Grokking “style”

Recently while interviewing a visual designer candidate at our office, I asked if he could just briefly articulate the stylistic differences among his samples of icons & graphics–their qualities and attributes, the overall aesthetic character, themes, and motifs. He had quite some difficulty verbalizing this, which was unfortunate. For if you’re going to be a successful designer on a design team, you’ve got to be able to explain your design choices, especially visual styles, with clear defensible, and meaningful reasoning. I believe this is true for visual designers and UI or interaction designers as well. (see my earlier posts about emerging hybrids of visual and interaction)

Indeed, to be a successful, effective designer (and leader) shaping a new product design, it’s necessary to be able to do these three things in terms of “style”:

1. Observe: Must develop and have a certain aesthetic sensitivity for observing and truly paying attention to, what’s around you across diverse media, both physical and digital forms. Do you notice the nuances, subtleties, nooks & crannies…the textures, lighting, patterns, forms, colors? How they vary across contexts or form factors (i.e., from phone to tablet to desktop to HDTV). Having an eye for detail at an intuitive level of sensing, honed by years of practice and rigorous experience, is immensely valuable.

2. Articulate: Are you able to explain the defining characteristics, qualities, attributes, and deeper values suggestive of such styles, beyond generic non-phrases like “it’s cool” or “it’s clean”. What does that style mean, how does it impact perceived functionality, usability, value, etc. How does the style convey a personality, a tone of voice, an attitude for how the user should approach the product?

3. Create: And finally creating a distinct visual design language and coherent, flexible system accordingly, blending ideas and attitudes from a range of sources: the past, the present, and cross-disciplinary fields (biology, fine arts, engineering, theater, etc.), anticipating what’s next.

A visual style is a visceral argument of how one should live their life, a declaration of certain values advocated (with other values dismissed or ignored). It’s a projection of tone, quality, mood. A reflection of the product’s personality, tone of voice conveyed into the ambiguous space of marketing / communication / interpretation. A style speaks to the mood of the times (zeitgeist), reflecting the social & cultural vibe at the moment, while anticipating what’s on the horizon, deftly echoing emerging trends and tastes.

If you’re going to be a strong, effective designer worthy of shaping and improving “the human condition”, as UX professionals are often self-described to do, grokking “style” is a vital element of that noble pursuit.


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