Das Design Revolution

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Experience design comrades, I speak to you today because I have a vision. A vision where one day the person who really matters is back at the heart of our design processes. Rightfully claiming pride of place at the centre of all decisions regarding our websites, interfaces and systems. I am talking, of course, of the Designer, or more specifically, the Designer’s Portfolio.

For too long have we pandered to the user-centered orthodoxy at the expense of beautiful 1,200px wide images crafted for CSS gallery websites. How can we be expected to turn a small corner into a 400x300px snapshot that looks good on Dribble.com whilst having to worry about user personas? How can we expect Patterntap.com to accept our gorgeous, beveled navigation system if we have to spend time considering things like reassurance, orientation or SEO?

We are forced by project teams to worry incessantly about requirements: the user’s, the business’s or even, heaven forbid, the client’s. Our KPIs continually push us to sacrifice our design flourishes at the alter of ‘simplicity’ or even ‘usability’, whilst paying no heed to fulfilling our fundamental needs as frustrated Fine Artists or Filmmakers.

So in response to this I propose a new way of thinking about our practice. A revolution if you will. Set your iPhone lamp to ‘on’ and let it illuminate the darkness of agile prototyping methodology toward a shining new revelation:

h3. Portfolio-Centered Design

“I’m with you!” you tweet, “but how can we blindly follow you with no manifesto?”. Fear not; using my own process I have carefully crafted a ten-point system (because ‘ten-point’ always sounds best, regardless of how many cogent points I can actually come up with) for a designer to keep in mind. Consider these a checklist that will help you achieve the pinnacle of a shining portfolio, and get that all important job in an interactive marketing agency, turning above-the-line advertising into social media campaigns.

1. First and foremost, context is nothing

For a designer to have to think about a portfolio that is anything more than a series of images accessed by menus of thumbnails is absurd and not worthy of consideration. After all, if it’s good enough for art galleries then why not for us? We have to remember that our designs are essentially a series of pictures: to be looked at, commented on and copied in a suitably reverential setting.

Only this way can they truly ‘breathe’ as we want them to. Only then can we see their true aura, stripped of superfluous information, context or brief. Only then can they be evaluated without reference to requirements or KPIs, changing digital landscapes or touchscreen shapes and sizes.

2. Don’t pay too much attention to testing

How can users meaningfully assess your designs? They might have no prior knowledge of the system. Surely the best-placed person to decide if a series of pages works is the person who designed them. It’s obvious that only they really know what each item means and are best placed to understand the design decisions behind it.

Too often do I hear designers overruled with questions about users’ comprehension. Too often have I heard arguments citing Cognitive Psychology. Too often have principles of human behaviour and capabilities trumped good, solid layout decisions.

If the designer has seen the problem solved by their favourite app on their iPhone, which was approved by Apple, then it must be the best process and the users will eventually just learn how to use the system.

3. You can never arrive at a solution too quickly

If you can re-write a brief with as many solutions upfront as possible, this will significantly cut down on research, iterations, and those frustrating workshops with the wider team, clients or users. You are not a business consultant and this approach will free you up for the important jobs, like deciding which Smashing Magazine social icon set best reflects current design trends.

This also allows you to fill the gaps in your portfolio. Missing an AJAX carousel? Seen a good example of one? Simply set up the brief so the project needs a carousel (there has to be an explanation for them existing).

Finally, that portfolio needs a current, on-trend solution? Simply find yourself one (preferably popularised by industry gurus) and retro-fit the project requirements later. You can have these two for nothing: embedded fonts or responsive design (will work for about another six months or so).

4. Content is not your job

We cannot be expected to be storytellers; it is not our job to guide people through our sites. This is the job of the content strategist or copywriter and can be done right at the end. Taxonomy, nomenclature and so on, these are simply not as important as getting the colour pallet nailed.

There is a great tradition of using dummy Latin text in advertising. So why not stick to it? It makes us look like our fledgling field has roots in an older and more accepted field like advertising layout.

5. Considerations of technology – somebody else’s job

Do not collaborate with programmers. Keep as far away as possible, do not let them stifle creativity. Only the ‘Creative’ team is really qualified to come up with UX solutions; they’re the ones who went to Art College after all. Maintain a good ‘over-the-fence’ relationship with the technical or engineering team, and none of their prototyping or agile methodology will get in the way of your blue-sky design thinking. This leads us neatly to –

6. Collaboration, not exactly a dirty word, but a bit icky

Again, advertising can be our paradigm here. Silos keep things simple. Strategy is best left to the strategy team, user research and engagement to the IA team, and so on. Demand polished wireframes (think ‘scamps’) to colour in.

Client management? You know where the account team is. Keep your engagement to carefully planned walkthroughs, making sure the number of solutions to be presented is pre-arranged so there are no surprises. If in doubt, just remember headphones can be a designer’s best friend.

7. Accessibility works best as an afterthought

This is what the principle of ‘degrade gracefully’ was invented for. Always design for the highest spec users. This allows you total creative freedom, unencumbered by limitations of contrast, plug-ins, browsers, user’s disabilities and so forth. It is self-evident that only this can produce the most creative design solutions.

Then simply allow the site to ‘degrade gracefully’ and everyone who doesn’t sign up to your setup can simply enjoy an experience more suited to their system, or their personal limitations.

8. Photoshop: let that be where responsibility ends

If you can fill your folio with the initial designs, it ultimately doesn’t matter to you how it turned out in the browser, or whether KPIs were achieved. Sticking to your goal of beautiful pictures above all else allows you to keep your involvement ring-fenced to the early phase of the project and avoid the difficult responsibilities later on.

This keeps you free to make sure you always have your ear to the ground for the next portfolio-worthy project to work-up in Photoshop and get onto your site.

9. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet

Don’t be afraid of filler content to fit a nice pre-existing pattern. As I said ‘ten-point plan’ sounds better than ‘nine-point plan’. Whether the site experience works as a flow over multiple pages is not evident from portfolio grabs, so don’t worry, you are safe.

10. Don’t throw your net too wide

You’re crafting visual designs, so restrict your influences to that field. You can’t be expected to have time to absorb other mediums, have other interests or think about how they could relate to the problems we are trying to solve.

Your influences should come from within digital and possibly graphic design. What can film or games design teach you? Architecture is about buildings not websites. They are fundamentally different disciplines and will only confuse the design purity. Remember: “if it’s not Swiss, give it a miss.”

Keep all these in mind, and that award-winning portfolio could be yours!

Just don’t send it to me, that’s all I ask.


  1. Stuart: thanks this made me laugh – and at the end of a long day of meetings beating my head against at least 6 of the above a laugh was needed.

  2. Great article, however don’t be too quick to discount the creative abilities of a programmer. Take me for example: I’m a programmer that went to art school. I know quite a few programmers who are similar. Don’t assume that my role is a programmer, therefore I cannot be creative. It is the opposite, programming requires some of the most creative thinking I’ve seen. We typically do not stifle creativity, in fact we understand the creative process and can contribute bleeding-edge innovations that a typical designer wouldn’t think of. In my experience, a lot of designers share a print design mentality and consider their designs to be a concrete, however a web site could be constantly moving and changing as a user interacts with it, rotates it, resizes it, drags it, opens up context menus, expands and collapses content. That’s where you need a programmer involved to help shape what dynamic interfaces should be. Just a thought.

  3. As the piece is satire, I wouldn’t fret too much over any comments regarding certain discipline’s creativity or lack thereof.

    I agree that too often programmers are considered code monkeys, rather than the creative inventors they truly are… and the design team is referred to as “the creatives,” so that will shape perceptions of whose job it is to innovate.

  4. John,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I too went to art school and then became a programmer. Years later I’m combining both as a UX designer. Still that one comment about designers having a print design mentality is perfectly stated. The created mock-up is perfection. The fact that the real world, which doesn’t have perfectly kerned lettering, doesn’t live up to the design and is flawed.

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