User Experience Design Isn’t Always Pretty

Behold! My beautiful white boarding skillz! Not quite a work of art...

Behold! My beautiful white boarding skillz! Not quite a work of art…

This is one that has taken me a long time to learn. Often, I look at other designers’ work with awe and reverence because it’s so damn pretty, and wonder why I can’t make pretty things like they do. I get jealous and frustrated because I really don’t have the opportunity to practice my skills on cool typography, textures, lighting effects, or colour schemes. I work in the same software application where many of the design patterns are already established. Every once in a while I get a chance to make some cool new UI element, like menu tabs, but for the most part, the look and feel needs to stay consistent with what has already developed. No new shiny buttons for me :(

As a designer, I love making things pretty, but I’ve realized that my job has become much more than that. There are periods of time where I don’t open Photoshop for weeks. I spend more time in UXPin and white boarding, in meetings and listening to client pain points (and sometimes praise!). And while I long for the chance to learn new Photoshop skillz, for the most part, I’d rather be using big picture design strategies to problem solve user experience issues.

Creating Pixels versus Big Picture Problem Solving

As the digital design world becomes more stratified, I think there are some places where the graphic designer and user experience design roads cross, but for the most part, they are diverging more every year. Design thinking plays into both professions, but I think user experience designers spend a lot more time thinking about the big picture and theorizing about workflows, where graphic designers get to spend more time focusing on the details and making truly beautiful works of art.

I love browsing Dribble to see what people are making. I am awestruck at some of the work I see being created by such talented individuals everyday:

WeSC by Martin SchmetzerIcon 2 by Tunguska_eventDiva Liebe - book cover by Michæl Pauknerrocket by CDY

These are things that take a lot of time, patience, and practice and I’m honestly really jealous that I don’t have those skills. But, I can’t beat myself up too much, because my skills are just as important to software and web design; they just exist a bit more behind the scenes.

To add in the infamous Jared Spool quote: “Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it.”

Simon Norris does a good job on his blog talking about how good user experience design is invisible. This is a UX catch phrase that is a bit under debate right now, but I think that is only because it depends on how you interpret the phrase. I think invisible is a bad word to describe the way people use things that have been designed well. I think a much better (although less impactful) word is intuitive. Good user experience design doesn’t stop you in your tracks, and very rarely brings about strong emotions, but often just makes that user say to themselves, “Huh. That was easy.” There are no works of art, nothing beautiful to look at, just internal warm fuzzies that a user gets for a job well done. In that sense, good user experience design isn’t completely invisible, it just doesn’t stop you in your tracks.

Finding the balance

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever be totted as one of the best designers out there, because I don’t create tangible works that can be displayed. Okay okay, I do sometimes and they fall into the realm of customer website that I make through Eleven and Oaktree. But even in those cases, I’m designing for a client and trying to push the boundaries of creative expression can often be quashed in the name of familiarity and simplicity. I try to push the limits of my website design, but I still lack a lot of the graphic design skills that designers use to make those tiny details that shine. As I move forward in my career, I think I will try really hard to keep both types of design in perspective. For the design that can master both will ultimately create better experiences across the board.

If you’re looking for more on what makes great design in both fields, and how they tie together, take a look at Smashing Magazine’s chapter from one of their eBook’s focusing on Visible versus Invisible design.


For more of my work, visit Oaktree Media. You can always get in touch with me if you have any questions!

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