Journal

The evolution of visual design and tech’s designer renaissance

silver laptop computer with assorted logo screengrab

With a background in visual design, I got my start as an interaction designer working on software that allowed users to professionally print and produce their work via a digital workflow. Most of this was not web-based. This was software running on the OS, the “thick client.” The visual scope of what a designer could do was limited because there already was a design framework established for each operating system. Mac, Windows, and Linux all had their own behaviors and design language. What worked for the lickable glossiness of OSX Aqua may not work for the warm tans and rigid profile of Windows NT or dimensionality of Vista or cool flat grays of Linux. They each had their own styles, behaviors, standards and even user cultures to respect.

Training your eyes to ask why

For a visual designer, the illustrative craft was exhibited in application and toolbar icons, splash screens and the side panels of installation wizards. The principles of visual design were applied to the structuring of content and controls, the affordance of those controls and understanding when to use those controls. The exciting new layer to all this was asking why. Sure, there is no visual hierarchy and the row of controls are not aligned but why are they here in the first place? Is there a more efficient way to access a feature? Do we even need this feature?

The big switch for me as a designer was no longer just thinking about how things looked but about how users felt. This was the entrance to understanding the reality and purpose of a digital product. How users, including customers, feel about your product (which for software is the brand) is directly related to how the interface looks and behaves.

Who are we designing for?

I learned about Cooper because it was the only place that was creating a process for how you design for humans, and they already knew visual design was key to that process. This was before the world fully understood that user-centered design was transformative.

The founder of Cooper, Alan Cooper wrote the books on interaction design that were being consumed by product managers and students taking classes on the subject. Degrees in human computer interaction are common now, and design thinking is a popular concept, seeded by the original design tools centered around people (like personas and scenarios) that Alan invented. 

When visual design met business

Being a designer at a tech company pre-iPhone was strange and rare unless you were in marketing or advertising. So being the first designers for our clients while learning how their business worked (or didn’t) through the lens of their customers and users was powerful. Design was making businesses relevant by forging a better relationship between their services and technology and the humans who experienced them.

Discussions of visual design can make many people uncomfortable; it’s a language that isn’t often deemed worthwhile to learn. There wasn’t trust in the value visual design brings to business or if it could be considered real work. It has taken a while for visual design to gain a voice. 

The world tilts towards the light of the screen

In today’s visually immersive media culture, in which we consume ever more information through the digital products we use, people have become more visually sophisticated. The efficiency of visual communication manifests in emoji, GIFs, and memes.

Apple changed the world radically by bringing design into the spotlight as a differentiator. Clients would tell me, “We want to be the iPod of medical software.” Visual designers showed the world they could make more than pretty pictures, and it wasn’t necessary, appropriate, or fair to expect engineers to take that work on. Apple also introduced a new canvas for visual designers and an ecosystem for a new kind of app development. 

Visual designers are building out the visual language that supports and informs a fully-fledged design system.

The improved experience of software created with the aid of a visual designer became strikingly apparent. Enterprise tools were craving some VisD love, but it was the explosion of mobile that really opened up opportunities for visual designers to help create five-star apps with longevity and brand loyalty.

A matter of visual literacy

Want to boost your organization’s visual literacy? Communicate why everyday products and services are successful. Use the principles of art and design to explain why a product looks and feels the way it does.

Communicating the difference between product and marketing is also important. For mobile startups, the design of the product is the brand, so it’s important to understand why there’s a difference between the two. Visual design for product is meant to support interaction and experience – it’s not there to market the product.

New challenges in the widespread appreciation of visual design

A visual designer’s responsibility is to get into why something is working or not working and move away from subjectivity, communicating clearly. 

The more attuned we are to something the more likely it will be copied. Enter homogeneity and the current flat aesthetic of visual design. To have personality we need illustration, motion, sound, a real focus on voice and tone and a visual strategy that maps it all out. 

It’s hard for companies to take risks in how they present themselves visually, and I don’t see a lot of companies taking risks to stand out. I see a lot of rebrands, and they all feel the same. 

Discernment for the future

Beyond a single touchpoint, visual designers are building out the visual language that supports and informs a fully-fledged design system. Such systems are intentionally built and designed to blueprint the uniqueness of a brand and its products. The breadth and depth of visual design that was once relegated to the operating system can know be seen in UX and visual design-forward companies with robust visual systems, like Airbnb, Atlassian, Lyft and Mailchimp. 

We are in a designer’s market, and technology is experiencing a designer renaissance.

If visual design becomes automated or homogenous onscreen, it’s the experiences outside of that screen that will differentiate, and with that visual designers are well equipped to address this because their eyes and their senses are trained to notice the fine details of creating and communicating an experience. They’re attuned to the fidelity of a micro-interaction and also understand when something becomes a moment. That sensitivity to nuance that was brought to the screen offers unlimited opportunities offscreen.

The final pixel

Today, we are in a designer’s market, and technology is experiencing a designer renaissance. We seem to have learned the most measurable value of all: what differentiates one experience from another is simply achieving one’s goal. Whether the goal is work- or leisure-related, it’s about accomplishing what you’re working toward. Visual design is more than icing; though without the icing, a cupcake is just a dry muffin. And nobody wants your dry muffin. 

custom illustration showing two muffins and one cupcake with sprinkles

For more Journal articles on this topic, read “Three unexpected benefits of learning the core elements of visual design” and “Beyond the pixel: Measuring visual designers’ strategic value.”

Jayson McCauliff
Jayson McCauliff
Principal Visual Designer, Designit San Francisco

Jayson McCauliff is a Principal Visual Designer at Designit San Francisco. By day, he designs interfaces, identities, and visual systems for companies such as Practice Fusion, Boston Scientific, Amgen, Pwc, and Intel. Outside of work, he spends his time painting, photographing, and adding color to the visual landscape of San Francisco.

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