TAKE DESIGN OFF AUTOPILOT
Don’t sleepwalk through your design, argues co-founder of W12 Studios, Michael Albers
Don’t sleepwalk through your designs, pleads Michael Albers
What makes the great designers great is dedication to their craft and belief in the end product; their complete confidence in research or testing as well as the design
Digital is new, design is not. In the past 20 years since the advent of commercial digital design, nearly every part of modern life has been transformed by the medium. Yet with so much product in the public sphere, no design icons have emerged, no movement-leading revolutionaries, no digital rockstars making their mark. Digital has no Peter Behrens, Le Corbusier or Alexander McQueen. Instead the industry is saturated with carbon-copy design built from best practice, not vision.
As budding designers-to-be, we begin our education within institutions that celebrate diversity and collaboration. Design disciplines are mixed together within classes. Critiquing your fellows is encouraged to ground you, push your thinking and self awareness. There is a naked belief and ambition that design can save the world. Entering the stage of commercial design, we hit the ground and run straight into quantifying deliverables, replication and codifying ‘what makes good design’.
Design is said to be about problem solving. When we think of truly great design, we think of work that breaks the mould, work that champions creativity, ideas and vision. In digital we enable our users, expand their abilities, making technology useful while bringing a little added joy with every interaction. The products we design live in the world and are part of people’s everyday lives. Instead of approaching each brief with the passion, craft and creativity of other design disciplines, digital often reverts to a world of Post-it note process, theoretical strategy, workflows and buzzwords. Research, testing and strategy replace rather than inform ideas. The outcome is a conveyor belt of cloned designs, following the same tried and tested formulas. Each iteration adding more features, more buttons, more content and more levels of complexity.
The Dieter Rams design philosophy of less is more could not be more apt. The process for designing a digital experience has become elaborate and clumsy. We have lost the focus and vision behind what designers are here to do. What makes the great designers great is dedication to their craft and a resounding belief in the end product. Their complete confidence in research or testing as well as the design.
At W12 Studios our desire is to solve problems with beautiful and simple design. Our approach towards digital design honours our traditional design roots. I started my career as a furniture designer, my co-founder, Fabian Birgfeld, comes from an architecture grounding and we hire people that don’t fit the design agency mould, people with differing design backgrounds. The variety of interests, skills and individual histories ignites fresh perspectives and an excitement to be adventurous as well as build on and transfer our collective traditional practice.
We aim to understand the context by working with our client to define the brief and what success will look like. We create a vision of the product, exploring concepts, themes, patterns and the brand narrative. We prototype the design and encourage a culture of critique to continually refine. At the heart of our approach is our faith in the hero moment: the product’s reason for being; where watching video is to Netflix as boiling water is to a kettle. We combine the variety of our crafts, our ideas, inspirations and skills to create a vision that puts the hero moment at centre stage. While we are keeping our eyes on the stars, we remember to make it real. Our designs are more than features and interesting experiences, they want to make a difference in the world.
We don’t have all the answers to the future of digital design but we do have principles that are unique to us. Be bold, cut out the clutter and take out the noise. To be bold it is important to have an opinion, to criticise, debate and develop. Be provocative and challenge perceptions around you. Ask what is beauty? Care about your craft and your clients will care too. Perfection is impossible, there will always be more process and more stifling revisions. Get the product done, get it out there to be used as a test bed to continually improve. Aim for Milton Glaser’s wow. Invoking an emotional response is what cultivates desire. Be visionary, think about design holistically and look beyond yourself to gain inspiration.
There is always a balance to be found between idealism and reality, profitability and blue-sky thinking. While I would love to be the one to say that the design should always win and client limitations don’t apply, that isn’t realistic as a service business. That being said there is a unique opportunity right now for us as digital designers to carve out the future direction of this industry and set benchmarks for generations to come. The only way we will achieve this is if we start questioning the process, resist the urge to justify every decision with data and dare to take digital design off autopilot.