The blurring distinction between graphic design and software development
Since we released the beta versions of Patapage and BugsVoice, I keep receiving enquiries about the graphic design of these applications and their web sites. People ask me “who designed the graphics?”.
Actually, the answer is everyone in Open Lab, and specifically no one. I always found a bit simplistic the idea that the “developer” creates applications by programming, and when the app is working and almost done, he/she asks a designer to create some graphics for it. In this line of reasoning there is a family resemblance with the idea “I first create an application and then market it.”, which I find deeply wrong – but this is another topic. If you are developing web applications aimed at wide markets, design and application development integrate one another at every development step. And this is how we create and design applications in Open Lab.
Like when we have to create a logo, the internal designers, who are also developers, propose candidates in a meeting to which the entire software house takes part; not only design and application integration are considered, but also marketing must be taken into consideration when evaluating design solutions.
Interface design and graphic design are different concepts, but are also related: a usable interface must be pleasant, not confusing, and both skills must be used to get a good result. Today’s users expect applications to be pleasant; and a well designed and pleasant application will more easily elicit a “collaborative” attitude from users in the first steps of evaluation, and even afterwards, if the design is consistent throughout the application. Consider also “wow” effects that designers can create.
The gaming software industry has understood the crucial role of designers long ago. And the boundary between gaming techniques and usability for “serious” software can be crossed proficiently – we did this with good results in our Teamwork software. A great introduction to this theme is Putting the Fun in Functional: Applying Game Mechanics to Functional Software by Amy Jo Kim. In order to use such techniques, good design is essential.
People that have designers take part in development, will notice that they can learn a lot from development, even when they get back to more design-specific tasks. And vice-versa, even more, holds for developers. Usability is often supplying the right metaphor: algorithmic experience often won’t help in such tasks, but the culture of a good designer can.
This also evidences that it is a bad idea to use just external occasional collaborations for graphic design; you should find a way to have a consistent and continuous flow of design ideas in your software house. A similar conclusion is reached by Joel Spolski in this podcast: “Joel explains why he no longer believes in outsourcing design.”
So among the hats one startup should include in its first team, there is indeed development and marketing, but also graphic and usability design.
Similar considerations to the one above are valid also in the rest of the industry, not only in software; I was recently in Milan in the Triennale expo about Deepdesign (see a review here), and what they are doing brings together design, industrial prototyping, integration with mass production, and hence the distinction between design and product engineering is blurred.
Another, similar development: with Patapage in Open Lab we are working continuously crossing the boundary between page design and data / contents mashupping, creating a tool that makes the distinction between designing a site and inserting / updating / community contributing its “contents” problematic.
And the answer to“who designed the graphics?” is… the entire Open Lab team.