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Designing vs. Decorating

My wife spent some time in an Interior Design master's degree program. One of the things that frequently frustrated her was the conflation, by people outside the industry, of interior design and interior decorating.

  • "Oh, so like, you're learning how to pick out furniture and stuff."
  • "Can you help me pick paint colors in my bedroom?"
  • "That's cool, like that show on HGTV."

Decorating is primarily about aesthetics --- how things look. Design is about function --- how things work. There is certainly overlap between the professions, but their focus and concern is very different.

At least, though, nearly everyone in the industry --- and certainly everyone at her school --- understood the difference. Since my wife was there the school has actually changed the name of the program to Interior Architecture, to make the focus more clear.

I'm not sure the software industry as a whole understands the difference between decorating and design. Part of the problem is that we don't use the word "decorator," to describe people with graphics skills and no sense of the underlying software. Everyone is a "designer." The best we have done is to try to make distinctions between "UX Design" and "Graphic Design."

In fact, I think the push in the last decade or so to use the word "UX" is an attempt to make the distinction. Unfortunately, I don't think it has helped. Like Tech Writers calling themselves "Documentation Specialists," the change in label has been driven as much by a desire for a cooler resume as by any real change in practices. The distinction we need to make is not between "graphics" and "UX," and certainly not between "UX" and "UI" (as if those are, you know, actually different things, really). The distinction we need to make is between design and decoration.

Have you ever sat in a redesign review that solved exactly none of the problems of the original design? The new thing looks better, but it functions the same. Decorating

Have you ever been involved in a process where some non-engineer Product Manager drew pictures of screens and buttons, and then someone with Photoshop skills and no coding experience turned that into a mockup? Decorating.

Have you ever been asked, after the graphics person has completed an entire set of screen mockups, to "help with some of the verbiage" in order to make things more clear? Decorating.

Any process that separates out the work of contributors --- first the engineers do something and then hand it off to the graphics person and then the tech writer writes about it later --- will tend toward decorating. Design requires people to actually talk to each other, preferably in the same room. Design requires that a person drawing and labelling a form input understand the conceptual model the form is interacting with.

I suggest we stop futzing with labels for types of people and buzzwords that feel helpful but aren't. This problem cannot be solved by finding an even cooler replacement word for "UX," and then blogging about how "UX is dead, we're doing XZ now." Just keep "design" and "decoration" in your head as an evaluative tool. Look at how things are being done and ask yourself --- it this designing or is it decorating? Then, if there's too much decorating, don't spend a lot of energy convincing people about the difference. Just begin to change the process.

And don't let someone with Photoshop skills redesign an app they don't understand and have never used.


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