Visual Designers Are Just As Important As UX Designers | July 19, 2011

As I explained in my previous post, user experience design is a multidisciplinary activity which includes psychology, user research, information architecture, interaction design, graphic design and a host of other disciplines. Due to the complexity of the field a user experience team will typically be made up of individuals with a range of different specialisms.

On larger teams you’ll find people who focus on one specific area, such as user research or information architecture. You may even find people who specialise in specific activities such as usability testing or wireframing. This level of specialism isn’t possible in smaller teams, so practitioners tend to group related activities together.

Conceptually I believe you can break design into tangible and abstract activities. Tangible design typically draws on the artistic skills of the designer and results in some kind of visually pleasing artefact. This is what most people imagine when they think of design and it covers graphic design, typography and visual identity.

However there is also a more abstract type of design which concerns itself with structure and function over form. The output from this type of design tends to be more conceptual in nature; wireframes, site-maps and the like. One type of design isn’t any more valuable or important than another, they’re just different.

When products and teams reach a certain size or level of complexity, one person can’t undertake all these roles. When this happens, natural divisions occur. So in small to mid sized teams it’s quite common to describe people who specialise in tangible design as visual designers, while those who focus on more abstract activities are known as user experience designers.

Now we all know that visual design is an undeniable part of the way people experience a product or service, so it may feel a little odd that user experience designers don’t actually design the entire experience. It may also be confusing that when user experience designers talk about “the UX” of a product, they are often referring to the more abstract essence of the product as described through wireframes, site maps and the like.

This ambiguity can lead many visual designers to misunderstand what user experience design is, especially if they’ve never worked alongside a dedicated user experience designer. This has also led a lot of visual designers to mistakenly believe that because the work they create results in some kind of user experience, that makes them a user experience designer. While this may be true in the purely philosophical sense, this isn’t what people mean when they talk about user experience designers (try applying for a senior UX position without understanding user research, IA and Interaction design and see how far you get).

The term user experience architect was coined in 1990 but the roots reach back to the 1940s and the fields of human factors and ergonomics. We’ve had dedicated user experience consultancies for the last 10 years, and internal divisions before that. We’ve got numerous professional conferences attended by people who have been working in UX for much of their professional life. In short, User experience design is a distinct and well understood discipline that stretches back many years and isn’t simply a new buzzword to describe “the right way to design”.

Over the last 12 months I’ve come across far too many visual designers describing themselves as user experience designers because they don’t fully understand the term. Instead they’ve seen a few articles that explain how UX is the new black and decided to rebrand themselves.

I’ve also come across many fantastic visual designers who feel pressured into becoming user experience designers because they think this is the only way to progress their careers. It seems that due to a lack of supply, user experience design has somehow come to represent a higher order of design, or design done right. At best this is nonsense and at worst this is actually damaging to peoples careers.

So here’s the truth. Good visual designers are just as hard to find as good user experience designers. They have exactly the same status in the industry and earn pretty much the same rates. So you don’t need to became a user experience designer in order to take your career to the next level. Instead, surround yourself with experts, hone your skills and take pride in your work. With so few good designers out there, don’t go throwing away much prized and hard earned skills under the mistaken belief that you must become a UX designer in order to grow, as that’s just not the case.

Posted at July 19, 2011 1:27 AM

Comments

Chuck said on July 19, 2011 2:35 AM

I’m a visual designer/front-end developer and have definitely felt the pressure to wear that third “hat”, sometimes out of necessity. Visual designers have their own battles as we deal in the subjective — we’re going to bat for aesthetics. Often times we defend our work against a client’s emotional reaction rather than an argument based on logic like, for instance, what layout seems most intuitive to the user. Thanks for this, Andy. I appreciate the nod. It reaffirms a decision to care less about titles and just work hard and make really cool things.

peterme said on July 19, 2011 3:44 AM

This seems to have much in common with JJG’s “9 Pillars of Successful Web Teams”: http://www.adaptivepath.com/ideas/nine-pillars-of-successful-web-teams

Goders said on July 19, 2011 6:06 AM

Andy,

Good post, however..

You speak about the skills of a UX designer being made up of IA, wireframing, user research, psychology etc. but then you speak of individuals within a UX team specialising in one of those areas alone. I believe as you rightly say that a good visual designer is as important as a good UX designer, however I believe being a good visual designer qualifies you as being a UX designer on certain jobs that require that extra level of detail. To be a good visual designer you will research, test and process UX skills to be able deliver good work, surely?

Cheryl Gallaway said on July 19, 2011 7:44 AM

Interesting read. I can recognize some of my own recent experience and questioning about the role of a visual designer (which is the hat that seems to fit me at the moment) on web based products. This did cause me some worry that this ‘label’ might undermine the fact that I am very interested in ergonomics and human centered design. But I have to admit, yes there is an interest and some knowledge, but as you point out, that is as far as it goes. Form following function online has always been a very interesting and fundamental part of designing for the web, even for a visual designer. Having learnt my trade in The Netherlands, were (in my opinion) form following function is more prevalent amongst designers across the spectrum, there is a recent manifesto called ‘conditional design’ which is well worth looking into, it’s a systematic visual design response were form becomes networked and computational media visualized.
http://conditionaldesign.org/manifesto/

I welcome collaboration with specialists who are experienced in and have a deeper understanding of the ux design discipline as described here. Having been part of a small team for a few years (2 people) - although we have always considered the importance of ergonomics and usability in our designs, this has always been out of necessity. Working on larger web products were teams are also bigger, offers a good opportunity to bring knowledge and expertise together, and learn each others languages to make better designs.

Thanks for sharing.

Footnote: I have a job interview today for a visual designer position, I am told I will be interviewed by head of ux AND head of design.

James Young said on July 19, 2011 11:46 AM

Andy,

I see where you’re trying to head and I feel a little uneasy about disagreeing with an industry leading figure like yourself but I think you’re wrong with this post and your sentiment that UX is a branch apart from “visual design”. If anything maybe it should be considered a subset within good old fashioned “design”.

I consider myself a visual designer in that I design and develop websites for a living.

I don’t consider creating wireframes, researching and monitoring analytics/user tracking/user monitoring etc as a separate branch of my discipline, it’s very much a core part of it and allows me to iterate and improve on what I’ve delivered to a client to help them get better results through satisfying and exceeding their users needs.

No visual designer would (or at least should) ever be purely focused on making something pretty. They should be focused on how something solves a problem for a user of a site or product.

I don’t know if there’s a bigger industry issue with people wanting to define themselves through job titles (nothing wrong with that per se) but out of interest I took a look at the Clearleft “What we do” page (http://clearleft.com/does/) and it very nicely illustrates that despite you being well known as a top a “UX Agency” the process and things you outline as your core service are what I’d consider to be strong design fundamentals.

J.

Mike Atherton said on July 19, 2011 12:05 PM

I agree that visual design has a legitimate and worthy place in the software stack. I think it gets maligned for three reasons:

1. Fear and loathing from software developers. Frequently, and obviously disparagingly, I’ve heard visual design referred to as ‘colouring-in’, particularly from those people whose work arguably has a more reaching effect on the nature of a product; namely coders. Though one might argue that if the workflow sees the developers, IAs and interaction designers take care of most page layout and structure, is there freedom for a VisD to add much more value?

2. Designers overreaching. In one particular organisation I’ve worked with recently, visual designers are becoming de facto product strategists. They are wannabe Jony Ives; believing that form factor is everything, despite designing virtual information repositories, not physical products. So when a designer (or anyone for that matter) gets too big for their boots, it’s just and wise to give them a slap.

3. Visual design is obvious. Visual identity is frequently the most apparent (obvious) element that distinguishes a product; certainly it’s the first thing you see, and therefore perhaps the most obvious target for criticism. I know from my VisD days, that every client thinks they can design better than you, yet no client thinks they can write better code. Given the inherently subjective nature of design (perhaps moreso than other web building tasks) I fear visual designers will always suffer these slings and arrows.

If I have a personal gripe about visual design, it’s the curious happenstance that design appears to move in distinct schools of thought. A few years ago, ‘cool’ meant white-on-white with Aquaesque buttons, more recently everyone’s gone ’50s retro, and now I see a preponderance of hand-drawn looking websites. I’m really not sure why such rampant ‘homage’ goes on, but I do believe such sanctioned unoriginality denigrates the craft.

Rick Monro said on July 19, 2011 1:16 PM

We definitely have a problem with our terms and definitions in design. For instance, my interpretation of “visual design” is probably closer to the emergent “new” field of emotional design. Judging by the comments here and on Twitter, a designer defines their own role.

A title is only a loose encapsulation of each designer actually contributes, perhaps suggesting a speciality or emphasis of approach. Our company, and most I know at our level, can’t afford to fragment the team in this fashion anyway; an overlap between roles is an absolute necessity.

Will Powley said on July 19, 2011 1:43 PM

“So here’s the truth. Good visual designers are just as hard to find as good user experience designers. They have exactly the same status in the industry and earn pretty much the same rates.”

Really? The same rates in the UK? We need to open an office in Europe as soon as possible.

Evan Skuthorpe said on July 19, 2011 1:53 PM

How very true.

There are many types of designers out there. Each with their own belief and approach to design.

I still call myself a web designer purely for the fact that I believe that in order to design for the web a person must have an understanding of usability, user experience and the like. A designer that doesn’t is more a graphic designer as far as I’m concerned.

To equate oneself with being a ‘UX designer’ or whatever smacks of buzzwords and elitism to me.

Guy Carberry said on July 20, 2011 8:22 AM

I agree with Bethany. Visual design is ultimately all about house rentals. Thanks for sharing.

Ross Johnson said on July 20, 2011 1:32 PM

Agh, enough designer typitis.

I believe we need to get past this “what subsegment of designer are you?” talk and start discussing the broader role of a design. UX Design, Visual Design… it’s all design and both viewpoints have overlapping influence on the quality of the end product. I understand that there are threatening feelings when folks who are not classically trained suddenly start approaching on your territory, but believe me this is a good thing.

To be a great UX designer you have to understand how the visuals layer affects the result. As emotion is a an inseparable factor from behavior, and a large portion of emotional reactions result from visuals they must be considered when you are designing the experience.

Likewise to be a great visual designer you have to have an understanding of UX and psychology. Understanding and shaping the interpretation of visuals is the mark of a great visual designer, not the ability to make something pretty.

Industrial designers don’t segment themselves, why is it so important that we do?

Mike Puglielli said on July 20, 2011 5:51 PM

@Chuck You should try to find less subjective reasonings for your designs. While a good portion of design is subjective, a large portion also isn’t. Try to find ways to be less subjective and you’ll find you have more successful designs and get along with clients easier.

Good post overall. Thanks.

Ian said on July 22, 2011 12:53 AM

Are there any User Experience Designers at Apple? Have you tried Lion yet? It’s bloody @awful!

Weszt said on July 22, 2011 5:30 AM

“This ambiguity can lead many visual designers to misunderstand what user experience design is, especially if they’ve never worked alongside a dedicated user experience designer. “

It’s very easy to believe that because you design an experience you’re therefore a UX designer. I learned the hard way that this isn’t really true.

Take a sports car.

There’s the chassis, there’s the engine, and there’s how it feels when you’re driving it. User experience design is developing that feel, those pieces that bring the engine and skin together with the driver.

This all sounds very romantic.

However to get this feel, users are usually involved through some sort of testing, something that most visual designers - pause for the cough - aren’t experienced with. Unless I’m mistaken, one can’t be a UX designer without working directly with users at least some.

In case it got lost in all those words, I agree with you, Andy, visual designers are just as important as UX designers, and thanks for the thorough, well written post!

Vicky said on July 22, 2011 12:09 PM

Sadly, graphic designers are done a disservice since the term they use for their discipline — visual communication — never really caught on as a term. In that respect, communicating things visually is just as important as user experience or designing interactions.

Avangelist said on July 22, 2011 2:15 PM

Next Week on Blogography.

Server Side programmers are not visual designers/User Experience Designers/Tamagotchi Sword Masters from the Planet Zurb.

Olly K said on July 26, 2011 9:30 AM

Great article from @smashingmagazine
Typographers: the Original UX Designers: a good refresher of best typography practices - http://bit.ly/n3iBCb

steve said on July 27, 2011 3:25 AM

user experience is everything and a big part of the user experience is the feel of the design. People do react to design just as much (if not more sometimes) than they do to the technical aspects, such as ease of navigation, functionality and getting what they expect.

Bell bottoms used to be in style then went out and then kinda came back, will this happen in web, some scrolling text, moving gifs and mouse trails perhaps?

ok, maybe not, but my point was going to be that sometimes we do things for the sake of being able to do something, simple design and ease of use is really all you ever need, in my opinion

Teresa said on July 28, 2011 8:26 PM

Isn’t this the third blog you’ve done recently where the point seems to be that you think some people claiming to know UX have no right whatsoever to claim that? I love how in this edition of your rant, you lead in with the idea that ‘visual’ designers are so important and then BAM! kick them to the curb with ‘but they can’t be UX designers too’.

Mark said on July 29, 2011 10:07 AM

Why pigeonhole designers as one thing or another? UX, visual design etc are just subsets of design, and in my experience you can’t be a good designer without being a generalist.

It’s worth repeating this quote that came up in another discussion at Smashing Magazine a few days ago:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
— Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

Susanne said on July 30, 2011 6:10 AM

A comprehensive (!) Design Education covers the thoughts and processes which are required for succeeding in UX. It’s not at all just about a sense for esthetics.

I am a former print designer and I don’t consider myself as a “decorator” but as a conceptional and analytical thinker. In order to develop a corporate design, a printed ad campaign or even  layouts for editorial or commercial purposes I actually apply what we now call UX. From initial competitor and target group (user) research until final artwork it’s (within others) as well a process of analyzing, brainstorming, conceptional approach, prototyping, testing and documenting…

A good Designer provides not only well established visual skills and software or coding knowledge but as well psychologically understanding of what it needs to make a design work for it’s target group (user).

When I started my career in 1999 the term UX wasn’t even used. For a Designer with a comprehensive education in communication design it is not the hardest thing to gain the necessarily technological knowledge and tool skills which are required to succeed in UX. 

Blake McGillis said on August 2, 2011 2:08 AM

I hear the term “UX Designer” used quite often and I’ve only recently understood exactly what it meant. Being a small-time web developer, I am both the Visual Designer and UX Designer. But in the interest of growing as a business, I need to learn everything I can.

Thanks for the great post.

Norsted said on August 2, 2011 11:51 AM

Interesting article Andy - i’m not sure that i agree 100% but nevertheless good reading. Not many years ago my official title was Webdesigner - even though i did roughly the same as i do now. But over time things have evolved and the coding i did back then is now handled by a Front End developer and the design i now do i called Interface design and User experience has become a term with an actual name. For the past 5 years i have been doing everything from wireframing, sketching, user research, user testing, making flow diagrams to designing perfect aligned pixels. User experiance in my case was just something we did but didn’t really have a name for - so what does title does that give? My official title today is UX/UI designer - does it make sense from a strictly precise description of what a UX designer vs a UI designer does? probably not, but those i work with understands the concept and know which areas of the business i’m the guardian of.

But again nice post - and excellent discussion.