How Design Clichés Can Help You


Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by MU/DAI‘s Shanon Marks, who discusses three clichés of the modern design world and explains how design clichés have evolved from easily identifiable visual tendencies of an individual designer to the actual steps of the overall design business process.

shanonmarks-profilephotoDesign Clichés Can Help You Create Your Best Work — If You Leverage Them Wisely

by Shanon Marks

A pilot I met while flying recently told me that to be a good pilot, you need money, guts and time, but you rarely have all three at once. Designers face the same problem of scarcity. And it’s this scarcity that allows clichés to proliferate within the design field.

Design clichés give us a way to work within time and budget constraints, and they typically don’t require any guts to orchestrate. But they can prevent progress, which is why it’s essential for designers to be aware of the clichés and how they can both hinder and enable our best work.

An Evolving Industry

Twenty years ago, clichés were visual. You could easily identify designers by their unique signature, their typeface selection, the palettes they relied on, and the general aesthetic they gravitated toward. When executed flawlessly, these clichés became the trend-setting styles that the rest of us would latch onto and emulate.

I still remember sitting in an auditorium in Washington, DC, and listening to Michael Young talk about generative patterns and the breakthrough work that his Designgraphik project was producing.

It was like nothing I had ever seen before—deeply nuanced and provocative, modern and abstract. I fell in love and worked to create a style that embraced his aesthetic. It still echoes in some of my visual design work today.

The next cliché evolution happened a decade ago. At this point, clichés moved into the realm of the behavioral and became recognizable in how things “worked.” Easing, physically inspired motion, and interaction patterns made user interfaces feel like something physical and tangible. Springing off the great visual lexicon, design had evolved into something more whole.

Modern Design Clichés Can Be Useful — Here’s How

Today’s clichés exist within the larger design process. Impacted by new and evolving factors, the way designers work is rapidly changing. The days of 30-person design teams with strategists, writers, designers, programmers, and account team members working on a single project for nine months are over. Now, you’re much more likely to be on a team of five or fewer tasked with solving a problem in five days.

When it comes to producing great work quickly, clichés can be both a launching pad for inspired design and a serious roadblock to progress. But before you can put the clichés to work for you, it’s essential to first be aware of what they are and how to approach them. Here are three of the most prolific clichés in today’s industry:

1. The big reveal

We’ve all been there—late nights in a war room, crafting the big pitch.

This approach brings together the best minds from the tech, experience, strategy and account teams. It relies on the perfect mix of experience for direction, young blood for energy and innovation, tech for seeing past the horizon, and account people for a deep understanding of the market and the client’s needs.

And it’s broken. It rarely works, and when it does, we find ourselves having to hard-sell clients on our idea. Because the reality is that this approach doesn’t give us all the answers we need to deliver the right idea.

If you don’t have an executive or product owner in the room during the project’s ideation, pump the brakes. Countless projects are derailed when the team is excited to demonstrate a big breakthrough only to find out it doesn’t match leadership’s vision or the project owner’s needs. Embrace collaboration, and use it to work more effectively.

2. Strategy as a discipline

Strategy shouldn’t be the domain of designers. Where it does belong, though, is in a CEO’s office.

The most successful design work emerges from an executive team with a strategy. After you’ve obtained that from above, the first step should always be research. Seek to uncover and clarify the problem you’re being tasked to solve.

Our design research method breaks the process down into three stages and three pivotal questions:

Stage 1: We’ve got a problem.
Question 1: How do we develop ideas and identify the right one?

Stage 2: We’ve got ideas.
Question 2: How can we determine which idea is the right one?

Stage 3: We’ve got a great idea.
Question 3: How can we bring our idea to life the right way?

By the end of this process, we’re able to design what users actually need (as opposed to what they say they want) and uncover new opportunities for innovation. Rather than be driven by the latest technology, we’re able to create experiences that support and encourage specific user behaviors.

If you build similar design research into the beginning of every project, you’ll notice your team working more efficiently and effectively.

3. The cult of perfectionism

The pursuit of perfection convinces us that refinement will lead to improvement, when, in reality, it pulls us away from solving the fundamental problem we’re tasked with solving. It’s also a margin killer.

Instead of perfection, seek progress. Stay focused on solving problems, whether they involve a service, an experience, or an interface. Remember, design is a practice of evolution. Perfection is standing still and looking inward at the expense of growth.

I have seen many designers become obsessed with perfection, convincing themselves that each area of their practice has to be flawless. Don’t fall into this trap. Work through each problem efficiently by leveraging old-school visual and behavioral clichés and making good use of your tool kit.

Clichés can give us the intellectual white space we need to dive into bigger, more impactful challenges without getting lost in the details of refinement. Of course, refinement has its place in the process, but it should take as little time as possible.

Relying on design clichés—the established visual and behavioral patterns we’ve developed over the history of design—helps us move faster. As designers, we’re here to find new ways to use the wheel, not reinvent it. Leverage the clichés that get you thinking about the problem and moving quickly. Avoid those that waste time and prevent progress.

Shanon Marks, president of MU/DAI, simplifies technology through design with his team. Their work makes technology more effective and usable. When Shanon isn’t working, he can be found flying a small plane or surfing at his favorite break.