Design is a Side Effect

Design should always be a means to an end, with that end being to solve a well-defined problem. If we over-inflate design and allow it to obscure other aspects of a process, we make it harder to address core challenges.

Design firms and interactive agencies screw this up all the time and it’s pretty easy to spot. If the first set of questions your design experts ask on a new engagement includes some version of: “What adjectives best describe the Web site you want to build?” then you’re already doomed.

If you play along, you’re going to quickly end up in a foolish conversation about the site’s “mood” at which point it’s just a matter of time until you sink hours/days/months of your precious life into the black hole that is The Brand Conversation.

There is little in our capitalistic universe that is more real or more credible than the idea that an organization’s brand is equivalent to the experiences of its customers. Unfortunately, all of the other aspects of The Brand Conversation that you might hear are just different flavors of the same bullshit.

For many, the Amazon brand means nearly painless buying experiences. For some, a certain airline’s brand means consistently nightmarish travel experiences. Emotion and an individual’s perceptions are integral to both positive and negative interpretations and that’s where some of my fellow designers and the organizations they work for get distracted.

Evolution hard-wires emotion to visual communication for us bald apes, so it’s no wonder that the visual aspects of design have an effect on how we feel. But it’s easy to overstate the sustainability of that effect. A Super Bowl ad makes us chuckle, for example, but it rarely changes how we feel about the product, especially if how we feel is based on our personal experiences with that product.

Companies still pay other companies millions of dollars to create “branding experiences” online. The term is kept amorphous and flexible so it can drop into ad copy and sales pitches and trade articles, where a nonsensical phrase like “the Web site gives customers the opportunity to sample the brand and experience it in their own virtual lifestyle” is tossed around as if it actually means something.

But we, as customers, aren’t looking for brand experiences; we just have stuff we want to get done. We have goals. Some of these goals are tiny and silly, while others are galactic and profound. And regardless of their scale and scope, we want to achieve our goals as quickly and effortlessly as we can.

A Web site can affect emotion, but only fleetingly. A customer’s experience can involve a Web site, but even in the case of an online retailer, the Web site is only ever a part of the overall experience. So by itself, Web design is an impotent tool for affecting an organization’s brand.

That’s the thing though, Web design isn’t a solo act. It’s not an end unto itself. Design is one of the side effects of a solid problem-solving process that defines these key elements:

  1. Who are your Web site’s most important users?
  2. What are the goals of your Web site’s most important users?
  3. Which of the goals of your Web site’s most important users can your organization address most effectively?
  4. Is what you gain from satisfying those user goals worth what it costs?

You might think I’m belittling or marginalizing design when I say it’s a side effect, but that’s not my intent. In fact, in the proper context, I think design is astonishing. I love design like other people love chocolate, or their mothers, or heroin. Even after all these years, new design challenges still make my heart beat faster. To me, design is highly visual, but so much more than what something looks like. To me, design is how something works, not as some theoretical activity, but for a specific, well-defined user. To me, design is a wildly creative activity, but one that is judged stringently on its ability to satisfy well-reasoned criteria.

To me, design is a beautiful, powerful, fascinating side effect.