The Modern Digital Designer: How to Stay Ahead in an Evolving Landscape
As Associate Design Director at MCD Partners, Alan Reuter works as team lead on the design end, creating user interface design over a wide array of digital projects ranging from interactive marketing materials to rich digital user experiences. With over 10 years of experience, Alan has had the privilege of working with a number of high-profile clients, such as Discover, PBS, El Rey Network, Hallmark Channel, NBC Universal, Coca-Cola, Facebook, and Siemens.
I’m always snooping around to see what the rest of the design world is up to. Let me say, I’ve never been happier about the health of design in the world today. Companies everywhere see the value in the good design of their products and services, and designers now have a more important and more integrated role in the success of these companies than they did 20 years ago.
However, like any other discipline, design can evolve slowly and before you know it, new paradigms develop. If you aren’t paying attention when that happens, you will fall behind.
The great thing about the internet is how easy it is to get your work out there. A few clicks and a free account are all it takes. But whenever I go on these sites that showcase designs, I’m typically presented with the same issue: a few pages featuring a few screens of a sample project, be it an app or site design, out of context and with no foundation.
While often still beautiful, these images do not tell me anything about the design of it.
Designers are in the business of humanity. Whether it’s a personal project or the design of an interface for a multi-billion dollar company, designers must understand the bigger picture design goal. That said, as design evolves, so, too, do the principles and practices that help a designer achieve these successfully. Trends and tastes come and go. But there’s a few principles that never change, even if the way we approach them evolves.
Here’s three things designers must think about to stay ahead of a constantly evolving field:
1) Your Audience
Here’s the thing about design: regardless of which area of design you choose, it’s always way more than just the visual. A designer is not just creating a visually appealing interface; they are creating a visually appealing interface that is for a product that someone wants or needs to use successfully to accomplish a task on a particular client’s platform. In order to effectively design an interface, you must become the user. What does your user need to accomplish? What must they do to accomplish it as easily as possible? Is your very pretty interface also understandable and allowing them to do that?
When you understand your audience, you better understand the designed product. Solutions to potential roadblocks become clearer, and as a designer you get better at thinking on your feet should such a situation arise.
Say it with me: the internet is for everyone. According to W.H.O., more than one billion people around the world experience some form of disability (about 15% worldwide). Your product must be accessible to all. Accessibility in design is crucial to a successful interface, and grows more important with every passing day.
As a designer, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are your interactive elements (such as Calls to Actions, text links, links inside text blocks, etc.) designed to clearly indicate such? Or have an established pattern that users can easily understand as interaction?
- On the web, do your interactive elements have clear hover and tap states?
- Are your layouts clear? Do they have a clear hierarchy that users can understand has a beginning, middle, and end?
- Does your text, or important graphical elements necessary for understanding, meet the appropriate contrast for legibility by those with color blindness or vision impairment?
Although accessibility does not rest solely on the backs of designers—an entire novel can be written about the entire team’s efforts to meet accessibility standards—it is the designer who provides the backbone of an accessible product. If you consider these important pieces, your design will be miles ahead of your peers, and you’ll reach people who may not have had access to your product prior.
Imagine a print designer for a minute (shouldn’t be hard, 1990s nostalgia is in nowadays). When designing a brochure or magazine, there may be specific things the designer wants that are achieved in the printing process like a particular paper stock or specific spot colors. These are things a print designer must have knowledge of to communicate to the printer more effectively and reduce reprints or corrections. A print designer cannot just send a PDF to the printer and let them figure it out.
Digital is the same thing. Just replace “printer” with “developer”.
In an increasingly digital landscape, all designed products require a system, and everything designed is a living breathing thing. The artboards you mock up in Sketch or Framer or XD or Figma don’t exist frozen in carbonite. They are blueprints for the product that will eventually have a pulse.
I still see lots of designers out there that not only don’t know code, but they almost seem proud of not trying to grasp it. To me, that is a very dangerous train of thought.
Code is not the future. It’s not even the present. It’s the past. It’s the norm. It’s been the norm for well over 25 years now. Everything you make — even the visual identity of a product’s brand — will touch code at some point. Don’t ignore it. Don’t run from it. Add this tool to your toolbox.
Dream big. Try things out. Follow the rules, then break them, then fix them using the rules again. Know your audience, know your product, and make your product universal, and you will always be ahead, no matter how much the design world evolves.