The Perception That Design Is How Something Looks

Ask any designer and they’ll tell you design is more than how something looks. For many non-designers though, how a thing looks is design. Nothing else, just the look. It’s a common perception designers have tried to change for years and it often feels like a losing battle.

An eye reflecting the world

A couple of articles led me to wonder if that battle will ever be won. The specific articles aren’t important to this discussion, but I will offer a few things I think are true about the writers

  • Each would define themselves as a developer
  • Each has also done plenty of design work
  • Each clearly understands design is more than how something looks
  • Each mentions that design is more than looks in their article

Still a word or two here and there in the articles gave the impression that looks and design were one and the same.

It made me wonder. If people who understand that design is more than aesthetics can give the impression that they’re the same thing, should we be surprised the non-designing public holds that perception. It made me think about why design and aesthetics are so tied together that many can’t see past the connection to understand what design truly is.

We’re Visual Beings

I’m not sure what science says is our strongest sense, but I think it’s safe to say the majority trust their sense of sight above their other senses.

The better the design, the less likely design is perceived to be present.

Our visual attention quickly finds objects in our environment and it engages with our surroundings. Vision dominates as a sense. How anything looks is inextricably connected to it. It becomes difficult to separate the two.

Do you know what’s difficult to see? All the decisions you make when designing a website. The decisions for organizing content. The decisions for constructing navigation to content. The decisions made about typography and grids and color or those made to prioritize content and create hierarchy. Those things can’t be seen. What can be seen is how the site looks.

You can’t smell or taste a website. You can’t really touch it either. Your sense of touch might be engaged while on a site, but it’s not the site your touching. You can see a website and you can hear it.

To make matters worse, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder no matter how well you design a site and design it’s visual layer, some people will think it’s poor design. To them it’s pood design because the look doesn’t match their taste.

You might have spent considerable time harmonizing the visual atmosphere with the main message the site wants to communicate. You might have made aesthetic choices to help the site be more usable. Still, some people will not like the color red and because of that your design is bad to them.

Everything is going to have an aesthetic, whether consciously designed or random. That aesthetic will contribute greatly to the perception of the thing and how well it works. That aesthetic will communicate meaning, impact usability, affect visitor engagement and conversions and on and on.

How a thing looks isn’t all there is its design, but how it looks is a significant part of the design. It’s a part that’s strongly connected to the thing itself. It’s hard for people to separate something with how it looks.

The Inevitability of Design

Good design stays out of the way. It should help you use a product or consume content on a website. It should help people perform tasks and it should help them understand information. A good design will help you get more done.

  • Good design makes things easier to use
  • Good design makes things easier to understand
  • Good design makes things more enjoyable to use

Because it stays out of the way to do these things, good design hides its value from people. Hidden things like the struggles and decisions to create navigation or the insight to provide the right copy at the right time aren’t seen as part of design. If they’re noticed, they’re considered inevitable.

Good design often seems inevitable after the fact. Someone comes up with a good solution. Others copy the solution. Before you realize it, the solution is being used everywhere and other solutions aren’t seen. It appears as though there’s never been another way to have solved the problem.

The inevitability is in someone making good decisions which leads to a result the rest of us wonder how we missed. If it’s only inevitable after it exists, then maybe it wasn’t all that inevitable. Maybe it was good design.

Inevitability results when the design is in harmony with the essence of the object being design. It’s designing form and function as one. Understanding the essence of something is difficult to do. It takes a great deal of time and effort. It requires stripping away surface layer after surface layer and making hard decisions to remove everything that isn’t the essence.

The irony for designers is the more the extraneous details are removed, the better the design, but the less the thing looks designed. The better a designer does his or her job, the more the end product looks inevitable as if no designer was required.

Good design remains mostly hidden and invisible. The better the design, the less likely design is perceived to be present. The exception is the aesthetic layer, which will always be seen.

It’s Hard not to Mention The Visual

I know design is more than aesthetics and yet many of the articles about design that I’ve written focus on the visual aspects of design.

My interest with aesthetics isn’t solely about making a site look pretty. It’s about how to create visuals that enhance communication and usability and so on. The making it pretty part is in there though, and it’s still me talking about design in a way that emphasizes how the finished product looks.

Anyone who talks about graphic design is going to emphasize what’s seen. The word graphic means of or relating to visual art. It’s had to talk about graphic design principles without there being great emphasis on the look of things.

Those interested in a deeper learning about design will get that designers are talking aesthetics as part of the bigger picture of design. Those less interested in a deep understanding of design will only see the connection between design and how the thing design looks.

Will the Perception Ever Change?

I’ve spent far too many hours trying to get across to people that design is more than an aesthetic layer. I’ve tried to convince many that design is far more than how a things looks. I don’t think I’ve ever been successful, though I’ll continue to make the arguments in design’s defense.

I doubt that any time soon the majority of non-designers are going to see past the perception that design and how something looks are one and the same. I don’t expect people to realize that how something works and the experience they get using it are the work of a designer. More likely the aesthetic layer will be seen as the design with the rest being inevitable.

I’m not sure there’s any reason to expect different. I’m sure I hold incorrect perceptions about the true nature of many professions. We all do. There’s only so much any of us can learn about or be interested in. We form quick impressions that we never go back and change.

There will always be those that do see past the look and understand how much more design involves. Perhaps the design community can fight the perception and help more people understand. For the masses though, design and how a thing looks will continue to be seen as the same thing. While I prefer they didn’t, I think it’s perfectly understandable why they do.

Let me leave you with a thought. If most people will equate design with how something looks, it suggests that they search for designed things in large part based on how they look. That doesn’t mean you have to embellish every website with artistic details and flourishes, but it does suggest that how the thing you design looks is important.

Anything you design should consider the tastes of the people most likely to buy what you’re selling. Your aesthetic choices should align as well as possible with what your customers think looks good. If that’s all some see as design, then that’s all they have to choose you over the next designer.

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