I lost my Muji file folder with a notebook I used for my work with Base Madrid. Admittedly it made me nostalgic for those days. Most of the time I think nostalgia is useless, but it made me reflect on the evolution of my process – from that time when it was more conceptual and rooted in strong graphic principles, to something a bit more agile.
Not much has changed since then in terms of the kind of projects I want to work on. What has changed is that I’m fully immersed in technology, and that was exactly what was missing. I remember the time in my typography class at Pratt when I said “I didn’t want to create another printed thing”. Print work was already starting to bore me.
At Base, I worked for two full days researching and creating a strong concept for our proposal, which won a contest with the Madrid city government to design a signage system for a renovated historical building.
In the web space, working within an agile methodology you tend to skim over that part. In my experience, digital agencies tend to work fast and superficial.
I think there can be a balance. Research needs to happen but within a certain timeframe and depending on the complexity of the project. Concept and design thinking can be built in to an agile way of life.
If one discipline is ruling over the entire process then there is inevitably something missing. I’ve heard some visual designers complain that their role has been reduced to “hitting it with the pretty stick”. Visual design shouldn’t be superficial, it should be the component that elevates the concept. Things don’t have to be so literal. In fact, I’m drowning in the endless how-to reading material and practical hands-on conferences that populate the UX sphere.
For the past few weeks I’ve been working with a startup to create a scientific discovery app. Our concept defining the creative direction of the site is “a birds eye view”. This provides strong visual language that lends itself to the abstract canvas of our newsfeed with a grid of articles.
How-to books and conferences are quite useful but it’s crucial to expand a bit into the abstract realm. We are still talking about visual design, which is a close cousin to fine art.
Bruce Sterling gave quite harsh and inspiring closing remarks at SXSW earlier this year. He urged techies to own up to what we’ve done and what we continue to do every day. We aren’t just playing and experimenting – we’re killing. And the past is dead.
He asked how we can bring some level of inquiry, or moral seriousness to the latest technologies? My favorite idea he had was for evil Google glass. He explains that as-is the product is quite literal and not good fodder for a sci-fi novel. But if you reversed the four design principles that Google defined for developers working on Glass: 1. Design for Glass, 2. Don’t get in the way, 3. Keep it timely, and 4. Avoid the unexpected. Then things start to get interesting…
I recently interviewed with an agency that does beautiful work and they explained their process to me. They focus on content, and specifically what each piece of content is communicating and what may be the best way to edit and experience that content.
This is a very print-based approach but it seems thoughtful and sincere. They spend a lot of time up-front, in the research phase, defining and editing every piece of content as it own experience for the user, and an overall guiding principle for the design of the site.
The medium is the message – the form of the site and the user experience should communicate the message as much or more than the words itself.
With technology like google glass, the message is complete transparency and integration into our lives. As Sterling pointed out we’re already living a kind of Alan Kay world, where computing will vanish into our walls and ceiling.
We’ve moved on from high-horse, cold, modern architectural perspective to more user-centered design solutions. But you can’t be a slave to the user at the expense of good design. The designer needs to have a strong vision to use as a guide. It reminds me of a parable I heard a while ago – a ship with sails set firmly towards a goal is less affected by the directions of the wind.