Enough of ‘the pretty stuff’. Why graphic design has always been about the user experience

Graeme StephensonIn this guest post, Graeme Stephenson takes issue with graphic design being referred to as ‘the pretty stuff’ and argues that without great graphic design there cannot be great UX.

I read recently that yesterday’s graphic designers are today’s UX [user experience] designers. But haven’t graphic designers always been designing user experiences?

I’ve attended dozens of UX workshops that defer to the graphic design discipline as ‘the pretty stuff’. Not only does it undermine the discipline, but implies a yin-yang distinction between the two roles.

Take Uber (yes, really), earlier last month, Uber launched a new visual expression as part of a larger rebranding effort. With this transition, Uber begins to overcome a fairly monochromatic, visual and emotive presence. Simply, what this means for you and I, is a redesigned icon for our devices — an almost sci-fi looking icon that (as we are told) signifies the first peek into a connected world, where “bits and atoms come together”.

Uber's old (left) and new logos

Uber’s old (left) and new logos

Head past the strange new icon and Uber remains as reliable and intuitive as ever. How might Uber’s new story and graphic language signal the relevance of their new products and services in a broader sense? And, how will it translate (in the alchemic sense) across those products, to genuinely improve and enhance user experience overall?

Questions like these keep me optimistic about the partnership between graphic design and UX.

But how did we arrive here? Graphic design represents how all the elements of a visual toolkit come together to form not just interfaces, but recognition of an overarching brand image – which effects how all of companies’ products will be experienced.

Melissa Ng

Melissa Ng

“They (graphic designers) help define who we are as a business, and what that should communicate to customers and the rest of the world,” remarks Melissa Ng, UX and product designer at Melewi.

“Their role surpasses just the visual aspect and gives direction and reasons to what UX and UI design decisions should be made.”

A Stanford study on website credibility showed that almost half of all users determine how trustworthy a site is based on how it looks alone. The measure of effective UX is to deliver on the human impact of our designs’ ability to deliver outcomes. Yet the worst culprits of bad UX are often a result of bad graphic design.

Of course, things like tech and engineering developments and discoveries made from user testing provide new foundations (as well as limitations) where graphic design is concerned, but UX and graphic designers should understand what they’re designing, regardless of the platform. When designing for an interface, a graphic designer needs to understand programming capabilities and limitations only as much as a UX designer should understand graphic design principles such as colour psychology, grid formations, typography and so on.

UX designers need to accept that graphic design forms a crucial part of shaping experiences. Similarly graphic designers should remember that aesthetics are not the be all and end all. Like the ATM machine whose interface looks stunning, but you’ll be a monkey’s uncle if you can find the button that let’s you check your statement!

Maish Nichani

Maish Nichani

“The problem comes when designers show contempt by ignoring all norms and create systems that serves only their egos,” says Maish Nichani, thought leader in the field of UX design, and practitioner at Pebble Road. “Authentic experiences are built when there is a good understanding of how the different layers interact and the meaning they create together.”

We need to make the distinction between depth of understanding and skills required to perform the role. Unless you’re a Jack-of-all-trades, the most important skill to master is the openness to listen and learn from one another in proper collaboration. ‘The pretty stuff’ attitude simply doesn’t apply here. Partnership is a necessity. Only this way can we build products which deliver positive experiences for people.

Graeme Stephenson is design director at The Bonsey Design Partnership based in Singapore.


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