Designers Are Scientists, Not Artists

I run across references of design as art on almost a daily basis. Somewhere down the road, design changed from a predictable approach of creating desired outcomes into an intangible magic trick. More specifically, design became categorized as an art form rather than a science. This isn’t the case however, in fact, web design is closer to engineering than it is artistic expression. Much like an engineer, your design must take into consideration the functionality and technical requirements of the project. For example, ever decision must be considered in the context of reliability, maintainability, page speed, accessibility, platform, etc…

The rebirth of user experience should be proof enough that the websites we create should be shaped by those that use them. Therefor the qualify of a design is directly related to the empathy and understanding the designer has for the user, which can only be achieved through proper research. In this context, design is actually a practice of anthropology, yet another science. I often ask myself, where did this misconception come from? and until recently it puzzled me how the aesthetics of design fit into the “designer scientist” concept. My theory is as follows…

“Artist Designer Myth” Was Born…

From what I gather, the print and advertising industry has primed the way for the “design is art” complex. Early day graphic designers created images using fine art methods, including ink, pencil and paint. You can hardly blame agencies for labeling the designers as “the art department.” Origins aside, the label not only stuck, it spread. Design concepts are classified as “artwork” and I am sure you have heard the title “art director.”

Describing design as art makes little sense for print work and even less for the web. Yet it seems to have transferred over to the new medium. I attribute this to the misconception that web design is an evolution of traditional graphic design. This is in no way the case. Print is a self-evident, one way medium. You interpret what is in front of you and that is about the extent of it. The web is an interactive medium. You use a website to get things done, for enjoyment and for communication. The world would never have become depend on the web if it was just a form of online paper.

How It Affects Designers

The more I read about the subconscious mind and what Malcom Gladwell calls “thin-slicing,” the more apparent it becomes that referring to your work as “art” will, over time, alter your perception of what you are doing. So if you thought of design as a predictable process originally, simply referring to your work and title using the term “art” will subconsciously shift your perceptions towards visual expression.

It sounds harmless, but you are really giving up control of your work. You are essentially attributing the quality of your work to an indescribable skill. That skill may lead you to a great design sometimes, but not others… and ultimately you are at “it’s” mercy. I hope this sounds ludicrous, but suspect many designers operate under this false idea.

The Science of Design

My theory is that design is equal parts anthropology and cognitive science, or the study of people’s behavior and thought. What do you think is going to be more effective, an interface based on an understanding of how people think or one that was based on what looked good to the designer? Obviously the former.

Usability experts have been long aware of cognitive science as a way to predict users thought processes in order to make using something as easy as possible. In this context, cognitive science is used to improve learnability, comprehension and memory. If you understand how people learn, process information and store / organize it then optimizing those qualities becomes a repeatable process (just with different variables).

Few people dispute the importance of psychology when it comes to usability and who would with a title such as “Human Computer Interaction (HCI)?” But aesthetic design is still seen as an art performed by artists. Sites like “The Contrast Rebellion” demonstrate that designers carry a stigma of thoughtless pixel pushers who focus on nothing by visual pleasure. Until recently, I wasn’t sure why aesthetic design was more than art… I just knew.

The Science of Aesthetics

With all the talk about art and subjectivity it is no surprise that design is thought of the way it is. Don’t be fooled, there are scientific reasons we like (or dislike) what we see. While not always easy to predict, much of beauty is a combination of ancient survival mechanisms and human reflection. Meaning, our species evolved into the sophisticated beings we are today because of our ability to avoid danger and gravitate towards opportunity. With out getting into too much detail, designs that include danger signals are considered undesirable. Inversely, designs that communicate safety signals (or opportunity, such as food or shelter) are attractive.

Sound crazy? Consider this example, a very cluttered design mimics an environment that is hard to navigate through and spot potential predators. Walking through a dense forest requires a lot more awareness for danger than an open meadow. Is it a surprise that people gravitate towards open, clean and well-organized designs and avoid cluttered and overwhelming ones?

Much of our behavior still happens on a subconscious level, which is one of the reasons it is so hard to describe why some designs are attractive and others are not. Author Don Normand sites that people will often justify their reactions consciously even when the reaction comes from a subconscious level.

I am not suggesting that conscious thought doesn’t influence your design taste, just less than you may think. Life experiences, culture, gender, personal preferences do shape what design you are drawn too on a conscious level. While more difficult, if you know your users well you can predict their response to specific imagery. By studying the target users (anthropology) and understanding how they think (psychology) you can intentionally use visuals to create specific reactions. In what way does this description sound like art?

Summary: Intention and Purpose

One could argue that there is a science to art as well. You place objects on a page according to rules of visual balance, select colors based on sound principles and use shapes to create specific responses. The difference, in my opinion, lies in purpose and intention. When you design, you are really creating tools. What you make has utility to it, whether it be providing information about a company or the ability to interface with an online product.

Art on the other hand, is a form of emotional expression. The artist who creates the work does so out of self-expression and the purchaser (or appreciator) of the art does so for emotional reasons as well. While it is safe to say all behavior has an emotional component to it, design has a different purpose than art, one that lends itself to creating predictable outcomes for specific people. With artwork, it only matters that some people enjoy it rather than specific people.