Rockstars, preachers or craftsmen. Time to choose.

My father was a joiner, serving his apprenticeship in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. He took a simple pride in his work, going on to develop his skills in a number of construction firms across the city. I don’t believe he would have labelled himself a “craftsman” and I am confident that, while knowing no project he worked on would be complete without his contribution, he had a balanced sense of where that contribution sat in the greater scheme of things. We are fortunate to still have a couple of pieces of furniture that Dad made over the years as labours-of-love. They are simple, usable items.

Intense introspective

When I first read this recent blog post by Jon Tan it resonated hugely. His thoughtful appreciation of our industry is a heartening summary of how quickly things have changed and improved. On reflection though, should we subject ourselves to so much soul-searching based on moments of awkwardness in social situations? Should it matter what others’ perception of us is?

The drive towards a craft-based approach to design for the web continues to gain momentum, something worth fostering. Craft implies care, thoroughness. If we are to be craftsmen, we also need to accept that dedicated craftsmanship is often carried out in relative anonymity. Our contributions, if they are effective, will go unnoticed by most. Intuitive usability implies a lack of conscious effort on the part of the end user which, in turn, suggests a lack of acknowledgement on the part of the user.

My Dad ended his working life as a Clerk of Works. You may not be familiar with that role. I don’t believe Dad would have minded and would quite happily have explained his job to anyone. As our profession matures and we struggle with perceptions and interpretations of what we do, we should prepare for nothing but a muted response from those outside the industry or elsewhere in the design community.

We do great things, but they are not made any greater or lesser by how others perceive them.

You’re either with us or you’re against us

Elsewhere on the web, others appear keen to let us know exactly what defines us.

During his years in trade, Dad came into contact with engineers, architects and tradesmen of all kinds. He took an interest in them and how they contributed to projects. It informed his own work. To the best of my knowledge he never took it upon himself to accuse others of not being genuine joiners. As in all professions, he knew there are two types of practitioners: those who are effective, and those who are not.

I have written before of being proud to work in a profession that places effective practice over showboating. However there has been a trend of late for showy pronouncements suggesting what designers are or are not, depending on their approach. For example:

“…you’re not a web designer, you’re something else.”

“You’re not a user experience designer if…”

“A designer who does not write markup and css is not designing for the web, but drawing pictures.”

The defense for statements of this nature tends to be that they are intended to “provoke debate” or similar. I really wonder. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the intention appears to be to create divisions in our field where there are none; to create a ‘them and us’ based on approach and technique, rather than effectiveness of output.

A situation where a relatively small number of (I should state – exceptional) professionals, with the biggest platforms, who shout loudest feel empowered to define what we should or should not be is one that I’ll call unhelpful. Producing great work sets the best possible example to others in the profession. Sharing of the process gives something back to the community. Does proselytising really add any more value?

Future proof

We want to attract the best possible calibre of people into our industry. A clear sense of ourselves and what we contribute as UI and UX designers is crucial to that effort. Promotion of best practice, which is always changing, is a positive. There are suitable ways and means to do this. I suggest that haranguing those with a different perspective is not one of them.

Reading much of our internal debate of late, I cannot help but hear Dad’s voice and what he said to me in so many situations over the years:

“Just get on with it, son”.

I commend this sentiment to the industry.


Update: Following some particularly gracious feedback from Jon Tan, whose blog post is referenced here, I have edited the text of this piece to more accurately establish sources and targets for a number of points made. Thanks to Jon for his input. The original post has been retained for reference.

I’m a designer. What do I know?

From time to time something comes along to give you a gentle nudge, prompting you to reassess your knowledge as a professional. Such an occasion came last month in the form of the ever-enjoyable UX Bookclub Belfast.

People are liars (apparently)

The book being discussed was “100 Things Designers Should Know About People” by Susan Weinschenk. Compiled from a series of blog posts, “100 Things…” features some eyebrow-raising revelations on the apparent true needs of users, versus what people say they want. The book prompted a number of comments along the lines of “I’m a designer. I knew a lot of this stuff already… but I’m not sure how.”

Is there a designer in the house?

Professional practice in any number of design disciplines, graphic and UI among them, is not absolute, differentiating them from law, medicine or accounting for example. However design should not be subjective. The weakest possible position a designer can adopt in communicating with a client is a “just trust me, I know best” stance. Any sense of the designer-as-artist can result in needless, subjective discussions. In other words, either have a good reason for deploying a particular colour or prepare for a discussion over who’s favourite colour is best.

The appliance of science

One of the many positive developments to have occurred during my time as a professional is the proliferation of scientific thinking in the industry. The influence and contributions of thought leaders such as Donald Norman, Alan Cooper and others cannot be overstated; what they have brought to the table is a shift in rationale from the old, instinctive design sensibility to a more effective, research-driven approach. So we have gone from arguing that a button with rounded corners simply “looks right” (instinctive) to stating that it has affordance and benefits from the Aesthetic-Usability Effect (scientific). What’s more, data supports the fact that attractive things work better.

That’s… logical, captain

Without question this type of approach demands more from the designer: craft, study, insight. It can also supply some much-needed constraints within which creativity can flourish, rather than relying on the artist’s muse. Arguing a point based on data and evidence is less likely to result in needless exchanges with a client over the amount of [insert client’s favourite colour here]. That’s not to say it will never happen, but our position as professionals is strengthened when we can actively demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the rules of the game.


We might assume to “know” so much gained from experience or absorbed from years of industry-related reading but regular reassessment of what we assume to be firm knowledge can only be healthy. Plus it is much more conducive to a sustained and successful career in design. Taking the opportunity has never been easier, with the web as a central hub for debates and discussions that lead to shifts in our industry and each of us with a front row seat.

Cliché, okay

Hackneyed it may be, but designers cannot afford to stop learning about the components of professional practice, particularly those of us who have had extended tenures in the field. Old thinking needs to be identified and regularly weeded out. We need to challenge accepted truths time and again, reassess our own subjective views and progress our work and contribution.

Gratuitous Star Wars quote

To paraphrase Yoda, we need to unlearn what we have learned – and then relearn it, sometimes daily.

The long wait for Boards of Canada

The BOC brothers

It’s around ten years since I first noticed the name “Boards of Canada” creeping in to designers’ discussion forums (ahh discussion forums, what a quaint idea). It seemed that BoC was the soundtrack of choice for any designer worth their salt in the heady days of the dot com boom.

I had dabbled with electronica before, but BoC opened my eyes and ears to a whole new world of avant garde IDM. Strange thing to say now, as BoC are so often seen as almost mainstream.

There has been very little since, with the exception perhaps of Proem and Ulrich Schnauss, that has made such an impression on me, left me feeling that I was listening to something new, fresh and unfettered. The vocal samples, the eerie atmospherics evoking vague childhood memories, all combined with the duo’s mischievous marketing giving them the aura more of a cult than a musical act, made listening to their music a mesmerising experience.

Within 18 months of discovering them, ‘Geogaddi‘ was released. I remember clearly wandering around Paris as part of a professional trip with IDI Ireland, listening to Geogaddi on a cassette Walkman, taking in its strange aural landscapes in the equally strange (to me) environment of the French capital.

But something went wrong. ‘The Campfire Headphase‘ took 3.5 years to emerge after Geogaddi. Apart from an EP in June 2006, BoC fans have now been waiting over 5 years for new material to arrive from Hexagon Sun. Not quite latter day Pink Floyd standards, but a huge period of anyone’s life.

I’m sure Marcus and Eoin are happily making a living from their work, but music consumption has moved on significantly in those 5 years. There was a time when I would have bought new BoC material without hesitation. Nowadays, I may just sample what is on offer before parting with hard-earned cash to buy it.

With artists such as Horizon Fire so ably scratching the itch of BoC fans (and for free), and Proem maintaining such a regular schedule of high quality output, I’m at the point where I almost don’t care whether anything appears from BoC again.

I don’t know how BoC see themselves now, but that must surely be the worst possible news for any musician who releases music commerically.