A sad thing happened to my recently. I was shown a website that was recently redesigned and it was horrible. Not just a few pixels off, but entirely incoherent. There was no consistency or re-use of elements, the fonts were all over the place, navigation jumped around, breadcrumbs came and went, and it was simply something that looked like an elementary student could have made. But that wasn’t the most painful part. The most painful part was a scary realization that the democratization of design is breeding a whole group of people who can make stuff, but can’t tell you the why behind what they are doing. Is the pre-fab model of design is forfeiting the important art of justification and meaning?

When I started out, we did not have websites that sold Photoshop templates. We did not have websites that held contests for people to design a logo for $39. We did not have massive libraries of site templates and stencils to work from. More importantly we didn’t just focus on making, we also focused on meaning. We took time to understand why a page is laid out a certain way, how the placement of objects changes the composition, and the impact of color, font, and tone to the overall message. We had to think about everything we did and every decision we made because the cost of change was high given that we had to create everything and didn’t have an infinite number of toolboxes to pull from.

I didn’t go to school to study user experience and design, in fact I don’t think I even knew the term user experience existed back then. I pretty much stumbled into the field. One day I was given a copy of Photoshop 3 and Dreamweaver 2 and told to learn the programs. Along with slowly learning these tools, I read as many books and case studies as I could about design, communication, technology, and creativity. I was a sponge for information and became a master researcher. It seemed like the best way to learn about this emerging field that gave perfect opportunity to my half creative brain and have technical brain.

One of the most influential books I read was MTIV: Process, Inspiration, and Practice For the New Media Designer, by Hillman Curtis. At the time, Curtis was a pioneering flash designer and filmmaker who told really great stories through his work. I absolutely fell in love with the idea of being able to use this digital medium to tell stories – and that design was not just about what it looked like, but more importantly, the story the experience told. What was so great about Curtis’ book was that it wasn’t just about how to do things – how to make a flash movie, how to create a grid system, how to make a navigation system – but it was about why you should do these things – it let you see into his brain and understand the thought process behind what he did. I don’t think I’d be half the designer I am today if I hadn’t have developed a deep love and appreciation for the process.

In the section about his process, there is a chapter called Justify. In it Hillman Curtis emphasizes the importance of being able to justify your design and that every element needs to have a definable purpose. The best way to ensure you are designing with purpose is to continually question and justify your design decisions. I remember eating this up. After reading this, my design partner and I would ask each other for feedback – and all we needed to do was point at a part of the design and if the other said “justify”, we knew that it needed more thought. It was an important and valuable part of our process that ultimately always led to a better experience.

Today, I fear that the art of justification is being lost as a critical part of the design process. Partially this is due to the pre-fab model that designers have access to. Yes, all of these tools do make design more accessible. But, I’d argue that they also provide a false sense of security. There’s an assumption that if it came from a template or a stencil, then it must be right, and that it can be trusted as an acceptable design pattern. However, what so many designers don’t consider is that it’s not about the pieces as single objects; it’s how the pieces work together. It’s fine to borrow elements, as long as they fit within the context of the project. But the key word there is context – and I believe the greater problem is that context in design is being lost.

The democratization of design affords us the ability rush the creation process, without fully defining the story we hope our creations will tell. We spend countless rounds rearranging the pieces of a design. But often times, that is done blindly, or at the direction of clients who see the pieces as eye candy, and not important characters of a story, not being justified by the original context of the design. Without understanding the story you wish to tell, how on earth can you really justify the pieces that make up a design?

I definitely don’t have a solution. But I do see this as a growing problem. As design will become even more democratized, how do we help ensure that we don’t lost focus on the story, the message that we are trying to tell through the medium? How do we teach and educate about the need to elevate context and justification in the design process?

PS: More thoughts to come …