Reprint from my UI Design Blinks, originally published on the SAP Design Guild Website, now on walodesign.de
In various articles on the SAP Design Guild Website (no longer available), I have discussed the different kinds of design and designers. Therefore, a colleague asked me to describe them in less than 500 words for an introductory article on the SAP UX Community. However, I not only failed to comply with the 500 words limit, I also did not bear in mind that the intended target audience knows very little about design. So I withdrew the article and went back to the drawing board. For this column, however, the article seemed appropriate to me after some updates, even though I "stole" the beginning from a book review and have written about the topic before. So here is my personal view of what kinds of designers populate the software world in (fairly) short form – and please excuse some repetitions.
When I was young, there were only three design disciplines I was aware of: fashion design, product or industrial design, and graphic design. Naive as I was at the time, I understood the first to be responsible for fashionable clothes, the second for the design of cars, vacuum cleaners, Scandinavian furniture, and so on, and the third for book illustrations, stamps, and advertising. Today, there are design disciplines galore. Particularly in the software world, we find designers who specialize in, say interaction design, user interface (UI) design, user experience (UX) design, graphic/visual design, Web design, as well as design thinkers, to name just the most prominent ones. I would therefore like to shed some light on this variety and look for differences as well as commonalities.
Figure: Designers may feel differently and may also have a different background (image from my review of The Plenitude)
First of all, the names of the types of designers are neither exclusive, nor do they necessarily reflect everything they do. So keep in mind that my characterizations will unavoidably be gross oversimplifications.
Interaction designers (interaction design, IxD) typically design physical devices, albeit with a lot of software "under the hood" these days. Their focus is on how people "interact" with their designs. Typical applications are museum installations and prototypical devices to explore ideas with people. Some interaction designers (the research through design, or RTD, proponents) claim that this is a viable way of doing research. Often, these designers have an art school background and some of them also feel a bit like artists. Others, like the "critical designers," also feel and act as provocateurs. They often explore future scenarios and want to make people think – and to persuade them to change their behaviors (persuasion/persuasive design).
User interface designers (UI design) typically design user interfaces for software applications. Some people say, they just put controls on screens and arrange them to optimize the users' workflow. Good UI designers, however, think holistically, design the complete interaction of users with their software, and take care of the context in which it is used (they think about use cases and scenarios, and prototypical users or personas). Not surprisingly, some UI designers therefore call themselves interaction designers (think of Cooper Interaction Design, now just Cooper). UI designers often have a background in computer science or cognitive psychology – they feel more like researchers or engineers than artists.
(User) experience designers (UX design) can be regarded as a more recent breed of UI (and interaction) designers who put the user's overall experience with a system at the center of their design efforts. This, again, requires a more holistic view. A user's experience can be good or bad, and, of course, the preferred outcome is that it is good or satisfying. This approach is, of course, not limited to software; it can be applied to any man-made artifacts, to processes such as services (service design), and even to organizational structures (organizational design).
Visual/graphic designers style the visual aspects of products or software applications, be they static or, increasingly, dynamic: colors, forms, shapes, transitions, movements, and more are their realm. Many visual designers, however, do not want to be constrained to the design of visual aspects only. They also address interaction aspects and regard themselves as interaction designers. When they are, for example, involved in the design of screen controls, they are indeed doing interaction design. In contrast to UI and UX designers, most visual designers have an art-related background and feel a little bit like artists, although there are also many self-made designers in this realm.
Web designers were initially regarded as a kind of visual designers who specialize in Web pages. However, with the evolution of the Web into a dynamic medium, the boundaries between Web, UI, and visual designers get more and more blurred. Nonetheless, their technical domain is the Web and, increasingly, mobile apps are based on Web technology. Web design, too, attracted and still attracts many self-made designers...
Design thinkers, that is, proponents of the design thinking approach, encourage designers to bring their methods into the business world – by either taking part in business processes themselves or by training business people to use design methods. They maintain that "everyone is a designer," which makes some professional designers frown because people may conclude that they are no longer needed. And much like already reported for UX designers, for design thinkers there are almost no limits to applying their approach (except for some reservations on including designers in the team at all...).
So, now it is up to you to choose what kind of designer you want to be. But whatever job title you will have on your business card, in your professional life you will probably get involved in most of the topics listed above...