Over the past few years, the design industry has seen an uptick in agencies getting acquired by product companies. Firms like Adaptive Path, Smart Design, Hotstudio, Sofa, Lunar and Teehan+Lax are either rapidly being snapped up or involuntarily closing their doors. Peter Merholz, formerly of Adaptive Path and current VP of Global Design for Groupon, explains why agencies are readily taking the buyout offers:
Client’s willingness to buy design from agencies is decreasing, and project budgets have been shrinking. And the prevailing theory is that this is happening because companies are building in-house teams, and that’s where their 'design budgets' are going.
Now every tech company is offering designers 50-100% more in salary than what design agencies can swing. In the past, agencies could say, “Yes, but we respect and value design in the way that in-house companies don’t, and you’ll get to work on a range of things, instead of just one thing over and over.” That doesn’t hold true anymore, and most of the interesting design work is emerging in-house, and designers want to be where the action is. And get paid better to boot.
It is not just that consultancies cannot keep up with product companies when it comes to compensation and work variety. Jon Lay of Hanno notes that morale often suffers at agencies whose prospects are no longer as lucrative as they had been in years past:
You don’t have to talk to many people inside these big agencies to get a sense of the disillusionment that many of them feel, and their pessimism about the lifestyle and quality of work that’s being produced. I’ve heard many great designers whose passion for the job, and determination to do great design, has been gradually eroded by the companies they’ve been working for.
This is not to say that UX consultancies will immediately crash and burn, but agencies are increasingly acknowledging that they will need to adapt to a new climate with fewer of the prospects they had previously enjoyed. What remains to be seen is whether agencies can compete with product companies in attracting and retaining enough design talent to stay afloat.
Industrial designer George Nelson once claimed, “designers get the clients they deserve”. Teehan + Lax had a similar principle: "There is no magic to this business. If you do good work, you get good work."
One wonders if the agencies so rapidly exiting their chosen market of client services would agree that they got what they deserved. Ostensibly they started their design practices to work with clients and not get acquired or bought out.
Prospects for Product Companies
With agencies reported to be bleeding design talent to product companies, one might assume that this newfound demand would lead to a seller's market for practitioners. Unfortunately the situation is not particularly promising even at the high end of product companies. Despite massive budgets and a hunger for talent, there are staggeringly few designers employed in even those large product companies revered for their focus on design.
At Google, which unveiled a massive rebrand in the form of Material Design, there are only between 500 and 1000 designers, compared to a staggering 24,000 engineers. Apple employs a fraction as many designers as Google, with a team of only 100. While these estimates are rough, they do not paint a pretty picture.
When companies claim they want to hire 'rockstar' and 'ninja' designers, they are not joking. Employers today expect recruits to be come out of the gate as full stack employees. According to UXmatters, "The trend is to bring superstars like Luke Wroblewski or Jean-Marc Denis in house."
The very format of the internet may well contribute to this phenomenon. As internet theorist Andrew Keen argues, "There are just certain structural qualities that mean the internet lends itself to monopolies." Visual design's consolidation could be clearly seen on Dribbble, launched in 2009. Dribbble was unwittingly structured so that, outside of a few exceptions, established players who joined early by invitation were essentially guaranteed success regardless of skill or effort. Add to that the culling of the flat design movement and the middle of the visual design economy has been effectively wiped out. The irony is that Dribbble is itself now a graveyard for UI design excepting those with a cult of personality following.
Many in the field appear to believe that as design is increasingly commodified, practitioners must treat competition as a zero sum game, using any means necessary to ensure their survival.
Professional protectionists see their work as devalued by those they perceive to be lesser than themselves. Yet there is not much they can practically do to stop new entrants from taking on the title 'designer' or 'UX designer.'
Unfortunately for protectionists, employers increasingly ignore credentials and portfolios and rely instead on nepotism through personal contacts. To the chagrin of protectionists, design is unlike the medical or law industries: there is no system of certification or licensing to restrict competition.
The approach that opportunists take to instill legitimacy in their own work is to denounce and denigrate the field of visual design. Thus we see factions emerge in an attempt to dampen the effects of domestic competition, automation and outsourcing.
One segment of the field of software design that has a particular tendency to engage in this kind of professional infighting is UX designers.
Does User Experience Exist?
In recent years, user experience consultancies have received strong criticism going so far as to question whether the practice of UX even exists. In 2008, Zurb published an article entitled User Experience Design Does Not Exist, arguing that UX designers “need to stop thinking that they're creating experiences. They're allowing them to unfold with sound design decisions.”
More recently in late 2014, Peter Merholz wrote "There is no such thing as UX Design." He explained:
User experience is an emergent property of an entire organization, not just one group. When user experience is so closely associated with design, it allows non-designers to feel like user experience isn’t their responsibility.
Self-described 'UX designers' and practitioners tend to focus on anything from quality assurance, user research, usability testing, documentation writing, wireframe production, content strategy, user flow production, information architecture and more.
'UX' is in this way an incredibly difficult term to grasp because it is so vague so as to not convey much of anything about what sort of work a UX practitioner engages in. The value of the skills and processes UX designers engage in are clear, they just suffer from an umbrella term that is not particularly communicative.
The truth is that user experience absolutely exists. It is the result of the design process, the quality of interaction that a user has with product or service. The problem is that the user's experience is inherently ephemeral. For UX to have any meaning as a job title, it requires a qualifier like the 'designer' in 'UX designer.'
Scorched Earth UX
Instead of responding to the clear opportunity to improve the public image of user experience, UX designers have opted for a scorched earth approach.
On an episode of The Web Ahead, Andy Budd, UX Design Partner at Clearleft argued that there were too many visual designers claiming themselves to be 'UX Designers':
This is a trend I'm seeing. I'm seeing a lot of people misunderstand the term [UX] and go, 'I design websites and build them. Obviously people experience that, so I must be a user experience designer.' Well, no…What I dislike is people giving themselves titles that don't accurately reflect what they do.
Budd is not alone in the UX community in wanting to prevent visual and UI designers from using UX in their title. Take for instance Paul Boag, a fellow UX consultant. Boag begins his article Could You Really Be a UX Designer? by making a distinction between "UX vs. UI":
So you think you are a user experience designer? Are you sure? You might have it in your job title, but are you somebody who designs experiences for users? Or do you design user interfaces?…many people claim to design experiences, when they are actually designing a user interface.
Boag proceeds to condescendingly tell UI designers to "adjust your attitude. The first step to becoming a user experience designer is a change in attitude." For Boag, "You see, user experience design is about collaborating with others to create the best user experience." And creating the best user experience is clearly not what UI designers do in Boag's estimation.
UX industry veteran Mike Atherton explained his frustration:
It irks me that relatively inexperienced interaction designers are charging premium rates, not nearly as much as it incenses me that sophomore interaction designers are being packaged and sold as UX rockstar thought-leaders.
UX coach Whitney Hess explained,
Unfortunately the designation isn’t as clear cut as a doctor or a lawyer. Most professions are certified and regulated, so you don’t see impostor behavior often — and when you do, it’s typically in the form of a news article about someone going to jail for fraud.
Perhaps Hess would like to see more UI designers put in jail for defrauding their clients and employers by labeling themselves 'UX designers.'
UX is not UI
Erik Flowers, Principal UX Designer at Intuit and self-described experience design "zealot," decided to take matters into his own hands. Seeking to banish 'UI' from the umbrella term 'UX,' Flowers instituted UX is not UI.
It would be one thing if Flowers had made his primary slogan 'UX is not only UI' instead of the reductive “UX is not UI.” Flowers' intentions are made clear when he argues 'design' should be removed from the term 'UX design.' He explains his thinking:
Many UX designers have started to re-label themselves as UX Architects, UX Engineers, or UX Strategists. Some have even dropped the word “user” altogether and just go by Experience Architect/Engineer/Strategist. I think this is partially to help keep them from being marginalized as only interface designers.
For Flowers, this marginalization of UI designers can only be seen as a good thing, a sign that his mission has been successful. Flowers subsequently made a website entirely dedicated to sustaining this marginalization of UI design.
Another site, UX Movement, has gone so far as to make a t-shirt to distance themselves from visual UI design. They encourage UX designers to purchase and wear the UX ≠ UI shirt to proudly isolate themselves from UI designers. In their diagram, UX designers take care of the important roles, like ensuring user satisfaction, analyzing data, site mapping, doing user testing, sketching and prototyping, while UI designers take care of what they portray as trivial responsibilities like visual design and making "action buttons."
What is most absurd about the UX is not UI movement is that UI designers take part in many of the same responsibilities that UX practitioners do. Even if the specializations only partly overlap in responsibilities, the assertion that visual UI design is not UX design is patently false. The visceral user experience of software is its visual design. Perhaps this points to the exact problem that UX practitioners have with UI design: in the eyes of users, UI takes center stage by definition.
It is not just UX practitioners who desire to denigrate visual designers by claiming they do not care about user experience. For Michael Simmons, the prominent iOS developer of Fantastical, castigating visual designers made perfect sense: "I argue that if you’re relying on a visual to tell what’s going on, that’s why iOS 7 was made. You shouldn’t rely on visuals to tell people what’s going on, it should be clear what’s going on." One wonders if Simmons is referring to Siri and would like to see the iPhone touchscreen removed in favor of an audio-only operating system.
Simmons continued, "I think that’s why people hated iOS 7 at the time it was unveiled." Critics of the platform "bugged me so much it frustrated me…well it told me that these people don’t care about the user experience. They care about maybe the visual experience or the impression they give you." Simmons here refuses to believe that graphic elements could play a part in the user experience.
Unlike developers and self-described UX designers whose work is experienced indirectly, the output of UI designers and content producers is experienced quite directly. Given this fact of life, one can understand the dilemma of the UX practitioner. They perform an incredibly valuable role, but have thus far had difficulty communicating that to the larger world, for whom UX is an obscure term. What is unfortunate is the way that many UX practitioners have chosen to react to the situation.
From my perspective, if UX suffers due to a lapse in the practice of information architecture, then one should improve IA. If performance is insufficient, then allocate more attention to that issue. It should not be necessary that in order to fix these issues protectionists should have to disparage visual UI design. Every practitioner who contributes to the ultimate user experience should recognize the value that related specialties bring to the table.
Bullshit Jobs and Automation
It is said that 'bullshit jobs' are those that provide only marginal economic value and probably would be better done by robots. It is commonly thought that if robots, or in the short term, a programmer's software could eat one's job, that makes it a bullshit job. If we define bullshit jobs to be 'those that can be automated' then most probably all human jobs are 'bullshit.' Of course that is a ridiculous definition.
Many see visual design as one of these bullshit jobs prime for automating. Consider how Jeffrey Zeldman described the dimensional design of yesteryear: "Part of me really misses the dumb way we used to do this…I look at the first stuff I did. You’d apply 17 coats of bullshit to it. 7 bevels and 8 glows.”
Similar to tools like The Grid which promise to automate visual design, the fields of architectural and industrial design are experiencing challenges in the form of automation. According to Shaunacy Ferro of FastCo., in these fields, "algorithms are the next star designers."
Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski explains:
In the past couple of years, we have experienced such an explosion of computing power that we can completely change the design equation…Rather than using software to draw and analyze a designer’s vision, Autodesk wants to use that computing power to generate the idea itself—by running through a nearly infinite number of ways to build the same product…This applies to buildings, bridges, automotive parts—everything we do where we have to draw things."
Architect Rem Koolhaas illustrates how the threats of technological determinism are pushing out architects:
Architects first embraced digital technology in response to the apparent virtuosity of digital manufacturing. In the face of constantly increasing economic and governmental pressure for standardization, which threatens to flatten the architect’s range…The tech world’s gradual colonization of architecture is taking place without the collaboration of its host. As technology triumphs, architecture is simply left behind…the commercial motivation behind the relentless pursuit of efficiency and optimization has the perverse effect of impoverishing the very entity it is supposed to serve.
In a review of Koolhaas' exhibition, Architect Magazine explains:
Yet, as Koolhaas says, “the architectural community hasn’t given it much thought that each element will be profoundly influenced by its connection to the digital world.” As such, architects look destined to repeat history—a history driven by technological developments rather than architects.
It is easy to notice the similarities between what Koolhaas describes as the 'flattening' of architecture and the dominance of flat design in user interfaces enabled by an adherence to otherwise unrelated responsive design techniques.
If we accept the aforementioned definition of 'bullshit jobs,' then the fact that architectural and industrial designers are experiencing the early shocks of automation means they must also be bullshitters. On the other hand, I am sure designers like Apple's Jony Ive and Marc Newson would beg to differ. The difference is that unlike in visual design, architects and industrial designers are not so shortsighted as to disparage their own fields.
Assigning One's Own Obsolescence
Thus far I have not sufficiently explained the seemingly inexplicable phenomenon of visual designers ridiculing visual design and embracing modern minimalism. The truth is that this self-deprecation serves a purpose. It operates as a perverse form of status-striving. By putting down the easy targets of visual design and aesthetics, practitioners in visual design and related fields can elevate themselves in the short term in order to fend off accusations of obsolescence and wasteful decadence.
This self-deprecatory status-striving has gotten to the point that icon designers now find value in arguing that users no longer have a need for icon design. This is evidenced by the esteemed designer Denis Sazhin of Iconka fantasizing about a day in the future when icons are no longer in use:
Icons in computers and information systems would cease in favor of advance [sic] interactive interfaces. We won't launch a Camera app but will just take a picture. We won't launch Maps app but will just ask 'where the hell am I?'…I still hope to witness the end of it, because I truly believe the function itself has become obsolete.
I polled some fellow designers, asking them to name another industry in which practitioners were publicly excited by prospect of their industry's death. Nick Lockwood, an iOS developer, responded that software engineering might be one example: "a good proportion of the industry is devoted to writing solutions to let ordinary people make apps without programming."
This is true, but many of these solutions are less about making programming easy for the layperson, and more about making programming slightly easier for programmers. In the programming industry, there is clearly a constant drive to make programming more accessible. But unlike design, there isn't a belief that the field would be better without coders. And certainly no one is arguing that the work done by programmers is trivial—if anything, we see the opposite. Everyone is encouraged to be sophisticated about code, even the President of the United States.
The reason so much of the visual design community immediately hops on the bandwagon claiming that tools that automate design 'are not threats' is as a way of posturing. In this way they falsely and defensively boast that they are part of an elite group, excellent enough that the newest forms of automation are not a threat, quite unlike those designers focused on trivial problems who deserve to be made obsolete. When practitioners say they look forward to the day that their industry is made obsolete, they only temporarily mask the sheer terror of being redundant.
The current low status of visual designers compared to their engineering counterparts is due to the design community's failure to inform the industry of their crucial role in product design. But more than that, it is due to the collective abdication of principles by visual design practitioners themselves. Take Damian Madray, the Founder of design critique website Hunie Co. who said "We need to stop asking for portfolios because design is moving towards 'thinking' not 'visuals.'" This is of course assuming that 'thinking' and 'visuals' are two obviously distinct categories.
Lo Min Ming, the cofounder of Pixelapse, a visual version control platform for designers, had this to say about the role of visual design, "Visual designers are not concerned with how screens link to each other, nor how someone interacts with the product." This is an incredibly reductive understanding of visual design, especially coming from the cofounder and creator of a visual design tool. On the other hand, Pixelapse is in quite good company on that front.
Regardless, what is made abundantly clear on Pixelapse's website is that drawing coherent illustrations was not a business need for their company. This must be true more broadly, because Dropbox themselves acquired Pixelapse even though they could not competently draw a box.
Another reason that many disparage visual design is that there is real incentive to distancing oneself from it. Many rightly realize that the quickest way to guarantee not getting respect is if their job title includes the word "creative." Thus there is a compensatory advantage to marginalizing visual design and thus proving one's dedication to doing the 'real work.' Daniel Burka of Google Ventures found "Even among designers of similar seniority, there is marked difference in compensation for UX Design, UI Design, and Visual Design," with salaries tending to descend in that order.
Paul Rand once claimed "A bad design is irrelevant, superficial…basically like all the stuff you see out there today." In the years since, he has not been alone in promoting this sentiment. In the introduction to Humanist Interface, I note that designers at prominent companies like Apple, Amazon, and Facebook argue that design used to be a trivial coat of paint.
Since that writing, Facebook's Director of Product Design, Maria Guidice chided designers who "like to make things pretty, a term I like to refer to as 'aesthetic masturbation.'" Today we are told we can rest assured that visual design is no longer so vacuous and superficial, due to the advent of flat design.
I take a different stance. 'Pure veneer' is not an insult in my book. Quite the opposite, it is the very definition of visual design. Thinking visual design is anything but superficial not only requires a profound level of ignorance, but it indicates an incredibly limited view of what visual communication can accomplish.
These rationalizations by newly turned modern minimalists are incredibly telling. If prominent practitioners are being honest with us in claiming that visual design was plagued by harmful decoration only up until the advent of flat design, then they are admitting that for years, for the history of the GUI, and perhaps even the entire history of design itself, designers have been putting on a sham project in order to dupe corporations.
Worse still, claims of visual design's insignificance tell us that design leaders never took their craft seriously. It truly undermines their credibility that it took the arrival of flat design for them to treat the entire spectrum of roles in product design with respect. Of course, as soon as that happened, they graduated from respecting traditional interface design principles.
This so-called 'maturation' in the vast majority of the design industry is in this way a major indictment of the professional history of these practitioners. If anyone should be condemned, it should not be those accused of the crime of visual design, but those practitioners who treat their job as frivolous.
Perhaps the design world breeds a form of narcissism due to its nature as a winner-take-all economy. That would explain the logic of this race to the bottom in which designers feel compelled to attack their craft before others assume they are 'bullshitters' too. In the words of Dr. Sam Vaknin:
By pre-empting society’s punitive measures and by self-flagellating, the narcissist is actually saying: 'If I am to suffer unjustly, it will be only by my own hand and no one else's.'
It is this masochistic status-striving that I find so ugly in this industry. That he who discredits his own craft is the most pious. That the most respected designer is the one who disowns beauty. This perpetual need to be the first to assign irrelevancy to one's own professional practice is the true impetus behind much of the puritanism of modern minimalist avant gardism.