Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Understanding the Role of Design

To start this post off, I'm going to quote someone who knows exactly how design can affect the success of a business:

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works. To design something really well, you have to 'get it.' You have to really grok [understand] what it's all about.

—Steve Jobs

Okay, let's have a show of hands. How many of you out there think that the main purpose of design is to make things look good. Hmm. Kind of what I expected. Unfortunately, there's still a major lack of awareness of the true role—and power—of visual design.

Now let's get some terminology out of the way. There are two words that should never be confused for the other. Decoration and design are not one and the same.

Decoration = the application or adornment of the surface of a thing.

Design = the intelligent construction of the underlying supporting structure as well as the outer surface of a thing, which often includes the most superficial aspect called decoration.

So, now that we've got that out of the way, how do we think about design as it applies to what we're doing at House Party? Glad you asked!

Let's take an actual company project that we're working on now as an example, the Client Dashboard. We've decided to create a web-based dashboard that our clients can visit to check on the progress of their events at any time, as well as export useful reports to show their colleagues in their organization. (hopefully to show their bosses how the money they spent on a House Party campaign was well worth the investment!)

In my book, there are two ways to go about this:

1) Create a massive page with all the information piled and stacked every which way and hope it's not so overwhelming that our clients don't go into a seizure when the page loads


2) Spend some solid time considering what it is that would be most relevant to a client at any given moment, and then decide what we should show them up front in the topmost level, and what can be relegated to other sub pages (deeper levels)

We live in an age of information overload. According to Jeffrey Veen (author of the Art & Science of Web Design) we process almost as much data in one day as our great grandparents did in their entire lives! An exaggeration of course, but it's probably not such a stretch. He continued to quote that every ten minutes, ten hours worth of videos are uploaded. Wow!

So what does this mean for us designers? It means that we have to make that over abundant data intelligible to the human eye and mind. To boil raw data into interfaces that are relevant to the user, that communicate clearly, and consistently. To simply make a page of text and data pretty by choosing font colors, background colors and border colors is not enough. Have you ever seen (or heard) those Ferrari body kits that can be installed over a generic, low performance vehicle chassis? That's essentially what simply "decorating" a website, or a banking application, or a client dashboard will get you.
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