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