updated: April 15th, 2010 / Ross Johnson / 0 Comments

Designing with Intention

Since I have started teaching design I have had to find ways to articulate concepts that I know internally but have never fully fleshed out. Teaching a concept requires that you know how to describe it, but also demonstrate (and sometimes debate) the application of the concept as well. This certainly is the case in design where you have high levels of subjectivity and personal ownership (in the case of the students).

Designing with specific intentions is one of the easiest concepts to nod your head and agree with, while one of the most difficult to put into practice.

Design is Sensory

Design in any situation is a sensory experience, industrial and product design more so than graphic / web. Usability elitists often overlook this important detail, claiming that “If it is easy to use it doesn’t matter what it looks like, just look at Criagslist.” While there is some nugget of truth to that, it ignores the fundamental fact that we experience everything through at least one sense and often through multiple senses. Like it or not the sensory experience of your design matters. In industrial design this means everything from how it looks to how it feels (texture, size, weight, etc…). In web design the visuals are extremely important, it is the primary way in which we experience a website. I won’t go into the theoretical feeling of a keyboard or mouse click…

Because we experience websites in a visual matter, the visuals are extremely important. What many fail to realize is making a site visually stimulating is not effective design.

The Right Visuals

What is important is using the right visuals to make a site stimulating. The example I often give pulls from classical color theory. Color is one of the most effective ways to visually communicate. Look at the use of color in simple traffic lights, green indicates to us that we can go where red tells us that we should stop. Every color that you see has some meaning behind it that you intemperate whether you realize it or not. This also changes from culture to culture as well, white for example is often associated with “purity” in the United States but is a symbol for morning in many Asian cultures.

If you are looking to create a design that has the objective of being high impact you are most likely going to be using bright, vibrant high contrast colors. If your approach in design is simply focusing on making the visuals stimulating then any number of colors would be adequate. Red for example can be bright, vibrant, warm and provides the capability to be high contrast.

You might end up with a visually stimulating design that get’s into all your beloved CSS galleries… only there is one problem. What if you design called for a situation where you were looking to convey a sense of empathy, care and concern? Red is not an appropriate color for empathy. Red is often associated with love, passion, heat, blood, anger… none of these feelings remotely convey the correct message.

The Approach

The point is that when you are designing you should design with extreme intention as to the goal of the project. Every choice in image, color and font should be intentional well beyond the aesthetic value of the component. Yes the design should be pleasing to your senses but in an intentional way.

To compare this to industrial design, there are many times when a nice soft, felt like texture is a nice touch. For example the interior of cars, the cover of a notebook or with furniture. However if your iPod had the same feeling it would seem strange and out of place, disruptive and maybe even offensive. It is not because the texture isn’t pleasing to your senses, it is that it is the wrong approach for that design.

I encourage that on your next project, when you think you are done designing take a step back and evaluate every element of your work for intention. Did you pick the colors, images, textures, type and information with deliberate intention? or did you pick them because it looked nice?