Design is a rare craft that can employ the use of infinite tools, be presented through innumerable forms of media, and can serve immeasurable and invaluable purpose.
My career as a designer is as much a testament to this statement as it is proof positive that the craft of designing is ever-evolving. This requires designers to accept and adapt to new tools, media and even the very purpose their skills can serve.
True Confessions of an Interactive Designer
As I write this, I’m reflecting on my own history with the HOW brand. It’s clear to me that the resources designers rely on to keep abreast of the ever-changing technology and business of design must evolve in the same way.
To illustrate this (rather accelerated) evolution, consider that in January of 1997 I was a junior copywriter and designer at Media Artists, Inc: a tiny (and long since defunct) ad agency in Bergamo, Italy. Our ambitious leader landed us an agency profile in the February, 1997 Typography issue of HOW Magazine (vol. XII, #1; pg. 32-37). The article was accompanied by images of several printed pieces, including a few of my own. (Mom has a copy tucked neatly in a box labeled “the Prodigal son.”)
We were doing some web design back then, but the tools were inelegant and the media was … wait for it … Netscape! There’s absolutely no way we would have showcased our interactive work alongside such a prestigious write-up. (Yes, I do still have the files on an Iomega zip drive, and, no, you can’t see them.
Flash-forward to 2011. Through a series of moves and quick stints at other small agencies and in-house gigs, I found myself back in the junior designer role; a designer must always adapt. In this case, I was adapting backward, in-house at a medical device company, shouldering the bulk of the print work. The manufacturing industry is by no means at the vanguard of interactive design.
Meanwhile, in the short span of just fourteen years since my “debut” in HOW Magazine, the internet had evolved into the media for designers, the tools had become almost magical and (at least in the eyes of corporate stakeholders) the business purpose for design had shifted almost entirely to delivering kick-ass interactive experiences.
In November 2011, frustrated with the company’s outbound marketing deluge and exhausted from pitching “digital” to deaf ears, I headed for San Francisco to attend the inaugural HOW Interactive Design Conference.
At the outset, HIDC was not explicitly billed as “the place for print designers to go if they’re feeling inadequate and overwhelmed by the coming digital wave,” but the sentiment was there. Perhaps to the surprise and delight of the event organizers, much of the crowd in attendance had already either willingly or by designation been tasked with digital projects.
Together the eager attendees and top-notch speakers embarked on a journey through content strategy, prototyping and the creative process, the importance of early and frequent user testing, the (still mythical) concept of adaptive or responsive site architecture, and much, much more.
Design as a craft has evolved from a discipline for the creation of static interfaces to a core component of delivering interactive experiences to an audience. It was here, at this upstart event assembled by HOW (a bastion of print design) that the digital evolution hit home for me.
It began when Jose Caballer quoted a “big-time creative director” as having stated that, “Interactive design requires Business, Creative, Tech and Marketing people to work together. Each with a different interest in a project.”
This is where I had failed. My approach to soliciting interest in updating the company website or trying to garner support for a simple blog looked like this: “We’ve just got to do this,” instead of building compelling business cases and recruiting enthusiastic counterparts from other departments.
When I got back to office from the HOW Interactive Design Conference, I shared a comprehensive recap of each concept and began to detail a strategy to move us forward into the digital space.
As it often goes with a revolution, the empire pulled rank, dug in its heels and fired a couple of warning shots across the channel to keep things as they were. We did embark on a website redesign that year and, let me tell you, I prototyped, tested and responsified the crap out of that thing.
And I would not shut up. Eventually, either out of fatigue or contrition (or perhaps ambition), my department lead conceded and was banished to product management land (love you product managers). I returned to San Francisco for the 2012 HOW Interactive Design Conference and was again struck by the luminaries assembled to speak.
Just prior to arriving in San Francisco, I had begun my transformation from designer to design leader, and I was now privy to the joys of meetings about meetings and the KPI (Key Performance Indicators) report. As Christopher Butler called for redefining the KPI acronym to “Keeping People Ignorant,” yet another lightbulb went off in my head.
“A designer’s approach can be rigorous without being rigid, and thus responsive to evolving user needs.”
Designing for the digital space can be very complex and requires a cross-functional and flexible team. “A designer’s approach can be rigorous without being rigid, and thus responsive to evolving user needs.”
By no stretch of the imagination does this epiphany mark the end of my evolution as a designer, but it has become my mantra of sorts. This has resulted in process improvement within my department and transformed the quality of our projects into something measurable against business goals. More importantly, this approach injects what design should be focused on back into the process: solving human needs.
Technology Does Not Need to Be Dehumanizing
This year I returned to HOW Interactive Design Conference in Washington DC—accompanied by our new designer which thrills me to no end. She represents a new class within the craft that, while admittedly more technically-savvy than my generation, has yet to experience an immersive education in interactive design through the traditional design school education. Thankfully there’s online resources like HOW U, but I digress.
The summation of my experience across three HOW Interactive Design conferences is reflected in a presentation by one of the perennial speakers, David Sherwin, titled “Know Thy User: The Role of Research in Great Interactive Design.”
Dan Hon put it best as he wrapped up this year’s HIDC, “Technology does not have to be dehumanizing.” Either through a calculated curation of topics and speakers, or because the design community inherently strives to be in tune with human needs (that’s the design community, not the startup community), the experience of attending HIDC consistently communicates at least one common theme:
“Websites do not happen in a vacuum, they exist by the hands of and for the consumption by human beings.”
Each time I attend HIDC I better understand the complexity of the interactive space, and I come away feeling that both sentiments they descr, while held in tension, are entirely true.
*By guest contributor and interactive designer, Elias Jones. Jones has been designing professionally in one capacity or another throughout a career spanning almost twenty years. His experience runs the gamut from a renegade advertising agency in Bergamo, Italy to in-house design & marketing for a freight logistics software company. He is currently applying what he has learned to leading a creative team at an innovative medical device manufacturer. Elias has a passion for designing solutions to conundrums facing people, businesses and systems and he posses a positive attitude in both work and life.