Design and Development

Design is Not Just a Veneer


Filed under: Design Inspiration, Web Development.

The question often comes up in conversations among developers, web designers and business owners of “What is Design?”. When most developers think of design one thing comes to their mind. When an artist/designer thinks of design they often think of a completely different thing. In seeking to define this term we need to ask ourselves some important questions like “Why is it important“, “What does good design look like”, “What does it involve“?

As we seek to discover what design truly encompasses, I hope you will not only enjoy learning some new things, but will also come away with a desire and passion to refine your skills as a designer. I want you to be inspired to study this topic further, through learning from other great designers, reading great books and practice – lots of practice.

Veneer Keyboard by Lazerwood Industries

Photo credit: Lazerwood Industries - Macbook Pro with Veneer keyboard

Before we go any further, I’d like to give a big word of thanks to Aral Balkan for inspiring me to write this article. He is someone who understands the deep significance and important of good design.

So first off, let’s look at some things that Design is definitely not:

  • Design is not just some pretty GUI (Graphic Interface) that we tack on after the developer has done all the hard work to make the program work.
  • Design is not slapping a screen onto a product and calling it innovative.
  • Design is not copying other beautifully designed things and pasting your own logo and colors into it.
  • Design is not some cool fonts and “bootstrap” frameworks that we apply to our site to make it look better.
  • Design is not even “fancy looking graphics” that a graphic designer creates.

Design is Always Speaking

Design incorporates the mood, character, values and vision of the brand or item it is involved with. Everything in your design communicates something – so what are you communicating? Excellence, beauty, and ease-of-use; or maybe poor quality and cheap?

Do you realize that if you create a website with a contact form that is not designed in a beautiful, user friendly way you are actually telling your customers that your brand and work/product is poor quality, ugly and not very valuable?

Every color, every shape, every font you choose has character and mood. Rather than automatically choosing to use “Segoe UI”, Microsoft’s new metro font, for your next design, ask yourself this question: “What mood do I want to portray with this design?”. If you are going for a super clean, progressive, modern look – then this may be the perfect font.

However if you are designing a Custom Truck Shop’s website – a super clean, minimal font is not going to cut it. They need a font that speaks “Built Tough, Insane Power, Big Adventure”.

Obviously you can take this concept overboard by getting into too much detail and “pixel-pushing”, but I know that most designers are far from this problem. In the end, if you spend some quality time thinking through these different design decisions, you will be able to create a beautiful design that thrills your customers.

If you really think about it, every product, every design, and everything ever created is portraying something through its design.

I think back to last weekend when I visited BestBuy looking for a new laptop. I’d been looking at a lot of different laptops online, comparing specs, battery life etc. My goal that day was to interact with them so I could be more informed before making a purchase.

I am drawn to the “Ultrabook” laptops because of their slim, sleek design. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the image that “normal” bulky, plastic, brick shaped laptops portray. What thoughts come to your mind when you see this picture of a laptop?

Old Bulky Laptop

Photo credit: DIY Laptop ocztechnology

Probably a business user, lots of boring work, hacking away at code, poor design taste etc. That’s not something I want to portray to my clients. Our firm is about speed, creativity, huge value and guiding people towards a better future.

So based on initial looks I tried to come up with the best 3-5 laptops that fit this character. Those would be the Dell XPS 13, the Asus Zenbook, the Samsung Series 9, the Lenovo Yoga, and the Macbook Air.

Design is How it Works

The design of a product starts at the very core of its creation. Design is not just a fresh coat of red paint that is slapped onto a bike before it leaves the assembly line. It is the very way it rides, performs and operates. If you cut your leg on the chain or sprocket while getting on your bike, then it’s designed poorly.

Adding a few decals, paint splotches or new speed-o-meter is not going to remedy the problem. You need to deal with the core issue – a poorly designed sprocket. This bike will need to be totally rethought out and redesigned – introducing the chain guard!

Designers need to realize they have the power to influence whether a product is successful or not – whether it be a bike, a corvette or a “simple” 5 page website. Seemingly simple things like a bike chain or a payment system poorly designed can have huge long term consequences on your business. Even something so basic as website links or colors when done wrong can drive customers away and result in huge losses for your business.

Design is How it Feels

Put another way, design controls many of the feelings you have when you visit a website or use a product. Is your website easy for customers to use, allowing them to quickly perform a task, or is it a necessary pain they endure until they can find something else to use?

You want your users to come away after using your design with positive thoughts. I know this may sound strange, but really if your product or design leaves people “feeling good”, you know it was done correctly.

Every design you create should connect with the emotions of your users. You need to ask yourself what feelings your want your users to be feeling. Excitement?  Happiness? Urgency? Well-being? All of these feelings can be communicated through different elements of your design.

One element of design that plays a huge role in feelings is color. Purple often gives the feeling of extravagance, while blue often communicates professionalism or security.

In everything you design think about what feelings you want your users to have, and then work to achieve those through different effects and graphical elements.

Design is Thinking About Users

Ultimately, your end-users needs are all that matter when creating a design or product. You need to get inside their heads and think through the various problems and situations they may encounter while using your design. This will help you to better serve your users, and end up in greater satisfaction and return business from them.

For my laptop test the next step was to touch them, type on the keyboards, look at the screens from various angles and carry them around a little.

When I picked-up the Dell it instantly felt heavy for its small size. Also for some reason the screen looked smaller than the other laptops. Overall it was nice, but the weight was a deterring factor for me.

Next I tried the Asus Zenbook. It looks really nice, has great specs and an awesome screen, but that one design flaw turned me away. When I went to pick it up, all the edges felt very sharp and I wondered if I would cut myself. Okay, handing this thing around in client meetings… no, not going to work well. Poor design decisions here.

When I tried the Lenovo I was drawn to its touch screen and ability to flip back into a tablet mode. The only problem is that when you are holding it like a tablet, your hands press on the keys. This is definitely not the best design.

That narrowed my choices down to two laptops – the Samsung series 9 and the Macbook Air.

Samsung Series 9 vs Apple Macbook Air

When I picked up the Samsung, it felt very solid and well-weighted. It has a rounded back edge that makes carrying it super comfortable. The screen was very vibrant and looked amazing. Everything thing about it is well thought out and designed. It makes me think that a lot of testing and planning went into this machine.

The Macbook Air was well, it was Apple – a premium product designed very well. The screen looked amazingly crisp, and the keyboard was a joy to type on. Everything about it screamed productivity, speed and simplicity. It felt like someone actually knew what I needed in a laptop and designed it especially for me.

That’s how you want your clients to feel when you design a website. They need to feel like it was designed especially for them, for their needs.

Also don’t forget to determine who your true client is – are you be designing for a company, or its customers? Every design situation is unique so be sure you know who your real users are.

Design Feels Minimal and Simple When Done Well

One problem with many interfaces and websites today is that designers throw everything possible into the design, just because they can. This is even true of many of business owners – they saw something online, and they want their website to have it too. The thought is “I saw a really cool design the other day that used drop-shadows on their text – let’s add it to our new design”.

I would argue that this is a terrible design philosophy. Just because it worked for one design and website doesn’t mean it will work for your website. Approaching design this way will simply lead to cluttered, trendy interfaces that will be outdated very quickly.

Remember, your job as a designer/developer is to coach your clients and guide them toward best practices. Don’t tell them “No, we are not using a slider on the homepage”. Find out what their true needs/wishes are and develop a creative solution to meet those needs in a best-web practices way.

If they want to include 57 million things on the homepage, explain how this will slow down the site, ultimately driving people and losing revenue. Then show them a better way to achieve the same underlying goal.

Simple, beautiful, minimal design is actually much harder to achieve than something loaded with shadows, textures, animations and scrolling marques! Yet when done properly, these designs will “feel right”, they will wow your customers, and ultimately result in a higher brand reputation.

In the long run, you will have more repeat business as your customers realize you have super high standards across the board when it comes to your business. Whether it’s your website, customer service, products or even being on time for meetings, they can trust that you will go above and beyond to meet their needs.

Oh and in case you’re wondering, I think Lazerwood‘s veneered products are pretty cool. After you are done here, head over to their website to check out their awesome iPhone covers.

Where to Go from Here?

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may want to check out what other designers are saying on this topic. These articles are a great place to start.

Aral Balkan – Design is not veneer

Andy Searles – More than a pretty comp

Andy Rutledge – The design lesson

Startups this is how design works

Robert LaingRebranding your Startup

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