No Blank Slates

August 08, 2019

Cover photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

There's a thing in the design community - more of a pattern than a trend - regarding portfolios and showcasing work. If you look at UI designs on Dribbble, "the leading destination to find & showcase creative work", you will generally find 3 types of projects.

  • Innovative, small proof of concepts (usually animations)
  • Fresh, NEW, app ideas
  • Unsolicited redesigns

I want to hit on those bottom two points, fresh designs and redesigns, because I feel they paint a false image of the design profession. As an outsider or newcomer to the field, you might look at this craft and think "Wow, this is what design is all about, creating new awesome things from scratch." In reality, there are very few blank slates to start with.

Blank Slates

When I say "blank slate" I mean projects that are barely thought about. We're talking ideas about ideas, not even a concept of what it might even maybe look like. A blank slate is that first question of "What if there was an app to solve this problem..." and you go from there. This is how most projects go - you take problem in your head and start designing a solution.

I'm not disagreeing with this model or approach. What I am saying is I feel the design industry promotes this as the norm, when in reality it isn't. Real design work is often inheriting someone else's junk and trying to make it better before it becomes another person's junk. You might be helping a PM get an idea on paper, or a developer make a feature more useful, or taking the reigns from a previous designer. The point here is that it is dangerous to always view design through the lens of constantly making something new.

Software is Alive

One of the biggest lessons the tech field has taught me is that software is alive. Unlike traditional art disciplines like painting, illustration, sculpture, etc., computational design (as I've learned it's called) is constantly changing. This means your work is literally never finished - because there are always insights to gain from users, improvements to be made to the experience, or ecosystems that get disrupted and require iteration. The only time a product is finished with design is when it's being put out to pasture.

Since software is alive, design should be alive too. This means design needs to be shown as living, existing beyond the point of creation. We need to talk about design through the long-term lens, not showing off clever interfaces whipped up from scratch (I'm super guilty here of it). As designers we need to stop working in a vacuum from the real-world application of our craft. We need to prioritize sustainability and long-term value over originality and "cool new shiny".

(Most) developers understand this. I was listening to a podcast the other day, couldn't quote you on which episode, but the hosts were talking about the difference between clever code and readable code. There are all kinds of nifty slick ways to solve problems in code, taking cool shortcuts to cut out some lines here and there. Those types of solutions are great, but more times than not developers would prefer code that is readable and well documented because they understand the pain involved with maintaining living software.

Living Design

A lot of web and UI designers, myself included, got their start in graphic design before making the switch to web. We've changed jobs, but have we changed our thinking? Here's how I think we can start doing that...

Help the next designer

Software design is NOT graphic design. You will rarely get to make a new thing from scratch. If that's you right now, good for you - that's an awesome place to be! But for a lot of us, we are picking up the pieces of a designer, agency, developer, etc. that came before us. In light of this, we should understand that someone else will likely come after us (and be left to deal with our mess).

Stop designing for Dribbble

Who doesn't love internet fame points? I know I do. But can you really capture the experience of a product in a 400 x 300 image? Even a video? How does that one picture capture the process that lead you to your design? I would love to see more designers share the before / after of a design and talk about how they overcame specific challenges of the previous interface to make things better. I recently changed an alert notification from a red box to a white one, with a little more text hierarchy and some badging... Not a sexy Dribbble shot, but it was a really impactful change in the user experience and accurately represents what I do for a living.

You can check it out here.

Use strong building blocks

Nobody complains about the Legos someone else uses. They might have opinions about what was built, but the blocks themselves are rarely scrutinized. When thinking about living design, we should focus more on building a good design system. This not only makes design easier, but sets up the next designer(s) for success by giving them a great kit of tools to keep building with.

Part of making good blocks means documenting your system. Knowing that design is long-term, not a blank slate, and that another human person will be picking up the project in the future, you should do a little diligence to document your choices.

The app I've inherited has been a struggle to work on because NOTHING is documented. There's no guiding principles, UI kit, master plan, architecture, sitemap, anything. It's just a bunch of random design files with obscure naming conventions. This is the wrong kind of blank slate.

TLDR

Software is alive, and design is too! As a community we need to stop acting like graphic designers making sick screenshots for our portfolios and focus more on the long-game of making great software that has legs to last beyond our involvement. Most design is not a blank slate - we need to change how we approach projects and champion our work so the next generation of designers can improve on what we build, instead of starting from scratch again.