But we’re all designers!

Sooner or later, everyone who works in design hears something along the lines of but we’re all designers – usually from a Project Manager who didn’t agree with the designer and wanted to go in a different direction.

Of course, it’s true. We do all design. Most of us have designed the layout of the furniture in our homes to work for our needs, and we’ve hopefully determined where we want to hang our pictures and artwork. We’ve likely each modified customizable software to better match how we want to use it, and we’ve arrange the apps on our smartphone in a way that allows us to quickly access the ones that we use most often. We’ve each arranged the contents of our desktop (physical and virtual), and decided where to place our coffee cup so that it’s close enough to reach, but not so close that we’re going to easily knock it over.

Everyone designs. But not everyone designs well. Not everyone has the skill to put the pieces together in a way that’s not only useful and usable, but elegant and beautiful as well. Not everyone has the ability to step out of their own perspective to see the world how someone else – the user – will see the world and to design for that world view. Not everyone has the knowledge of how the human body and mind work, and how its quirks influence the way the user interacts with products and designs.

Many years ago, I was working in consumer electronics when blue LEDs became widely available – they were the cool, new thing and everyone wanted to use them. At the time I was working on a DVD player with a project manager who was particularly enamored of them, and he was delighted when our industrial designers added a long, thin blue LED that sat just above the DVD tray door.

This wasn’t our player, but the effect was similar.

DVD Player

The project manager, let’s call him Don, really loved this LED. It was supposed to be lit when the DVD tray was opening or closing or when it was left open. But that wasn’t enough for Don – he also wanted it lit whenever a DVD was playing. It sounds like a pretty good idea, doesn’t it? Unless you know about one of those quirks I mentioned earlier.

This quirk is the Purkinje Shift, and it happens in your eye when you move from bright to dim lighting conditions. In psychological terms, the peak luminance sensitivity of the human eye shifts from long wavelengths to short wavelengths when dark adapted.

In other words, if you have a red light and a blue light of equal brightness, in bright conditions the red light will appear brighter. This is because our eyes are most sensitive to light from the red/orange/yellow end of the spectrum in those conditions. But in low light, we become more sensitive to the blue/green/purple end of the spectrum because our vision shifts from the cones to the rods. The end result is that our perception of the brightness of those two lights flips – in dark conditions the blue light appears brighter than the red.

I explained this phenomenon – this quirk – to Don. Then I asked him to imagine that he had just picked up the hottest new movie release and to guide me through what he does to get set up to watch it. Fortunately, Don was a smart guy, so as soon as he got to “I turn off all the lights” he made the connection that I was (not so subtly) guiding him to.

My point is that being human doesn’t make you an expert on human beings (yes, I’ve heard that one too) and it doesn’t make you a designer – no more than being human makes you a doctor. Yes, you can probably correctly diagnose a common cold, a stomach bug, a headache or something equally innocuous. But when the cold won’t go away, or the stomach bug comes back, or the headaches get worse, what do you do? You go to the experts.

I’ve been in design for nearly 20 years and I’ve seen the results when trained designers aren’t involved in the design of a product. Whatever the device is, even if it looks good (and often it doesn’t), it nearly always has usability issues, it frustrates the user, and it gets tossed aside when a better design – one designed by designers – comes along. 

Carolynn Johnson