Designers just sit and think about how to make people's lives better. And to do so, you have to strip yourself of your ego for a moment and put yourself in other people's shoes - the first act of real humanity. And it takes humility.
I was recently at a dinner party in Cape Town. It was a pleasant, warm evening and people were drinking sangria, nibbling and dipping things in cream cheese. I took my place among the few guests who had made their way down to the lawn and were lounging and talking there, entering the conversation at a particularly interesting junction.
A young graphic design student was talking about how multi-talented one needed to be in order to become a designer and how many different types of knowledge one needed have. I was curious and asked what she meant. "You have to know the history of design, a whole number of programs like Photoshop, how to draw, how to code..." she went on.
When I reflected on the event I was struck by something she had left off her list of things of things that designers needed to know. It was that designers need to know what is missing. They need to see the gaps. But it is almost impossible to see the problems with what is considered normal. Norms are the key that we use to decode the world around us and it takes a kind of visionary skill to think in terms of "Is there anything about this experience that could be improved?" or "what could I do if this constraint didn't exist?".
If you consider for a moment what we want from life, what we hope to achieve as people and societies, what we aspire to, what we dream; then it's easy to see that we are all in some way handicapped. It is the job of good design to identify and try to overcome the obstacles that are built into the world we inhabit.
In much more practical, everyday terms the task of design is to take a thing, be it a book, a chair or a bunch of statistics, and make it more approachable so that it's functionality can be maximised. My dinner guest was right about one thing: Design is trans-disciplinary and designers are indeed expected to be jacks of all trades. Long gone is the myth that design is prettying something up a bit. Design uses information, be it technical or aesthetic, to make products approachable. Approachable, in terms of design, is about making a product interact with it's target audience; making it friendly, helpful and relevant to its users. If anything good design empowers a product using information.
When thinking about design objects, I tend to look to nature as a first port of call, and one of the first objects that captured my attention was the snowflake. Water has an incredible array of different shapes and forms but by far the snowflake is the most seductively beautiful, transient and unique. More importantly to my cause, and less widely known, snowflakes are tiny infographics; they are miniscule nuggets of information.
Snowflakes form when water molecules begin to freeze onto grains of dust or pollen floating in the air. more water vapour joins to it and it increases in size. Due to the structure of the molecules as they crystallize, they adhere to a hexagonal shape.
Each snowflake is a diagram of the changing atmospheric conditions that it encountered on it's decent. Each is a complex map of the route the snowflake took as it moved through differing temperature and humidity regimes.
Design makes information beautiful and accessible.
Nate Silver, the author of The Signal and the Noise, asserts that "Design has traditionally been seen as a field for 'right-brained' types: those who think visually and spatially rather than with symbols like words and numbers."
But modern information design is equal parts art and science, form and function, architecture and engineering. It combines the best of at least three fields of achievement: aesthetics, technology, and journalism."
Good design is as little design as possible.
An article exploring the current role of design has to include Dieter Rams' set of ten good design principles, as relevant now as they were twenty years ago, put your hand on your heart and repeat after me: Good design is aesthetic. Good design helps a product to be understood. Good design is unobtrusive. Good design is honest. Good design is durable. Good design is consistent to the last detail. Good design is environmentally friendly. Good design is as little design as possible.
Rams also writes that "The beauty of a really well-conceived system is that the parts are mutually interchangeable but they are discrete from one another and therefore improvements can constantly be made."
Discussion around design is so enigmatic because the whole of a successful design project is so much more that the sum of its parts but how do we design the way designers design so that they can design better.
I think the way that we can empower designers is with tools that don't force them to over-specialise so that there aren't technical ceilings on their ideas.
One of the more recent developments that help designers to design websites that integrate with businesses is a South African-born cloud-based software provider called Hexagonal.
One of the services in Hexagonal.org's six-sided model is a brand management system including a responsive* and dynamic drag-and-drop website building toolkit called the Snowflake Page Builder. The Page Builder is optimised to make designing websites that integrate with all the other parts of the business's data and that use standardised design tools that update automatically.
Responsive websites change their layout automatically to suit the device upon which they are being viewed.
In other words, if someone is looking at your company website with a phone or tablet, your website changes it's formatting and looks more like an app.
A sound business strategy prioritises design.
Hexagonal's three step website design process is streamlined so expect few (if any) errors and no delays.