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Vinu Chaitanya's blog. 

Designed to Confuse

Vinu Chaitanya

For a large part I am glad I did not end up as an engineer, a doctor or a manager. All very worthy professions without doubt but not really cut out for me. What I have to admit though is that, there are times when I envy the ease with which they waft through daily life. Don't get me wrong, I don't harbor notions of their jobs being simpler than mine nor am I the type to argue with someone who feels what they do is more important than what I do (even if I secretly disagree with them). What can't be disputed, however, is that most people understand and respect what they do. That in design, for now, is just a distant dream. To say that people don't understand what a visual interaction designer does would be an understatement. Despite the maddening speed with which everyone has adopted smartphones and tablet computers and the relentlessness with which they update their status on social networking sites, they seem oblivious to the fact that behind the scenes there are people working hard to make all this work. If anyone at all is acknowledged it’s the engineers and never the designers. 

Good user interfaces are meant to be transparent, in the sense that you are never at a loss while trying to accomplish a task using the 'interface', you intuitively figure your way from point A to point B. So when John Doe 'logs in' just after a long nights sleep to tweet about the coffee he is about to have, he does it with consummate ease despite a larger part of his brain still debating whether waking up is really worth the trouble. In fact it is so well thought out that he never has a moment to stop and think that someone might have spent sleepless nights to make it that simple. Most technology savvy people would be hard pressed to explain what user interface designers and visual designers do, so expecting anyone else to know it, would be silly. So the better you design the less people notice it. The truth is that this is a cross most designers have to bear with the exception of perhaps fashion designers and to a lesser extent automobile designers. The world stood up, noticed and acknowledged what fashion designers do the minute they made men and women walk up and down a ramp. In fact its impact has been so great that to many a 'designer' by default means a 'fashion designer'. 

But before I blame the general public for its indifference towards design, I have to say that it’s not the easiest of professions to understand. In fact I would go a step further and say that it is one of those rare professions where people working within it's boundaries themselves would not be very sure about what exactly it is. Most dictionaries define design as the intention to achieve something specific. So the fundamental problem lies in the fact that design is in everything you do and everything you do is surely design in some sense. For casual onlookers what a textile designer does would seem so vastly different from what a user interface designer would do that you have to forgive them for their initial confusion which invariably is followed by indifference towards design. 

So design is either not understood at all or is seen as 'styling' by many who think they do. Yes, choosing the colors for your walls, the paper for your brochure, the font for your logo, is all design but that’s not all there is to it. To design, is to create a system, to take a holistic view of what exists and to imagine what could be. And then to go ahead and actually do it. 

A good doctor always tries to find the cause for the symptoms and treats that while a mediocre one would recommend a course of pills that gets rid of the symptoms. It's not very different with design. People often approach graphic designers with a very specific brief–I want a brochure, I want a logo, I want a website etc. A good graphic designer would be curious to know what brought them to that conclusion and then to examine if that conclusion itself is a valid one. Often when someone says he needs a website what he truly means is to say is that he wants a platform to access a wider audience to showcase his products to. A website might very well be the answer but it's better to come to that conclusion through some sound reasoning rather than through some vague notion conjured out of thin air. Taking it from this initial step of understanding what a client needs to finally delivering a complete solution is a long and arduous task involving understanding the clients business, his competition, his USP, conveying that to potential customers in an engaging manner, not making false promises etc. It is a system developed after taking into account a million little details that the client never thought of and never ever will think of when he says he wants 'just a website'. 

Even if the designer did manage to come up with a website that he feels is what the client needs, he is not really done. Here he faces one of the greatest challenges a designer faces on a regular basis - convincing the client. Almost always what you think a client needs is rarely ever what he wants. He can come up with the most outrageous of reasons to reject the design - my son did not like it, can it look like google?, it does not have the 'wow' factor and just about anything else that might come to his head at that moment. When a doctor tells a patient that his arteries are blocked and he needs to have an angioplasty, he buckles down and get the thing done, he does not throw a huff saying he wants to see it in purple, orange and green before he decides what needs to be done. That is the other problem with design - There never really is one correct answer. While the accountant puts two and two together comes up with four, packs his bags and goes home for the day the designer is left trying to pick one color from the 256 million colors available to him, all or none of which could work. I wish designers could say with certainty that the solution they have come up with is right or wrong, but they can't because there is no such thing. So again, you can forgive people for assuming its all based on the mere whimsy of the designer. And how much can you trust the whimsy of a designer wearing purple cotton pants?

Be that as it may, this has to change. 

I have been working as a visual communication designer (don't ask me what that means) for the past four years after having been a student of design for another five before that. For most of that time I was happy to understand the inherent value and worth of design, caring very little for what others outside the profession thought of it. But now I can see the vast benefits to be had if the discipline gets it due. I am not talking of personal gains here even if it might seem so. I think our society at large has a lot to gain by adopting design and seeing it for what it can be - a tool capable of bringing in revolutionary changes that benefit all. 

When you want low cost housing for the poor and you employ the best architects to work on it take on a couple of designers too. When you employ more teachers to improve the standards of education take on a few designers too. When you hire civil engineers to deal with the infrastructure issues facing the city take on a couple of designers too. I can't tell you right now what they would do or how they would add value, all I can promise you is that they will.