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How designers happen

14 Jun 2013

When I designed banglewala in January this year, we just had a few product models to sell, and the goal then was to make a catchy, crazy and fun website. In terms of the visual appeal, I would like to think we were fairly successful – a lot of people told us they loved the website, and it did the job of making them curious about what we’re up to. As the team’s developer, I was never really happy with the navigation scheme we had. I’m not a seasoned enough designer to tell what exactly made me unhappy, but largely, I think it wasn’t intuitive. As Aadharsh soon rightly pointed out, we weren’t selling bangles. We were selling the website.

This Monday morning, the day before Emily (my mentor at Fedora) left for the Red Hat Summit, I asked her a question, which led to what I’d think was a really productive discussion.

“I see that you are an interaction designer. What does an interaction designer do, exactly?”

While our discussion itself didn’t last very long, I spent a major part of the day reading up about all kinds of designers. I almost danced when I read how many designers seemed to share some of the same traits I generally have - nitpicking bad fonts at otherwise well done websites, being personally disturbed and unhappy about minor imperfections in the way program output shows up on the terminal, getting annoyed by unusual and distracting color schemes. But I’m sure I’ve never thought I misunderstand so many things about designers that we generally tend to easily assume.

As it turns out, design isn’t about making a lot of animation happen, or shading navigation panels in a certain way. Design is about making a product usable. Design happens within a lot of constraints, and good design is adaptable to them. A lot of the design exists to make the product feel “undesigned.”

I’ll take an example here. The quarter I live in Kolkata is terribly small, and err, dilapidated. The doors creak, the ceilings of the restrooms leak. If you open the fridge, you end up knocking the TV table on the side. A lot of my time is spent thinking about how such imperfections could have been avoided. Like honestly. What we could do to a table, so it wouldn’t shake, what we could do to retrieve items from the fridge without having to open the door (how about no door at all?)

When I was eight years old and living in Mumbai, I used to hate the living room. I remember the art school teacher complain to my Mom how I would be distracted with some irrelevant home layout sketches, while the rest of the art school kids would draw landscapes of rivers flowing through mountains. I just never happened to realize this far, that in all these ways, I was constantly designing! I was trying to solve problems!

I think designers happen when there are problems to solve. When I bought my first phone, I was confident I didn’t want a touch phone (“those rich kids who buy iPhones are idiots”). My priorities were always limited to making calls and sending messages, so I went ahead and bought the most basic kind. A year after free SMS packages started rolling in India, I realized that I couldn’t do without a qwerty phone! Ironically, after having used my (complimentary) iPod for a couple of months, I almost never use my qwerty phone anymore, except to make phone calls. My priorities still are the same - I only make phone calls or type notes. I still never seem to be attracted to games, or many fancy apps. But the whole touch experience is now intuitive to me - clicking buttons feels uncomfortable and artificial! That is what design can do to you. It evolves your intuitions.

People hardly evolve. As people use better technology, their intuitions evolve. People want to use things that doesn’t feel non-intuitive. Therefore, design evolves to accommodate intuition. That’s when designers happen.

I personally believe designers will steer the next generation of technology towards the future. If we need anything at this age, we need street-smart, entrepreneurial and talented designers to take on the world’s most important problems. And that isn’t just limited to fancy t-shirts, or better music players. Good designers will make life more comfortable, while keeping more urgent things like the environment in mind.