What can you see?

We are often frustrated by journalists who write about our specialties. The things that seem obvious or important to us as specialists are often missing from the coverage of topics we care deeply about. Ever read a review of your favorite movie, or your favorite band? Mostly, it’s not a good experience.

Bike Hugger posted recently about the poor coverage on DesignBoom and other design blogs of the Victor Bike concept by Christophe Robillard. (You can read my comment here.)

I think about this problem frequently, because it is often the case that my own work is invisible to non-specialists. I design the behavior of systems. How can you see that? How can I show it? It’s a problem I haven’t solved, and one that hurts my bottom line: just take a look at my portfolio. Do you think it does a good job of communicating the work I do? Other types of designers can showcase gorgeous hero shots of sexy product designs. But me? Ecology models, behavior models, wireframes. Not so sexy. Or even so comprehensible.

Traditionally trained designers say that you can’t be a designer if you can’t draw, because visual communication is so important to our field. Well that cuts two ways. On the one hand, that training can develop an unbalanced expertise: a training that promotes visual literacy beyond all else. When that happens, you get conversations like the one at DesignBoom regarding the victor bike: so focused on the visual as to be completely inane. On the other hand, it ignores the work done by designers that work in difficult-to-visualize media. Work done by specialists like me can remain invisible because it is so unconducive to visual representation.

Or maybe I just need to work on my drawing skills 🙂

5 comments Write a comment

  1. Seriously, give it up, you need to work on your drawing skills, or at least your envisioning skills.

    You want to work on behavioral systems then you have to design not just “the wireframe” but the system. Yes you can collaborate with visual designers, but the end product is in that collaboration and you can’t think that your deliverable is “the wireframe”. It isn’t. Your deliverable always has to be the final product. This also means that the intimate collaboration (or personal abilities) also need to include production execution of the behavioral code that makes those graphics interactive, responsive, and engaging.

    But even before that, visual skills communicate better even at the level of the abstract. Your models of your research, your task models, flow diagrams, sitemaps, content strategy diagrams, etc. etc. will always be more valuable if they are well communicated.

    Then to communicate behavior you still need the visual. Prototypes and narratives told in visuals are always more compelling/convincing than straight up wireframes AND they are clearer an more precise allowing for the collaborate mentioned above to take place best.

    I need to close w/ “bullshit” on the last comment. The DesignBoom issue is not b/c people are focused so closely on the visual, its because the visual is the only true measure that human beings can respond to. As an IxD you are part psychologist. You have to go back to the basics of cognition and perception and realize that to be noticed/perceived and then processed you have to reach a critical mass of gestalt so that the person in question “notices” what it is you want noticed. This is not a conspiracy against IxD, but rather reality of communication.

    — dave

  2. Dave,

    Let’s start with the DesignBoom issue. Even if your statement “visual is the only true measure that human beings can respond to” were true (and I don’t agree), we still have a range of possible responses to any visual input. We can response to the concrete visual elements (black, matte, curvy) or we can respond to what is implied by their arrangement. The lack of a seat tube–you can see this, but do you know what it means? What it implies? What about the fact that there are no seat stays or chain stays? If I comment on the fact that they are missing, am I responding to the “visual” or am I responding to the “structural?”

    Go back and read the Bike Hugger comment thread. The expertise there in frame construction inspires comments that are not about visual presentation but rather about structural integrity and functionality. Compare that to the DesignBoom comment thread. It’s a different discussion.

    The point is that what you “see” is not about the physical sensory channel, but what you do with that input. Experts in a given domain will “see” more because their training teaches them how to interpret any given visual input.

    Now, on to the communication portion of your comment. Strictly speaking, “my deliverable” has never been a final product and will likely never be one. I work for teams that make things, and I contribute to that making. There are certainly one-man-shop designers in the world who control every aspect of production, but most of us collaborate.

    That collaboration includes lots and lots of communication. Some informal and interpersonal, some more formal and artificat-y. Those artifacts include text, images, storyboards, videos, comic strips, and prototypes of various resolution and fidelity and functionality.

    But much of the value of my work (and I would presume yours as well) includes helping teams decide which paths to avoid. And while it is cretainly possible to create visual artifacts to communicate such decision points, it is for the most part not cost-effective to do so.

    I probably shouldn’t have ended with the joke about my drawing skills. It’s a lifelong journey to improve these, but it’s not really the point of the post.

  3. A few thoughts:
    1. Good PTs re: the bike convo
    2. Re: what we do. I used to do what u do, but when I left software (tech) orgs & started working in design studios I almost always had to rely on visual artifacts & prototypes to communicate w/ all stakeholders. I also found that when worming w/ deva & biz folks the more visual I became & the higher the fidelity of execution the more effective I became at conveying my ideas.

    Having been introduced recently to sound design (have a sound design MFA student whose thesis I’m working on) I even discovered how reliant & expert even these seemingly “non-visual” students were at visual communications.

    I understand that old timers lime ourselves grew through our liberal arts backgrounds into design, but it us a disservice for us to presume that our experience & methods are ideal & should be promoted. There are valuable lessons here for sure but we have to be more careful about picking & choosing them.

    Back to your original pt. Complex ideas are difficult to convey in any method. I think the real issue is solved through understanding our audiences. The same presentation will not always work through multiple audiences. Thus different tools have to be utilized even at the same stage if dev depending on your various audiences.

    What I have been discovering in my complex environments of enterprise integrated solutions is that the notion of the “middle ground” user for whom to aim our designs at doesn’t exist any long & that follows suit to the diversity if stakeholders we deal w/ as designers.

  4. Josh,

    You wrote: “while it is certainly possible to create visual artifacts to communicate such decision points, it is for the most part not cost-effective to do so. ”

    But for your portfolio and, to link it to the source of your worries, for an article by a journalist, it is often enough to have a sketch-y, high-level, or limited visualization of the work (in your example; helping the client avoid paths). Those do not have to be costly.

    Assuming you can describe (in your portfolio/to the journalist) the rest of the work with words, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.