Dear John Maeda, in reality, design* is very important
* Design is a complex term that requires clear context when we refer to it in an article or discussion.
On this topic being shredded to pieces across the internet for over a week, I agree with him on most of his comments, but I see glitches on the communication of his message.
The basic problem
Initially, it’s lacking two fundamental and important details: context and terminology definitions. The problem starts with the interpretation of the words design and designers. We all have differences in our definitions and Maeda’s definitions aren’t crystal clear. Especially the “design is not that important” bit reads more like clickbait than anything else.
No matter what, turning designers from “benchwarmers” to equal members of any product team was an important, necessary step. The current status of software is what it is because lots of companies trusted and included designers in their teams.
We’ve all seen (and been) designers that start with the visual design first. They are focused on how things look. They care more about a pixel-perfect translation of their precious design files to code. But thankfully, the dribbblisation of design is being, slowly, left in the past. We’re moving from “too many designers designing to impress their peers” to “designers taking a step back to face the real (business) problems”.
But, this is not a new thing
This is only the part of design’s history that applies to the post-Flash and the post-iPhone era. But, the same problems were there even before the internet. For a simple example, replace developers with printers (the people, as in paper and colour experts). We were doing ‘User Experience’ then too, but it was simply called… design.
I agree with Mike Monteiro that “Maeda has recognised the symptoms but he’s wrong on the diagnosis”. He’s making a good point on how things start from education. Also, Timothy Bardlavens makes some good points in his reaction, e.g. on what design-led is. He is a bit harsh though and I feel he sees everything from the prism of a Product Designer — a term for which there are no two people in this world that can write and agree on a 7-word definition.
Like Maeda, he’s also lacking clear terminology, particularly when saying “never design for the sake of designing”. There are at least 3 definitions of design in this sentence.
So what is causing the problem
Design-led does NOT mean led only by designers. I’m 100% with Timothy on this. It means that design, as a process and mentality, should lead every team’s decision. Everyone can design (not visuals but experiences, flows, software etc) as member of the team. Design should be a top priority for every developer too.
Neither design or development are “supporting roles”. They are both what we all do. They inform each other. They are the job. Design always starts first but this doesn’t make designers better, it simply cannot be the other way around. What will developers do in a team with no designers? They 👏 Will 👏 Start 👏 With 👏 Design!
We need experienced and well-trained designers and developers. I’ll push Beth Dean’s tweet a bit further and say that people come to designers (as we equally go to developers) with 3 things:
Good ideas with good intentions
Bad ideas with good intentions
Bad ideas with bad intentions
Juniors or interns are unprepared to treat those things differently. They don’t learn this at school, we need to teach them. By doing so, we’ll be able to treat them together (designers and developers).
As designers, “making products that solve people’s problems” is not enough. Our work is to focus on great products. I am a fan of the Shakers’ design philosophy and are an advocator of the below:
One more thing
I want to share something from my experience working on Brill.app. As a Design Director, and for the first time with the dual role of Product Owner, I can’t imagine how else we’d be working if the design team wasn’t informed by engineers and the latter being challenged by the first, on a daily basis.
There are people who do things. There are words that can describe both. Make your point clear. Stop fighting and work together for the same good cause. If the cause is bad, just stop doing what you’re doing.