6 Common Design Misconceptions

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6 Common Design Misconceptions

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This article was first published on LinkedIn Pulse in February of 2016.

Hi there, I’m Prasan, Creative Director at Hydra Media, a small design startup based in South Africa.

I thought I’d dedicate this first Pulse post to a common issue faced by designers the world over: misconceptions about our diverse field. I’m hoping that explaining this will give readers a better understanding of both the value of design and what it is, maybe even inspire some ideas about how to better utilise design and designers in your projects.

#6 - Design is easy

“This shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes, it’s really easy!”

As with any career it’s relative.

Consider that an accountant who doesn’t care much for their work may be more prone to simply rounding up rather than one who is more engaged and considers every decimal after the point. In the same way some designers may choose to take the easy route by cutting corners, but as a rule the discipline of design is a rather intense one that requires consideration of not only the big picture, but also the minutiae of every detail in every project.

Time is our most valuable asset, but rushing design which revolves around careful research, planning and testing in the hopes of saving costs is one of the quickest ways to neuter any project.

#5 - Designers = Developers

“You’re the designer, can’t you just program it?!”

No. Well, yes, I could, but it wouldn’t be at the same level of quality as if an actual developer with appropriate experience and training were to do it. Programming may be a skill that most designers are at least partly experienced with, but expecting a deep understanding of every layer of every platform and hardcore coding experience along with a lauded design career is just unreasonable.

I liken the relationship between designers and developers to that of architects and engineers. While both parties are aware of the overall requirements for a project as well as the opinions and suggestions of the other party it’s only when both parties exercise their skills in an organised way that the best outcome results.

For some reason many businesses stripe designers and developers with the same brush stroke, effectively expecting one individual to carry two qualifications along with experience for both, but accept a salary that pays for just one skillset.

#4 - Designers just copy one another

“I’m not paying for that, you just copied [x] and [y]!”

Okay, so on the surface this one might carry some weight inasmuch as all cars are just metal cages with four wheels. If we dig even a little deeper we begin to understand that certain conventions are used consistently with good reason. If we remove a wheel from a regular car it no longer works, one corner will be unsupported. If we add another wheel it doesn’t really serve much purpose. For the kind of vehicles we drive daily four is the right number of wheels.

Designers apply this sort of logic to every aspect of our work, adding and removing common pieces until we’re left with a solution that resolves a specific problem with no excess. Sometimes a solution may resemble something that already exists because the parameters for the particular issue we’re addressing result in a similar logical outcome. It simply isn’t within our power to create new dimensions from which we can draw unique material for every single client.

It’s as simple as not reinventing the wheel when an established convention solves the problem quickly and elegantly. You don’t invent a new method for transferring ink to paper each time you write, do you?

#3 - All you need is Google and Photoshop

“I’ll just Google it and do it myself!”

There are several problems with this kind of attitude toward design, however, the major issue is the idea that a designer’s toolkit consists of a just one magical application.

Perhaps the reason for this misconception is that it’s not uncommon for lazy designers to only learn one application to a moderate level and then attempt to do all work in that single app. I love Photoshop, but if I need to create vectors, write code, build and animate a 3D concept or map the process for a function in an app Photoshop simply cannot produce the required results or a better tool exists that is designed to handle these different formats effectively. Moreover, people seem to believe that the apps designers use are a bit like Lego or toys, the sort of which kids are given to teach them the names of colours. Unfortunately design applications get quite serious at the professional level and rely on more than just built-in filters. To reap their real benefits takes years of experimentation and experience.

In the same vein we all use Google daily, but for complex tasks that require finesse and nuance a single ‘how to’ isn’t going to cut it. The harsh reality is that when it comes to creating a custom solution to solve a problem designers often have to create a pipeline and tools to facilitate the emergence of the ideal solution.

You read that right. Sometimes even the most expensive toys aren’t enough and we have to resort to making them ourselves.

#2 - Designers charge too much

“I’m not paying that much for some text on a white background!”

This is actually two separate issues. The first has to do with cost, but the second is a lack of understanding and respect for the amount of time and effort that goes into a design solution by judging it’s worth entirely on the basis of volume of visual content.

The example may seem extreme, but I have had clients approach me with what, at first, appears to be a desperate plea for a solution that is as minimal as possible. They wax lyrical about ‘clean’ design, clear and legible typography and no clutter, however when a solution is presented that adheres to these principles they feel cheated because so much space has been left ‘empty’. Assuming the designer responsible for the work is worth their salt it’s a safe bet that, as I’ve already mentioned, a careful process has been followed to remove as much excess as possible so as to emphasise the message being conveyed. Often the initial brief will change completely from clean, clear and clutter-free to having a busy background, overlays, additional copy and multiple calls to action. This completely dilutes the power of the solution under the pretense of getting more ‘value’ out of the designer.

We do understand that cost is always a factor for clients and significant research will go into the best solution, but also the best approach to deliver that solution. In some cases we may choose to use a stock image because a professional photo shoot would be prohibitively expensive when creating imagery that addresses the specificity of the problem we’re trying to solve. It isn’t cheating or working less, it’s simply using existing resources in a cost-effective manner.

Ironically these two issues are sometimes inversely proportional. A simple solution may be devised, created, tested and iterated very quickly with nearly no cost. If this is rejected and complex layers are added the creation, testing and time required to iterate may also increase which results in higher cost.

#1 - Design is how things look

“Don’t worry about the details, just do your job and make it look pretty!”

This comment always gets me riled. Somewhere in the last two decades the term ‘design’ has become synonymous with specific job titles. When asked what I do I usually simply respond with, “Design,” which will elicit a response that refers to a specific, commonly known, job title like, “Fashion design?”

The field is polarised and coloured by personal opinions that lead to the assumption all designers must be of one known type or another: graphic, clothing, web, etc.

This sort of thinking is inherently flawed. The job of a designer is to understand the problem completely so that a proposed solution addresses as many or all of the pain points including the creation, production and delivery of that solution. Where a salesman or executive sees opportunities to sell a product and an architect or engineer are concerned with the specifics of mechanics a designer’s goal would be to take all of these into consideration to ensure the final product had the greatest benefit to the end user.

I’m not claiming that all designers are genius polymaths who can do absolutely everything from start to finish. This simply isn’t true, but asking us to ignore every aspect of a product or solution to focus solely on making pictures with no real context is a bit like asking a handyman to fit a custom door without giving them the dimensions or opportunity to measure the aperture themselves. Sure, we can make a best guess, but even if the door fits it'll never be perfect.

So what is design actually about?

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” -- Steve Jobs

As I hope I've explained above, design is about purpose. While art may be part of a solution, design as a whole addresses function first, rather than self-expression. It is a diverse an complex field where practitioners cultivate objectivity with the intention of solving problems.

Designers equip themselves with research, statistical data, functional models, visual arts, and more. We assess, analyse, iterate and craft solutions for everyday things, from communications to products, the clothes you're wearing, the device you're reading this on, the coffee mug you're sipping from and the chair you're sitting on.

What do you think of this list? Are you a designer who's experienced some of these misconceptions? Perhaps you're an executive or business owner with a design-related story? Sound off in the comments, drop us a message on our website or send me a message personally to share your thoughts.

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