horses**t.”

What’s Wrong With This Sentiment
Well, other than the pointless profanity, the problem with this sentiment is that Yong Fook has the entire notion of design completely bass ackwards. If you think that design is about ‘looking amazing,’ being ‘a work of art,’ or creating ‘beautiful novelties,’ you’re not working with designers — you’re working with artists. Now, there’s nothing wrong with art — but it doesn’t do what design does.

Lots of people come to me, as a web designer, with an idea. They think that they have something of value, but they know that they can’t communicate that value to the public because they don’t have the skill. They think that their idea is just fine as it is, and that my job is to build a ‘front end’ for it — to make it palatable to the masses. They’re just as wrong as Yong Fook.

Designers — myself included — aren’t some sort of glamorous masters of bulls**t that are here to take your perfect little idea and make it something that people like. Designers are here because no matter how clever you are and how amazing your idea is, it’s not ready. Designers are here because your idea has problems, and you don’t understand the market, the Internet, and/or your audience well enough to address those problems before your customers discover them and despise you for them.

Steve Jobs agreed: “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,”
he said. “That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” (Emphasis mine.)

In short, if your opinion of design is that there is a stage of the process where you “create value” and then the designer comes in and adds happy sparkles of form to your function, you have no idea what being a designer is all about. I apologize if I sound angry or upset, but as someone who has solved profound problems with his clients’ products, business models, websites, marketing strategies, and more — by designing solutions — the fact that this perception still exists is a little upsetting.

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