About a year ago I was sitting in a bar in NYC grabbing a drink before heading to one of my basketball games. As I was sitting there, a woman walked into the bar carrying a large painting. This is, of course, the type of thing that happens to you in a NYC bar on a random Tuesday night. So, she started to tell me about her career as an art curator. As she delved into her story, she said something that changed my perspective on design. That is, “My job as an art curator is to see the internal narrative of the artist and their work, and then put their pieces in a placement that reflects that narrative.”. A few months later, at another happy hour, someone posed the question “What is the difference between art and design?”. “That’s easy”, I said, “Art is the reflection of someone’s internal narrative, whereas design’s purpose is to satisfy users external behavior/narrative”. Right or wrong, I have been going with this outlook ever since. As related to design, what I’ve observed is that at times designers look at what they do as art, when it is really design. Meaning, we try to reflect ourselves in our work and describe our own internal narrative through our work. Done right, this might be a positive, however most of the time I think that it only ends in trouble.
By trying to reflect ourselves in our work, and looking at our work as art, we are putting ourselves and our opinions on how the output should function, look, and feel before those of our users. We are using our own narrative to create products for others, and all that does is heighten the problem that we are trying to solve. We all have been trained to think that we are not our users. Thus, treating our work as art, is going against that training.
That is not to say that I think that our field is absent of art. But I do think that most of the time, we need to use our natural artistic talent in a better way. In order to do that, we need to do several things. First, we need to admit the difference between design and art. Yes, of course, there are some overlapping areas. However, for something to be truly usable, it needs to be designed for the users it intends to serve first. Of course, just because something is usable doesn’t make it the best designed product or service. Thus, second, we need to use our artistic talent for the good of our users and not ourselves. We need to understand the taste of our users, our brand, or of the product and service we are designing and reflect in the product. Sometimes our own internal narrative will be reflected, but this should be coincidental as we should be designing first and not creating art first.
By taking these steps, we create products and services that our users delight at as opposed to beautiful products and services that aren’t used. We push ourselves above the rest, and make a name for ourselves as great designers, and ultimately this is better for the people that we have agreed to serve… the users.