Teacher Response to Homework #4: Level Up (On the Layers of Design)

Business Keeping

Grades on Canvas.

Design is more than just the visual

It is important to understand levels of a system you’re working in because everything connects to a larger whole. You need to consider your object, interface, location, structure, system, and ecosystem. When you know what level you are working with you can zoom in to the appropriate level of detail. This affects the entire system as one tiny decision leads to another and another and so on. A controlled vocabulary is an organized list of terms, phrases, and concepts intended to help someone navigate a specific context. This allows you to define terms and concepts that align and misalign with you intent. – Katherine

If you’ve gotten nothing else from this class, I hope you’ve learned that there are lots of different elements of design. Design is not just the graphics in an information product. It’s the look and feel. It’s how the product functions. It’s a part of everything.

When Abby Covert talks about the “levels” of a system, she’s really talking about how all the different parts move together. Designers have a hand in many aspects of those, including:

  • Design of objects users interact with such as buttons and icons
  • Design of branding elements such as color schemes, logos, and typography
  • Design of information such as user guidelines, content, and callout features
  • Design of documentation such as reports, style guides, newsletters
  • Design of marketing materials such as blogs, social media posts, and infographics

There are so many types of designers nowadays that designers are specializing, which is great. It shows how mature design is becoming. I’m sure many of you could pick one or more of the above types of design to become proficient in.

Best practices + user needs = good design

This is essential to an organization because it is what keeps customers coming back. A branding strategy provides the customers with a purpose for the product, which can help with advertisement, consistency which makes your customer comfortable with know the product the love will not be altered and will remain at the same standard of high quality they hold it at. Flexibility is something that brand strategy provides. If a company is not able to make their product change with the times, but not loose it’s consistency that will keep you customers coming back. All of these branding strategies enable a company to keep customers happy, coming back, and enable their products to stand the test of time. They get better with time and adapt to keep the customers happy. – Vholanda

At the end of the day, all the best practices in the world can’t compare to usability or how easy it is for someone to actually use the product you’re designing. Design must always cater to users, then. And the field that deals with that is UX.

I usually teach my UX course every couple years. If it doesn’t line up with your schedule and you’re curious about that side of things, feel free to check out what I’ve done in the past:  http://www.guiseppegetto.com/engl7766ux/

The other side of this equation, however, is that you don’t want to deliver a crappy design just because that’s what users ask for. Users are often terrible at articulating what a design should do. Don’t ask them about that. Or if you do, know that you’re learning more about them then you are about good design. Ask users for what they need. That’s what you really need to know from them: what are they trying to accomplish? Then design the product that meets that need.

Teacher Response to Module #3: Design Is Just One Small, Important Part

Business Keeping

Grades and individual feedback on Canvas. Be sure to check for feedback from your “client.” (See below).

Congrats, you’re a designer! (sort of)

So, at this point I get excited because I see you actually applying the principles you’ve learned. So, by default: you’re now all designers! You know how to apply good design principles when working on a project.

At the same time, if you want to be a full-fledged graphic designer, web designer, etc., someone who does the visual design all day long, you’ve got years of work ahead of you. I don’t call myself a designer for that reason. I have designed many things, but I can’t just take a concept from start to finish and make something like this website my side business designed for a local printing company: http://morganprinters.com/

This is just to say: if you want to be a graphic designer or web designer, you’ll need to invest serious hours to get to the level in which you can create designs of sufficient quality to actually get paid to do it.

But, you know some of the most important stuff

Again, the most important thing I want you to get from this class is not necessarily skills, but a mindset. You now have a lot of knowledge at your disposal.

  • You’ve got one of the best design books I’ve found in 8+ years of paying attention to this field.
  • You understand something about information architecture, one of the most neglected components of any kind of information medium.
  • You understand how to take a crappy design and improve it, even if only marginally

The other skills necessary for being something like a web or graphic designer are all learnable. This mindset, in my experience of working with lots of people who can make pretty things, is much harder to come by.

If you take nothing else from this class, remember that design is not just about making things pretty. It’s about making things useful to real, live people.

What to do with your “client”

So, as I mentioned in my last post, I will be playing the role of your fictional client in these last few modules. So, you’ll get a response from me, your teacher, and a separate response from me as your client.

As you will quickly learn: your client does not know jack about design. They are vaguely unsatisfied, but you’re not sure why.

Some tips for dealing with them:

  1. At any time, you can ask them questions. In fact, you are encouraged to. Be specific. Quote their responses and ask them specific follow-ups. Give them specific choices to make. Just email me directly with your questions and I’ll get you in touch with them ;-).
  2. Treat them as you would a confused child. You don’t explain to a child the full sociological ramifications of why they can’t have a cookie after brushing their teeth. You give them alternatives. What you could do is have a nice story, instead.
  3. At the same time, avoid being condescending. Explain principles. Explain why it’s a good idea to do X or Y. They may still argue with you. How much you cave to their demands is part of the art of working with clients ;-).
  4. And don’t forget to focus on the other research you’ve done! One of the best arguments why you’re doing something is: because look at all these competitors that are doing it better than you currently are, client!

If you do all this, your final response from your client (in response to your final draft of your final project) will be somewhat more satisfied. (Clients are never fully satisfied).

The Word of the Day Is “Content Chunking”: Final Steps for Module #3

Real Talk Time: Clients Suck 🙂 😕

So, I can’t launch you into the real world (TM) as information designers without letting you in on a little secret every one of us who has worked with clients for years knows: they suck. They don’t mean to, but they do. Largely this is because they don’t know what they want until they see it. So there’s a fair amount of stumbling around in the dark.

This process is only slightly exaggerated by this Oatmeal comic. Go read it: https://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell. I’ll wait.

In case you didn’t notice, those little asterisks indicate that this is based on real. clients. the. creator. of. the. Oatmeal. has. had. Yeah.

To sum up the problem with clients, it’s this:

  1. They do not know what they want
  2. They expect you, the designer, to tell them what they want
  3. You cannot tell them what they want; they won’t believe you
  4. You must show them something that you can discuss
  5. This something must slowly iterate into the thing they want
  6. Sometimes this process is next to impossible because the client doesn’t understand best practices
  7. Successful projects get done because the client eventually suspends their disbelief enough to let the project get done

To Make Clients Suck Less: Prototype Early and Often

In order to make this process go as smoothly as possible (*whispers: it never willlll), you need to show the principles you’re talking about in increasingly high-fidelity prototypes. The final “prototype” will be the thing that gets launched. The only difference between a prototype and a product is that the former has been approved for delivery 😉

Your First Prototype Is Simply Chunking Information

The biggest squabbles I’ve had with clients involves what I’ve started calling in my advancing years (based on someone I can’t remember): chunking information. Basically, all information is organized within an information product by groupings. Big/small. Left/right. Border/no border. Focal point/background. These are all chunks of information.

So, the most important thing your current prototype should do is show how information will be chunked. As you revise your prototypes for Wednesday, think about the following:

  1. Can you logically explain why all information is where you’ve put it in the prototype?
  2. Are there areas that you’re not sure about?
  3. Are there any radical departures that the client just wouldn’t understand?
  4. Are all your *must-have* bases covered (i.e., the worst thing about your information product is X, so I’m doing Y to fix that)?

These are the things I want you to focus on for this module.

Why, you may ask? Because I’m going to play the role of a bad client when I review your prototypes, lololol. I’m going to act like a client who doesn’t like what they see… so you have that experience.

You will also learn from this that all the design choices you’ve made including: font, color, proximity, alignment, even your precious content chunks, have to be negotiated carefully with the client.

So, I’ll be acting like clients have acted towards me in the 10+ years I’ve been working with them. But from this, you’ll learn how to adapt your design to the needs of another human being, which is probably one of the most important things I can teach you in this class.

To Complete This Project (Suggested Workflow)

5) 3/29/21 by Midnight ET >>

Revise all your documents and hand them in. The point of receiving feedback from your peers, and also from myself, is to help you improve your writing. This process will be negated if the draft you submit to the course website is the same as the draft you hand in as your final. Revise, revise, revise.

  • Cover Letter and a final draft of your Single Page Prototype are due to Canvas by Midnight ET

Teacher Response to Homework #3: Info Arch Your Content

Business Keeping

Grades on Canvas.

Content strategy and info architecture are misunderstood… and very profitable

Think about it: the Web is still primarily textual information. It needs to be organized, edited, channelled, delivered. This is very hard work that few people are suited for. How much bad, poorly organized content do you experience online on a daily basis? How much of it is useful to you? How much of it is what you were looking for when you searched for it or clicked on its headline?

According to the “Complete Beginners Guide to Information Architecture,” the scope of practice of an information architect is someone that helps others “understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for, in the real world as well as online”. Information architects are often some mixture of designer and content strategist. Generally, an information architect provides “research, navigation creation, wireframing, labeling, and data modeling” for the organization they’re working for. – Meghan

This is a golden age for writers, in other words: people who understand written content and its importance for users of all kinds. There’s a reason that an entire institute was recently formed on this subject: http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/. Even marketers now have to be good writers.

Mental model: When you subconsciously reference part of a large internal map of what you know. Other people can’t see the map as it only exists in your head. When we face a problem, we reference our mental model. We try to organize the aspects and complexities of what we see into recognizable patterns. Our ongoing experiences change our mental models. Objects allow us to compare our mental models with each other. – Sarah

This is also good news for us, the humanities majors! We were all born and raised on the written word. Designers are a dime a dozen nowadays, largely because of the prevalence of open source Content Management Systems like WordPress (which currently accounts for a whopping 35% of all registered web domains). These technologies are making it increasingly hard to sell your ability simply to make one website. Why pay someone to do that, when you can buy an entire CMS that allows you to make unlimited websites… for nothing?

Being a “web designer” now means being a developer which is something else entirely. Gone are the days when you could get by knowing HTML and CSS. Now you need to be a programmer. You have to master boolean logic, which, let me tell you: is tough.

But no one has yet created a content engine capable of replacing human writers. They’ve tried, but failed. Which is probably why fields like technical communication, UX, and content strategy are set to grow by leaps and bounds over the next decade or so. The needs for humanities-style thinking isn’t going away, despite what every pundit who has access to a microphone is saying. We just don’t understand where to send our graduates for jobs or what to call our majors (though TPC is a pretty good name ;-).

Teacher Response to Module #2: You’re Getting It

Business Keeping

Grades on Canvas. Check there for individual feedback as well.

Key learning from this module

Design Critique =

+ Criteria for evaluating what good design is for a specific type of information product

+ Identification of competitor products in the same marketplace

+ Systematic application of criteria to both competitors and any existing drafts of information product

Design thinking is the most important element of design

I am not a designer. Not in the sense most people use the term: as someone who can easily create high-fidelity visual artifacts like logos, icons, and websites. At the same time, I am a designer because I know how to apply design principles to a large range of deliverables.

This knowledge has helped me build a career, both as a college professor and as a consultant. The lesson is: you don’t have to be a graphic designer to be a designer.

There is no one right way to do design, but there are many wrong ways

The thing that makes design very hard is that there are lots of different approaches to effective design. Design is a fundamentally creative activity and therefore it is difficult to create fixed, immutable criteria for assessing it. To complicate matters further, design aesthetics, especially in the age of the World Wide Web, change quickly and what was considered good design just a few years ago is now considered outdated.

At the same time, you want to approach design as a kind of “minimum viable” discipline. When faced with a design challenge, instead of asking yourself what the one right way is to approach it, start by critiquing what’s wrong and improve from there. That’s the power of a design critique: if you systematically identify what’s wrong, you can fix it.

OMG, This Is… In Need of Improvement, LOL: Final Steps for Module #2

Try to Be Objective and Educational

Doing an audit of a client’s information product is always nerve-wracking. In the real world, you’re essentially getting paid to critique someone. And it’s hard to judge how attached they are to the current design.

That’s why you should strive to be as objective and educational in your tone as possible:

Sans serif fonts, or fonts without extended features at the end of the letter strokes, are more readable on a computer screen than serif fonts, or fonts with extensions on the letter strokes. Most readers of the MHC CC newsletter view the newsletter as email on their computer screens. The current newsletter uses a serif font, perhaps Times New Roman. Use of a sans serif font, such as Helvetica, Verdana, or Arial, would enhance the readability of the material. The size of the font can also be increased to improve readability.

See how this writer explains not only the objective criteria by which the design is being judged (in this case, readability), but also explains why that criteria is important? Yeah: do that.

Be Sure to Use Examples (Screenshots) From Your Comparators to Illustrate Good Design Principles

At the same time, a picture, as they say, is worth some words. People unfamiliar with design are a lot more likely to be persuaded by your audit if you use screenshots of your comparators to illustrate effectiveness, like this designer did:

An example screenshot from a student paper

Be sure that for each aspect of design you audited you include a screenshot of the primary product, a screenshot of at least one comparator, and compare/contrast the two.

Think of this like an essay: the screenshots are the evidence for your claims. Just saying something is effect/ineffective is not as sound an argument as demonstrating that through actual design examples culled from the real world.

What’s Due by Friday

4) 3/5/21 by Midnight ET >>

Revise all your documents and hand them in. The point of receiving feedback from your peers, and also from myself, is to help you improve your writing. This process will be negated if the draft you submit to the course website is the same as the draft you hand in as your final. Revise, revise, revise.

  • Cover Letter and a final draft of your Design Critique and Competitive Analysis are due to Canvas by Midnight ET

Teacher Response to Module #1: Make a Brief Brief

Business Keeping

Grades on Canvas, as per the norm. You also receive individualized feedback on modules, however, so be sure to check for that.

Key learning from this module

Design brief =

design problems

+ objectives

+ stakeholder goals

+ awareness of competitors

Hint: planning is for clients and stakeholders 😉

Having taught design for many years now, I often get a version of “but, why do we have to create a project plan? Can’t we just start designing?”

The answer to this question is that: if you are the only designer and you are designing only for yourself, then yes.

A design brief, like any project plan, is a contract between you and other people: other designers, writers, clients, bosses, etc. It’s a communication deliverable that allows people to set collective goals for a design project.

Without one, you run a great risk of designing in a direction that serves no one but yourself. So, while they may feel like extra work in a classroom setting, they are an essential component of every design project in the real world.

Teacher Response to Homework #2: Design Is Thinking

Business Keeping

Grades on Canvas, as always.

What Is Design? It’s Thinking

Design thinking is the human centered approach to innovation. This way of thinking is often used to solve a problem creatively and formulate ideas. Design thinking puts together a human viewpoint to what can make things in our life more successful or useful. The three components of design thinking are: desirability, feasibility and viability. – Heather

A lot of people think that design is simply making visual deliverables. Designers make things like logos, icons, and other artifacts. They can have a conversation with someone and instantly translate that conversation into a beautiful, great-looking design.

In reality, good designers need to be able to do a lot more than making pretty things. They need to be able to:

  • Collaborate with other kinds of professionals like content strategists, technical communicators and ux designers
  • Translate complex business and user goals into appropriate artifacts ranging from rough sketches to ready-to-launch prototypes
  • Work through complex problems by producing a wide variety of deliverables that respond to various intermediate steps in a design process, including getting team members on the same page and critiquing previous designs

This is why the term “design thinking” is probably one of the best descriptors for what a good design process should do: it should deliver a usable product to a human being that takes into account the context in which that human being will be using the product.

Critique Ensures Quality

A design critique is meant to assess something that already exists, versus coming up with ideas for a possible something. Normally a design critique consists of 3-7 people and is meant to discuss sketches/prototypes. It is essentially a meeting that provides constructive criticism that the creator will use for improvement. Some goals for the design critique are to obtain feedback for design approaches for a website, compare different components of the same product, discuss flow of a design though screen sequence, explore design of competing products, and allow teammates with different jobs to give feedback. It allows for the design team to all come to the same page on a project, ask questions, give thoughts/ideas, receive constructive criticism, discuss problems, and work together. – Emily

Another thing that people misunderstand about design is the purpose of doing design critiques. The way to understand design critiques is the way design used to happen:

  • Create an idea
  • Design a product around an idea
  • Deploy product
  • Maybe usability test
  • Update product if needed

This very linear and design-centric process often failed for obvious reasons: users of the product weren’t included until the end.

Enter user-centered design processes that look more like this:

  • Do stakeholder interviews about what problems they’re trying to solve
  • Create a prototype
  • Test the prototype
  • Refine the prototype
  • Repeat as needed until user goals and business goals align
  • Deploy product
  • Continue to refine as needed

These processes require a different method of design, a method that looks a lot more like design thinking. So, between the steps of a user-centered design process, the following is happening in some form:

  • Do stakeholder interviews about what problems they’re trying to solve
  • Do competitor analysis of other designs
  • Create a prototype
  • Design critique of prototype
  • Test the prototype
  • Design critique of prototype
  • Refine the prototype
  • Repeat as needed until user goals and business goals align
  • Design critique of prototype at each iteration
  • Deploy product
  • Continue to refine as needed
  • Design critique as user goals and/or business goals change

So, design critiques are what teams do as they’re working on projects to ensure that the product is iterating in the right direction.

Another context for design critiques is when they are done with users. Sometimes it’s the right move to put a design in front of users and let them critique it. What you learn from this is not specific things you should change, however, but how users perceive the product in a very qualitative way.

The larger point, however, is that all good designs are carefully vetted by designers, and often by more than one designer, before they are ever deployed. This ensures that the design meets minimum quality standards and that issues brought up in past iterations have been dealt with.