Scaling the UX design industry: common standards v. individualism

DesignOctober 9th, 2019

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Mariana Ciocca, Senior Strategist in our 
New York studio shares insights from the Awwwards Digital Thinkers Conference

Five hundred designers & design thinkers gathered at the Awwwards Conference in NYC to listen to industry leaders share work they’re proud of, and impart knowledge they’ve gained through innovative experiences. We listened as some threw out ideas for what they believe is next for global digital design, like responsive VR driven by biometrics, and beatboxing AI. And we nerded out as others told us about a verbal design process that led to a single asterisk unlocking an entire brand identity for a company with the potential to revolutionize the textile industry.

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Throughout the talks, we noticed a clear tension emerged between some pushing for standardization and those calling for more individuality in design. We heard from experts who argued that standards & templates can (and should) be used for good. Specifically, to ensure that everyone has access to an equal online experience, to complete design “musts” faster in order to free up creative time for “nice to haves,” and to avoid dark patterns. But standardization also poses an inherent threat to the individuality that pushes designers to make great work. It can lead to sameness. “Safe” design that follows “best practices” – which, as founder & creative director Dan Klaver put it, is “just another way to say ‘boring.’”

Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in our own job titles. It seemed like every speaker flashed a new classification next to his or her name as their presentations took the screen: design director, creative lead, experience director, creative evangelist, interactive art director, and the list goes on. On the one hand, as professionals who convey meaning for a living, the attempt to construe the range of backgrounds, approaches and passions through a distinct title seems apt. But on the other, are these niche names missing the mark? Is there any actual value in defining one designer as interactive and another as experience? And do we risk confusing the tusk for the elephant — does being an interactive art director mean you disregard verbal design?

At a time when design is being injected throughout entire companies to tackle a breadth of challenges, it’s quickly expanding beyond a title to a state of mind. Our take away? The only way to really get a sense of what “type” of designer someone is is to listen, collaborate and engage.

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Here are a few other takeaways we left with after two days of immersive learning and collaboration: 

Clients (and their projects) are an extension of an agency’s culture

Profit and purpose at agencies have shifted into misalignment. Cash cow projects that are often lacking in creative freedom lead to people being rewarded for overwork, but under supported for good work. As Anton & Irene put it, “If you put shit work in your portfolio, you’ll likely attract clients who have shit work.” They suggested setting aside a percentage of money to fund personal projects, and showed that finding the right balance between creative satisfaction and profit can be different for everyone. 

Design is not a single moment in time

Design needs to be incorporated throughout every stage of a project — from strategy to verbal to visual elements. A project suffers when design is relegated to the final phase. Furthermore, someone’s title doesn’t have to determine the type of design they do. Everyone should feel empowered to incorporate design into their role and effort on a project. 

Accessible design is not optional

As a design community, we’ve matured beyond the “new frontier” phase of experience design, and ignorance is not an excuse for inaccessibility. Design professionals have a responsibility to steward equal and safe web experiences for all. New GDPR regulations can come to life in interesting, useful, and engaging ways if we just embrace them with the same creativity and ingenuity that we approach other challenges.

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Creativity is our best (and only) differentiator 

Until we’re able to better understand the complexity of human creativity, AI will remain an agent of productivity. This means creative literacy is still uniquely human and an increasingly valuable and important skill. Designers can lean on AI to assist with productivity, freeing up the necessary time and space to do what they do best: create. With days becoming increasingly scheduled, it takes an added intentionality to protect this time. While seemingly simple, tactics like restricting meetings to one designated calendar block, morning or afternoon, to allow for more uninterrupted working time can do wonders for unlocking creativity.

We’re in need of more genuine and emotional connections with users

Projection bias is the false assumption that everyone sees the world the way we do. Combine that with the “brand delusion gap” (the distance between what brands think vs. what people actually need), and we’re in dangerous territory of designing past users, rather than for them. We lean on data to help remove subjectivity from our decisions. But we’re often falling into the trap of making something important because we can measure it, rather than measuring what’s important. While useful, data often omits other inputs that should be used in combination to compose the full picture, like behavior and emotion. Being conscious of these cognitive biases and striving for a true, empathetic understanding of the people we’re designing for can help mitigate the risk of inauthentic work. 

So how can we give practical meaning to these learnings? Does the entirety of their value lie in that pesky step in between understanding and implementation? Or is it enough to just show up, listen and digest?

At the end of the day, it might just be that the true value of an experience like this can’t totally be standardized — not unlike the experience design process. There’s a layer of interpretation that happens in between those phases of learning and implementing that is unique to each person. And the value lies in that sweet spot, where new inputs integrate with existing beliefs to produce a shift in the way we show up to solve problems — regardless of title — through design.