Designers are the New Black

Designers are the New Black

Summary: All of a sudden designers are at the center of everyone’s world. Companies thinking about Rich Internet Applications are all trying to woo designers to use their tools. These companies are trying to bridge the gap between programmer and designer and the web will be a much better place for it.


If you haven't seen Pierre Francois talk about the essential ingredients for Web 2.0, then you're missing out. But as with the best humor, there's more than a grain of truth to what he says. In this new world, designers are in vogue and the programmers who build the applications are taking a back burner.

sparkle_box.jpgWhile some may scoff at the notion that designers are taking front and center on the web, the signs are there. Adobe has always coveted the designer crowd, but is even now moving towards making it easier for designers to build code. Kevin Lynch gave the example of the Spry Ajax framework that Adobe just released. Meanwhile Microsoft is busily trying to build out the design tools it offers (see Sparkle) and stated many times that one of the primary goals of WPF is to bring together designers and developers in an unprecedented way. Google aquired exclusive rights to Doug Bowman to shore up the design and usability of their applications. A designer who knows the web and can work with programmers is an invaluable asset right now.

So why the revolution? What happened to the kid who could crank out an application on nothing but dreams and Red Bull? Soccer moms and teenyboppers happened. In case you didn't notice, if you're a techie, no one cares about you any more. The web is social, and the people advertisers like are the soccer moms and the teenyboppers. That demographic won't notice well written code, but they will notice a well designed application.

spry_ajax.jpgRIAs are an extension of this. The future of software is rich, interactive applications delivered over the web - the RIA. If soccer moms are going to use your application, it has to be pretty, it has to be smooth, and a huge emphasis has to be placed on the experience. The IPod wasn't successful because it was the best product technically. It succeeded because it was the most beautiful product. All of the big players, Microsoft, Google, Adobe and Yahoo, realize this and are incorporating that beauty into at least some of their products. The gateway to success in RIAs is going to be the ability of your designer and your programmer to work together. People are used to a certain experience on their computers, and in order to get the mainstream to flock to the web as a platform, you have to make the experience better than what they have now. The web provides that potential, and if you're a technically astute designer, then now is a great time to ask for a raise.

Topic: Apps

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  • Code does matter

    Hey Ryan,
    I totally agree that good design can create a bond between user and application whether or not the application is actually the best or not. The iPod example is right on - For the dollar, it's no where near being the best value or the best player but aesthetically, it's a beautiful device and emotes a feeling from the user. Mission accomplished. I do have to disagree with the comment about the soccer mom not noticing well written code. The patience for a poorly coded application will only last so long. A beautiful RIA that chugs along at a snails pace or takes too many steps to accomplish a task will be dropped and forgotten rather quickly no matter how easy it is on the eyes.
    • Designer/Coder

      I'll buy into that. I think one of the goals that these companies have is making a big portion of the development idiot proof enough that a designer can jump right in and contribute. The Fireworks-to-XAML plugin is one example, and the Spry framework is another. You'll always need a good coder to make the application run, but the mythical Designer/Coder hybrid is going to get a lot more "action".
      • WPF 3D Graphics A Big Deal

        A great application is like a great car: it should look attractive, but also perform solidly. Actually when all is said and done, it is much more important for an application to function well than look good. However, designs are what define applications, and set the tone for what they can do.

        E.g. the 3D stuff in WPF is extremely important. Its impact on software design is almost the difference between seeing a table of numbers vs. seeing a 2D chart. Just like when you have raw numbers, it is hard to grasp the significance of the data; but when you have the same data in 2D chart form, you can understand it very quickly, similar advances in visualizing and manipulating relational data will be made using 3D graphics. (And this has mass applicability.) Not only could engineering ebooks be created that e.g. show in 3D the elements of an atom and how they relate to one another, these ebooks could also allow the user to turn them around on any combination of axes; double click on an element and see an expansion of its constituent parts in 3D, and keep on drilling down all the way down to the smallest subatomic particle. A similar thing could be done in biology where a 3D representation of an animal could be drilled down to its systems, organs, cells, DNA structures, and so on. Therefore students would be able to e.g. study a cell, then step back and see how it relates to adjacent elements within the body; zoom out to see how it relates to the organ in which it resides; or maybe drill down to see its constituent elements. The above would revolutionize science education.

        3D representation of relationships can be applied to just about everything. A financial program e.g. could have a 3D briefcase that represents someone?s portfolio. Someone could double click on the briefcase and see all the investments in the portfolio expand out as 3D icons/elements. The person could keep on drilling down, locate the element he is interested in, and then obtain the information that he is seeking about a particular account. The above would be a whole lot faster and more intuitive than searching through a comparable current day application for the information. I could go on and on, but the 3D capabilities in WPF (and the ease with which developers can take advantage of them) really should lead to significant advances in application design.
        P. Douglas
        • A Whole New Kind of UI

          Great comment as always P. I haven't given this a lot of thought, but I really like where you're taking it. We don't live in a 2D world, and there's no reason why our applications need to be in 2D. 3D is one of those things that can be done badly very easily, so I hope to see some polished 3D examples from WPF. I think that could be very disruptive.
      • Rise of the Devigner

        Great minds think alike Ryan. Not only last week I posted an article exactly on this topic ( or as I like to refer to them 'Devigners'.

        IMHO it's great to see UI designers starting to gain the visibility that they're long overdue for. It's important to make the destinction that UI specialists are not just graphic designers - they specialise in HCI design - enabling more intuitive UI's - and integral part of any successful RIA.

        BTW i'm a big fan of your blog. Keep up the great work :-)
        Matt Voerman
        • Awesome

          Great article Matt, and I like the 'Devigners'. I'm going to steal that :).
  • RE: designers are the new black

    I don't disagree what you, Ryan, or any of what the comment posters have said - Design DOES matter. It mattered in Web 1.0, it mattered in Client/Server, heck, it even mattered in CICS! We just didn't do it very well, that's all.

    The big difference with newer technologies is that there is an opportunity to make better design, when you dedicate resources to it, or, worse, when you don't.

    It seems that since I took up programming (let's just say, some time in the 80's!) that we've been talking about reducing the need for people to actually to the grunt work behind a technical solution - the marginalization of the developer. Now, we've done a better job, mostly with the use of productivity tools, but it appears to me that there are more developers in existence now, than ever - they may be in lower cost areas such as China and India, but that is besides the point.

    Look, you can design and decorate the most beautiful house in the world, but in between, someone has to construct it, and the ability of those involved will determine the integrity of the structure. The same holds true for the code that makes an application run.

    As for "devigners" (Matt, patent that one, quick!), well forgive me for being skeptical, but I see this as being a classic left side / right side of the brian thing. I've met a lot of great designers who have tried hard to move into development, only to see it not work out.

    I'm not saying it's not possible, but a more rational approach would be for management to give equal weight to planning, design, development and testing - I think we could all do a better job in this regard.

    Great blog - keep up the good work - I make it my first read in the morning.