Yan Pritzker software entrepreneur, photographer, musician

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hello, i'm yan

I am a photographer, entrepreneur, software engineer, guitarist, climber, and telemark skier

This blog is about startups, blogging, Ruby On Rails, virtualization and cloud computing, photography, customer service, marketing, ux and design, git, and lots more.

I am the CTO at Reverb.com - The Marketplace for Musicians. We're hiring web Ruby and iOS developers!

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Reach me at yan at pritzker.ws

Why you (and I) are not designers

Posted 17 December 2008 @ 11am in design

The problem with design is that, at first glance, it seems intuitive.

It’s pretty universally agreed that the iPhone is well designed. What makes it so? The rounded corners and shiny glass? The special effects in the OS? It’s too easy to think that once you’ve seen an example of great design, you can reproduce it. I’m not trying to pick on Microsoft, but the Zune and Windows Vista are failed attempts by engineers to reverse-engineer great design.

Some photographers take great pictures without ever formally learning the Rule of Thirds. Most people take boring or even offensively crappy pictures. Some programmers without formal training have an intuitive grasp of algorithmic complexity and code patterns. Most of them reinvent the wheel daily and write terrible code. In design, there are also people with a great eye and an intuitive sense of the principles of good design. But, like in these other disciplines, they’re very few and far between. Chances are you’re not one of these rare talents, even in your field of specialty. You probably had to learn the rules and practice your skills, like everyone else. It follows then, not having learned the rules of design or practiced them, that you’re not a good designer.

Come to terms with this now, so that no one else gets hurt by your bad design decisions.

Do you know English pretty well? If it’s your native language, you may consider yourself a master. If someone shows you a sentence, you can probably spot grammar mistakes from a mile away. But could you explain the tenses or morphology of the English language to a foreigner? More than likely, you don’t know the technical information about what makes English ‘tick’. In the same way that you don’t know the principles that were put to use to make a great product like the iPhone.

It is too easy to confuse the ability to spot something with the ability to create it, or even explain why it is the way it is. Design, like most other disciplines comes with a set of rules, patterns, and principles. These theories have been developed over time, from experience of other designers solving many problems. Some of these theories are very intuitive. Others are very counterintuitive, like the Paradox of Choice (which is not perhaps per se a design principle, but should inform your design decisions). Most of them require a lot of practice to internalize.

Understand this now: if you did not spend time studying the theory of design, analyzing case studies of past design problems and solutions, and practicing to the point of design becoming second nature to you, you will have a wrong intuition about how things should be designed. You may really honestly think you have an amazing eye, and that you’ve seen enough examples to do it right yourself, or you may simply think design doesn’t affect product sales or customer satisfaction. You are wrong. The sooner you get this, the sooner you can hire the right person for the job, and produce excellent products.

If you don’t really understand grids, you’ll probably create things that are poorly aligned and create confusion in the minds of your consumers. If you don’t know what ligatures, kerning, and letting are, your business cards will look unprofessional, and you won’t realize it (hint: Microsoft Word won’t do it for you). If you don’t know the first thing about color relationships, you’re likely to create combinations that hurt someone’s eyes, or create the wrong emotions for the product you’re selling. If you don’t know about the basics of interaction design, you will design products that are frustrating to use.

You are a not a designer. A designer is someone with training and experience in design. You may convince yourself otherwise, but your customers will not be fooled.

For more on this topic, or if you need a book to convince your boss about hiring a designer, The Inmates are Running The Asylum, is a must read for any engineering manager interested in producing excellent products.

P.S. This is obviously written toward the engineering-slanted audience that reads my blog. If I’ve offended you, good. It’s time to wake up and realize most engineers are terrible designers. Not because they’re stupid or incompetent, but because design is a discipline like any other, and if you don’t expect an English major to write your code, then you shouldn’t expect an engineer to create your design.

As engineers we’re accustomed to scanning hundreds of pages of docs and learning new technologies quickly. Design isn’t something you can learn this way, and it’s a big blow to an engineer’s ego to realize that he has come up against something he can’t learn overnight without tons of dedicated practice. If you read the book I mentioned above, it makes some good points about why the very thing that makes you a good engineer makes you a bad designer.

Hire a designer, and listen to this person very carefully. They know how to make users happy. You don’t. The worst part is if I asked you to solve problems in theoretical physics, most of you would realize right away you don’t have a clue, but nearly everyone thinks they have a clue when it comes to design. If they did, we wouldn’t have so many terribly designed products.

Update: some people thought this post was patronizing. I’ve updated the title to make something clear: I’m not a designer either. I’m just someone who is around them enough to understand that what they do is equally important and complicated as what I do. I’ve taken the time to educate myself as much as reasonable in design, in order to manage design projects and communicate effectively. I have educated myself well enough to know that I don’t know enough.