Notes on Creativity and Originality in Digital Product Design
Designers are extremely creative people, but the design of websites and digital products is becoming less and less so. And it’s not just because of responsive web design. I’ve been thinking about why this is happening, and in my research for a new platform I’m building, I asked many designers their opinions on the topic.
Silicon Valley culture is infiltrating into basically every other tech centre throughout the world, and most of the product people there tend to focus less on the brand in favor of building the magic combination of elements to go viral organically. However, the current design of web apps is a sea of same-ness, mainly inspired by whatever Silicon Valley startup is most successful at the moment.
I, like many a designer before me, have used Airbnb as a reference for my projects, particularly when I have a deep hierarchy of data that requires a great filter. They’ve done it really well, but rather than solving the problem exactly the way folks have done before, what is a new way to solve the problem? If we always follow what’s been done before, all of our work will look the same.
Material Design aims to create consistency among Google products (emphasis on GOOGLE products, not everyone’s products) and while they’re doing some great work in behaviors and animations, the misconception is that the entire Internet should copy their styles. People have asked me, ‘Can you ‘do’ Material Design?’, but it’s not a new skill that designers need to learn, it’s a framework that a private company has built for their own use, and to emphasize that they are a force to be reckoned with in design. (Success on that front, by the way)
The most important thing as designers is that we think about why Google has created this for their own products, and the implications of bringing elements of the new system in your own practice. Is it relevant to your audience, and does it fit with the brand or product you are currently designing for? There are certainly bits and pieces that I find quite useful in my work (The floating action button — ‘FAB’, I love).
Here are some thoughts on maintaining originality and inspiration in your life as a digital product designer, UX designer, visual designer or however you define your role. These points aim to address some of the problems I’ve faced and hopefully offer advice so that others don’t fall into the same traps I have at times.
1. What is your Concept?
Have a concept for what you’re creating — and make it important. This will be the current that your design work can flow on and it will keep you going in a strong direction.
There is always a cultural and historical component to our work, whether we are conscious of it or not, and we could push ourselves more to think about why we are building something a certain way, what influences those decisions and how it affects/is affected by the world around us.
Research-based UX practitioners like to see designers following best practices as there are ideal patterns and flows that make a website easier to use. By talking to users we’re giving more value to the design process through validation, but the recommendations can become quite prescriptive. We need to balance listening to users with also NOT listening to users, and allowing ourselves to follow creative direction.
2. Write your own Design Principles
There is a lot of noise out there, and it’s easy to get distracted by the loudest voices rather than your own. Especially the people saying designers “should” do this or “shouldn’t” do that (ha! kind of what I’m doing here). Truth is, we’re creative people and creativity is as complex as humans are, and there are multitudinous ways we can make and interpret our work.
People have also asked me what design programs do you use, expecting an absolute answer. To be honest, I am completely software agnostic. There are aspects of Illustrator I prefer massively to Sketch, and there are aspects of Keynote that I prefer to Illustrator. Design is design. The tool is simply a means to achieve your goals, is does not constitute the design itself.
Similarly, the ‘designers should code’ argument is not so black and white. It doesn’t matter whether designers should or shouldn’t code, it matters that designers should THINK. Think about what our work is being used for, and for whom, and how it is being built. If we are building it ourselves, all the better.
Check out my design principles here, and feel free to steal them.
3. Get a Seat at the Table
User experience design does infuse more meaning into the superficialities of the recently created field of ‘visual design’, but some larger organisations have siloed these roles, which is an inefficient way of working and mostly creates cookie-cutter layouts. Many visual designers I’ve spoken to tend to feel that they are forced into ‘colouring in the boxes’.
If your organization is siloed like this, aim for a seat at the table well ahead of any strategic or UX decisions. That way you can help to craft a concept, a brand and a personality from day one. The ideal would be to have complete ownership of the design process and to see the big picture, even at larger organisations and agencies, as this will encourage more unique and culturally relevant websites and products.
That said, if you want a seat at the table, know exactly what role you want to have at that table. Thinking like a strategist is something that product designers are expected to do, and while it is important to incorporate business goals into your design work, be careful to maintain your imagination in the process.
4. Create space for yourself
There is a bit of grumbling about Dribbble, as a platform too focused on aesthetics with very little focus on how the websites are being used. I say, why not allow designers the space to create? Even if it’s a fictional product that is completely unusable, if it allows the designer to stretch their imagination then it can be a good thing.
Web design doesn’t feel like very creative work most of the time. A lot of designers I’ve spoken to need a strong creative outlet outside of their web design work, especially those that work directly with developers or directly in code.
Creativity is the process of making something from nothing. While business and user goals can be quite quantitative, it is much more difficult to define the value of the design phase. It may be that the design work is what keeps web and product design a creative act, and if so, conceptual thinking and imagination should be valued above all during this phase.
If you find yourself short on time to make really great work, your team needs to know that. Give yourself space for creativity, and the originality and quality of our web products will benefit immensely.
Originally published on the Ladies That UX blog