Rationalizing design

Photo by Soumik Dey on Unsplash
Photo by Soumik Dey on Unsplash

One of the things that got design a seat at the table was data-driven decision making that could be defended. I don’t have any evidence to support this, but I really think that design’s difficulty in justifying itself to engineering is why products in technology had pretty poor design until the last 10 years.

Apple really changed this around the time of the iPhone. It was as if suddenly everyone awoke from their self-imposed stupor and realized that design is meaningful to people. Further, people could prove it by creating well designed applications for the AppStore and watching them win. While many in engineering wrote off Apple as just being a good marketer to idiots who didn’t care what was in their pocket (ask anyone over 30 about this), over time the appreciation for polished, thoughtful design and experience became mainstream among many companies.

So that’s awesome right? People finally appreciate designers! However, one big problem I have regarding this nice little seat at the table is defensibility. I know, I know, not a popular thing to say nowadays. Let’s explore.

Asana, Twitter, Google, Pinterest, Yelp, Amazon and many more all have retained their early ancestral structure that have been polished and refined over time. Why? If data was so important to design, shouldn’t we have realized those early, non-data-driven approaches were wrong? Shouldn’t the data suggest that we do something entirely different? Did the original designer or team just, gasp, have a good intuitive sense about things??

One thing that really brought this to the forefront of my mind was an article about how Notion saved itself from death.

Ivan talks about how he spent upwards of 18 hours a day designing. When you are iterating at that rate, you’re working off of intuition and judgement, plain and simple. Sure, he spent time talking through his ideas with Simon, but there wasn’t a written out plan for the design that he then just executed. Instead he made tons of versions, evaluated them using his and Simon’s judgement and intuition, and chose what felt like the best choice.

“If the taste is there, which you can grow by studying typography and the giants of industry, you can churn out versions until you find the best one.” - Ivan

I know. Feelings. Damn.

We, as designers, sometimes just know that something is good. It feels good. We design a ton of versions, and through exposing that design to both our and our teammates judgement we file off the rough edges, massage it, and finally get to the point where it feels ‘inevitable’.

How do you defend that? How do you justify or rationalize it?

It reminds me of those little cards that artists put next to their paintings, explaining their intentions. Why is this necessary? Isn’t this superfluous? I understand designers are problem solvers, not artists, but can it all be explained? Should it all be explained? Further, if you do explain it, isn’t it just hindsight analysis? What’s the point? Isn’t it just performative?

Another metaphor: Comedy. How do you rationalize or justify a joke? Jokes are forged through judgement and experience. Whether or not they were good is decided by the audience.

Good design, like good art, stands on its own. It needs no defense. It either works or it doesn’t.

Written on August 2, 2019