Me design pretty one day

I just love how Devs and PMs often ask me (or my talented peers) to make “it” pretty. Usually the “it” being something that’s a total riot of buttons, icons, menus, tables, and randomly thrown stuff, already “pre-designed” by the esteemed stakeholders like aforesaid PM or Devs. Understandably it’s all borne out of good intentions (or we optimistically presume so)…We in this field often have heard this far too many times before, this seemingly harmless, light-hearted, yet teeth-grindingly irksome request. Can you (please) make this pretty for me? After all, it’s just a few colors, fonts, images and — voila! right? Oh and can you have it ready by 5pm or tomorrow at the latest? Thanks so much!

Of course, there’s so much more than whipping up a few colors and icons… And just what is it that makes this particular, simple request so bothersome, even offensive to designers? A few quick thoughts, as this has come up recently at a few talks I’ve given to folks in various contexts, in terms of requesting help from designers. And as designers, we’ve all encountered this at some point!

Foremost, “pretty” is a pejorative to a serious, well-intentioned designer. It is a word that smacks of triviality, frivolity, and altogether not-so-serious work..in a word “silliness”. It’s also somewhat vaguely sexist, but the primary issue is what it implies: window dressing and lip gloss treatment, that’s merely superficial veneer, to dress up a train-wreck of a product lacking nuanced, strategic forethought of use and quality.

Also this notion implies that the work of a designer is not legitimate work of industry, struggle, overcoming, and finally deliverance worthy of achievement. There is indeed a heroic journey no matter how you proceed, from empathic analysis, to creative synthesis, with prototyping and iteration, gauging user feedback, and so forth. There is significant effort and difficulty in the trials and efforts of “making something pretty”, and worthwhile.

So what should devs/PMs request? Instead of “making it pretty”, it’s far more productive to ask how to partner with designers in identifying the proper problem to solve, generating solutions that fulfill user’s goals, enable users to stay on task by creating something that is usable and desirable. How can PMs and Devs help designers solve the problem and deliver a beautiful, powerful solution to drive total sales, meet market targets, promote overall brand value, and provide something that’s strategically valuable, not just ephemerally cute or pretty. In other words, how can we ALL team up together to tackle flawed thinking and deliver a smartly thought-out product or service.

And besides, when it comes to “prettying up” the UI, that in itself really refers to clarifying, illuminating, emphasizing, adding structure, coherence, utility, value, and meaning that supports a person’s goals…echoing the words of legendary designer Paul Rand. How to make it more visually communicative, with hierarchy, balance, proportion, scale. How to make the product or service more emotionally resonant, such that people will love it, and demand more or spread a good word to their peers, and find delightful use in their daily activities. After all, this is really a big step towards going beyond “pretty” and delivering promising, impactful value, which is what we’re really striving for, though our non-design stakeholders may not realize it. We have to help educate our friends in Dev and PM what it really means to “design pretty”, and delivery effective value as product  design partners.

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