Three levels of making (digital) products

Yesterday I came across this informative piece about Product Design hiring at Facebook. The part which stood out was about the three kinds of questions through which they evaluate a design.

three levels of making

I find these categories informative and want to explore them in this post.

Base Level: Craftsmanship // visual, aesthetic, satisfying, making it look good

The problem with most of design (or any visual art) is – the craft is the most visible. Though it has importance it itself, it sometimes has a tendency to overshadow the underlying meaning or power of ideas. People do judge books by the cover.

While it can take years to master a craft, it is clearly a skill and can be mastered by any one who is willing to put in the hours.

When people hunt for ‘design inspiration’, and exploit platforms like behance and pinterest, they are focusing on the craft-level of design.

Shrine.png
High quality design craftsmanship. Source: Google’s Material Design

In the library of the craftsman you should find books on typography, sketching, and maybe some art history.

craftsman
Some books which would appeal to the (visual) craftsman in you

While it is natural to want and like high quality of craft with all the captivating details, there is a danger of ignoring usability. As the design guru Don Norman mentions in a criticism of Apple,

I was once proud to be at Apple, proud of Apple’s reputation of advancing ease of use and understanding. Alas, these attributes are fast disappearing from their products in favor of pretty looks, or as designers call it “styling.”

But there is even greater danger – of ignoring the underlying ideas. The book ‘Understanding Comics’ mentions the danger of focusing only on the outermost parts, and underlies how common this mistake is.

craft

craft 2
Source: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Middle Level: Usability // analytical, theoretical, functional, making it work right

One level above, comes the usability. Here, the work done on cognition, human behavior, and accessibility by a scientific approach guides you. For digital design, you can read about interface patterns and elements. Most of the time you can enhance a design effortlessly by applying these patterns.

And the body of knowledge is quite large, there are entire Master’s programs in Usability Engineering. (This also goes by the name of Human Computer Interaction).

While quite different in nature from the skill of visual craftsmanship, you can become skilled at this level of design – by understanding the findings and studying the patterns.

usability books
Some books about how humans think and about how they use digital products

Top Level: Ideas // wicked, open-ended, deeply creative, making it original and  meaningful

Now for the top level. This is the hardest, and it’s likely that most people either do not reach it, or do not stay there all the time. After all, usability and craftsmanship get a lot of sh*t stuff done. But at this level there is no visual inspiration on behance and no scientific findings to give you clear answers. This is the place where you have to think for yourself.

You are not completely lost though. You have some help from processes and methods like the Google Ventures Design Sprint, or the Vision in Design method from TU Delft. But these methods don’t guarantee results. In fact, they are quite empty when not driven by deep curiosity.

People who spend most of their time at this level focus on the problem itself and use design methods with great care. Sometimes they might be lacking in craft-level skills, but that matters less to them – they are after the underlying meaning and impact.

This is the realm of entrepreneurs and researchers, people who are willing to live with hard questions but not with easy answers.

This is less of a skill and more of an attitude. No one can really teach you to think for yourself, but you can decide that you want to.

I guess someone working on this level would collect and synthesize information from wide and deep sources.

ideas books
Books to understand meaningful design, human history and the world in general

Being Whole

Good designers of course have all the above skills and attitude, in different capacities. And good designs solve important problems in functional and beautiful ways.

But each of these levels has significant depth in itself. Hence you might need to prioritize where to spend most energy. If you want to master the problem solving processes, you may need to give up on learning how to make appealing sketches. Or you might spend majority of your time on the analytical and cognitive aspects of the interactions.

I hope the awareness of these levels helps you in making better choices with your time, and better impact with your work.

Endnotes:

  • I know we can have many ways of thinking about levels of design and creativity and this is just one of them. I like it because it’s simple and clear.
  • I have left out quite a few ideas here, like thinking in metaphors which is a superpower in design. Similarly, I have not really touched on collaborative design.
  • I don’t mean to demean visual or any other forms of aesthetics. I think they are vital to the human experience, but only wish to underline that their impact is diminished without underlying meaning.

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