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Design is not a choice

You can’t create things without design happening.

I’ve always found it alarming when businesses aim to create digital products, but they don’t think they need much “design”. As if design was an optional part of the process.

The truth is, you can’t ship anything without doing a lot of design. Every creative choice that gets made — layout, colour, font, content, interaction, workflow — each one of those hundreds or thousands of minuscule decisions is the act of design.

Design is inescapable. It must happen every time something is created. Evidence of design is seen in each of those decisions.

As Jeffrey Harris (Microsoft) points out in Stop acting like design is a choice:

“Design is the evidence of creative human choices to answer a problem.”
Admittedly, there are quite a number of definitions we can use to help better understand our craft. This one, though, is particularly instructive: design as a verb is the action of making choices; as a noun it is the evidence of those choices.

Think about some of the worst products you’ve ever used. The ones with such poor design that you gave up on them after one try. Or even worse — products with cringeworthy user experiences, but you’re locked into using them by your employer.

Those experiences didn’t have less “design”. All of the same decisions had to be made, in one way or another. They were simply made poorly, by people (or a committee!) unqualified to generate good design. Those colours and that confusing interface were intentionally chosen. Someone made all of those design decisions, and then convinced themselves that it was good enough to ship.

Those decisions could have arisen because business goals didn’t align with user goals. They might have been made by developers, to satisfy the desires of engineering but not the needs of their customers. Perhaps decisions were uninformed or intuited, with no notion of validating their effectiveness. Or worst of all, they were made using generic defaults that didn’t feel like choices at all.

They didn’t mean to make terribly designed products. They simply didn’t have the expertise or process to produce good design. Or they mistakenly believed that functionality is all that matters (hint: functionality must be designed too!).

They may have been in an environment where even poorly designed software could flourish because there were no better alternatives. (This worked 20 years ago, but has no chance today).

Choose clients who recognise design as the fundamental process of creation, rather than an optional add-on to polish up their ill-conceived product. Choose projects that put design at the centre of the process, not as a visual afterthought. Because design has always been there. It was never a choice.

The next time you’re told “our app is done but it needs some UX”, run for the hills. You’re entering a situation where all the design has been done by people who didn’t even realise they were doing it, and now they want you to audit and redo all of those creative decisions (but change as little as possible, pretty please)!

Design will happen. All the choices must be made anyway. So you might as well use the best available talent to make the best possible choices, the first time around.

As Adam Judge said:

“The alternative to good design is always bad design. There is no such thing as no design.”

Big props to Jeffrey Harris for inspiring this article, and my apologies for practically plagiarising his work. His thoughts struck such a strong chord with me that I felt it necessary to write my own take on the subject.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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