Digital By Design?
— 21st October 2011
I took myself along the the excellent Digital Lunch upstairs at the Adelphi on Wednesday where I was exposed to some interesting and thought provoking discussion about "design" and "digital" by some very eminent persons from the local digital design industry. Unfortunately whilst I was often provoked towards responding by the discussion I was unable to respond due to a surprising lack of a connected device and a less surprising lack of self confidence. So I retreat like a mollusc to my shell and knock out a blog post instead.
Please note most of the below was prompted by the discussion but isn't necessarily "in response" to it. I just found myself thinking this stuff at some point during or after. The main thing was that it all got me thinking at all which was great!
Designers Should CodeIt seemed like there was a general consensus on this that they should, which was fine and understandable given the constantly changing technical aspects of all things digital. A better translation (can't remember who said it) was that designer should "understand what’s possible" which I think is key. What I'd have liked to see more though was further discussion of the different mindsets involved in the two activities. It would be easy to characterise developers as plumbers forever sucking through their teeth and claiming things are impossible. Likewise that designers need to be Jobs-like perfectionists who force through their ideas for the good of the user. I think the problem with that is whilst being an ironic and amusingly wrong stereotype also it quietly assumes primacy for the designer. Designing and developing are very different disciplines and can require quite different approaches, but it’s more important is that both a represented as decisions are made, as the "designing" gets done. Most things are technically do-able and the real deciding factors are usually the constraints of time and money but when you assume that design happens first followed by development you are more likely to create the kind of conflicts the stereotype is based on. It’s perhaps more important at this time to be saying that developers need to design than it is to say designers need to code. To foster an appreciation on both sides of the true costs and benefits of various decisions. Of course the trouble is that like Paul's little piece of UI magic which got noticed on twitter the real value of various pieces of design or development are often very hard (or even impossible) to quantify. Still it’s not a matter of one side or the other setting the agenda but more a matter of having the full range of knowledge available and invovled throughout the whole process. Whether that can be encapsulated within a single person is perhaps less clear.
Responsive Web DesignWhich brings me to responsive web design. Something I'm keen on almost entirely because of what I’ve put above. The more I’ve looked at responsive web design and the more I understand it, the more it seems that it can't possibly be done with any great separation between the design and development parts of the process. You could tell from some of the points made by the panel that this kind of realisation is beginning to dawn across the industry. The idea that a responsive design couldn't be represented by flat psd's (and even if it could whether it should be) was just one example of people beginning to see the kind of change in process which is likely to be needed to fully realise responsive web design successfully.
What’s so exciting about this to me is the fact that this to me is the epitome of the web (and in some sense digital design too). As was mentioned it’s nothing new. What’s new at the moment is our enhanced ability to do it well; to make it work. But it’s nothing new. The fact is that designing for the web has always and should always have been about this. There was never a fixed width, never a set resolution, never a predictable set of capabilities for web browsers (or users). The consensus we overlaid (remember when 640 was the width to stick to?) was always a fudge of one kind or another. Of course designing and creating responsive/adaptive sites has always been a ball-ache compared with not doing, and it always will be. It’s always cheaper and easier to reduce the unknowns and again it goes back to that cost/benefit I mentioned before. But things are changing, the costs and benefits are shifting, mobile plays a huge part in that even for small players. It might still make financial sense to stick to old ways for the time being, but really, do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life? ;-)
The Web is Dead?It’s already a little ridiculous to argue semantics about "apps" and "browsers". As was mentioned the line is often blurred and really even where it’s not how much value is there in so many apps without their internet connection? (Hey! we could argue semantics between "web" and "internet" too). The point is that there's only really one way this thing is going to go. Browsers are getting better (even mobile ones), they're allowing for the creation of better more sophisticated experiences and they are getting better at accessing aspects of devices (graphics processing, location, data storage) which were previously only the realm of apps. Sure there's going to be an arms race as devices add capabilities and browsers catch up but in the long run it’s going to be browsers catering for the long tail and apps sitting at the (increasingly thin) tall end of the graph. Google pushing into desktop applications may not have won everybody away from Word, Excel and Powerpoint, for a variety of reasons, but the direction of progression is clear.
What is Digital Design?So what is digital design? Well it’s a type of design for starters so yes it’s "visual thinking" and "all about communication", it requires all the skills design needs. So what about "digital"? For me it means "not a physical medium", or at least not a predictable one. If you don't have a predictable physical medium to design for then you can't predict the various aspects of context in the same way and I think this is what’s key to digital design. It means you don't have quite the same certainties about how it will feel for the user to consume your content. So it means to a greater or lesser extend you have to step back and allow the context to dictate more and more of the design. Understanding the levers you do have at your control and how they can work together is key to getting this right. It means designers and developers need a greater understanding of each others realm to really produce something that works for as many people as possible. Of course you can choose to apply constraints to this: you can target just the iPad and create something which is absolutely beautiful and yes it’s digital but you're also turning away from the challenge and the opportunity that digital really represents.
Real digital design should embrace those aspects which are unique to digital. It should celebrate them and push them as far and as wide as they can go. This isn't always possible in reality but it should be an aspiration because it’s only by doing so that digital design will be seen as a full fledged discipline and people like me will stop pontificating about it ;-)