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Design purpose gained not creativity lost

Design purpose gained not creativity lost

While design thinking and human–centred design is a far distance from being a new discipline, there has been an explosion over the past decade in using its principles to improve digital product design (UX) and service delivery (service design).  According to a 2020 LinkedIn report, UX design is one of the five most in–demand skills in the global workforce.

Crude mathematics dictate that all but the youngest members of the experience design community will have had to migrate or evolve into the discipline from another area, because it simply wasn’t taught in colleges with enough emphasis or in high enough numbers until recently. (I do appreciate that Human Factors Design and Human Computer Interface subjects have been taught and practised for decades, but in low numbers.)

As a result, the design community of which I am part is a broad church of switchers and defectors, bohemians and nomads, with large numbers of us having started our journey somewhere else.  This author started life as a software programmer, a claim doubtless contested by former colleagues who had to deal with the aftermath of using my code. Some early experiences with websites in the mid to late 1990s sparked a fascination with interfaces, then design performance, and eventually experience design.  Looking to the team at Fathom, while many are formally educated in interaction design, others come from disparate academic backgrounds including archaeology, cultural heritage, English literature, modern languages and sports science.

Fathom therefore benefits from a wide array of people in its team, with a range of life experiences, educational backgrounds and personality types.  This brings real benefits to us and our clients, helping to avoid homogeneity, resist groupthink and think creatively about the various design challenges which come our way.

I am particularly interested in the motivations of those who have moved into UX and experience design from highly creative environments, in particular those who have held senior design or creative director roles in industry, and whose educational background is in art, ceramics, illustration, textiles, sculpture, materials or fine art.  Their stories intrigue me because people involved in these crafts are highly creative, often free–spirited individuals who push boundaries and challenge convention in their artistic expression. It seems to me that theoretically at least experience design hampers this freedom and constrains creative people to design ‘the right way’.

Through my involvement in the UX Design Institute Industry Advisory Council, UXTraining and the wider Fathom network, I regularly come in to contact with designers from this background, many of whom are embracing this human–centred design approach and relishing involvement with research, prototyping and testing.

I had a discussion recently with a creative designer moving into UX research and some of what she shared really resonated with me.  This lady previously held Creative Director positions in large London agencies, a global financial brand and one of the largest tourism destinations in the UK, and had moved into UX design and research via brand design.  I asked her about her motivations for moving toward research–driven and insight–led design.  I didn’t position my question this way, but I was really trying to explore if she might find it, well, too boring?

Her answer crystallised the sentiments I hear from many creative people who are moving into UX.  Here are some quotes from her response:

  • “I’ve also found many creatives taking an interest in UX.”
  • “For me it has felt like a natural progression – it’s a combination of many aspects that I love about branding but with extra rigour and even more user (customer) focus.”
  • “I love the requirement to apply robust thinking and process to the problem you are trying to solve and the focus on the user.”
  • “There’s a lot less room for whim and ego when it comes to making design decisions too.”
  • “I like the fact that every element needs to ‘earn its place’.”
  • “The creative aspect almost feels broader to me.”

As a predominantly left–brain thinker, I was drawn to UX because of its analytical approach, its pursuit of insight and data and its focus on performance metrics. It was so enlightening to hear that right–brain thinkers have their own set of motivations around avoiding ego, user focus and prioritising design elements.

Perhaps it should be no surprise to learn that experience design offers stimulating careers for both types of thinkers.  It is after all a fusion of art and science.

It turns out that the disciplines which comprise experience design are less about losing creativity and more about gaining design purpose and performance.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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