Design Myth

Designers just make things look pretty.

Written by Stephen Emlund

This is a common misconception that many people say and believe; sometimes even designers. The myth arises due to the end-product of a designer’s work being visual in nature. Therefore, it is judged on a visual basis. A designer’s work is so much more than just pretty. Designer’s should take into account their target audience, the design problem, corporate goals, and most importantly their vision for the work. This is done by understanding that audience and how they are best communicated to. This involves psychology and human perception, not merely aesthetics. All too often, “pretty” wrongly becomes the benchmark by which a designer’s work is judged rather than how successfully the target audience is reached.

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

—Steve Jobs

This myth is perpetuated in part because design and fine art are seen as one and the same. Design is not fine art. Design is bound by rules, principles, processes, target audiences, user problems, and correct solutions. Fine art is relieved of the duty of solving user problems and communicating to a target audience to the same extent of design. Art is for art’s sake, while design is for the target audience sake. Don’t get me wrong, aesthetics are definitely one component of a successful design, but it’s not the driving force.

To further explore how design is not just about making things look pretty, let’s take websites for an example. In a website, not only does it have to do more than just be ‘pretty’, but form and function need to be inextricably tied. In a website, not only does it need to ‘look good’, It has to be clear how each link, image, etc functions. Ideally, form and function will be working together to create a beautifully, functional website. So a website’s form and function must work together, but the design choices also have to be make sense for the target audience. It might be tempting to choose your favorite color (like pink) for a particular website design, but if you weren’t thinking about your target audience, who might be men, you would be way off. Of course, this is an extreme example that occurs in more nuanced ways all over the place.

To better explain how form and function need to work together, let’s do a quick word study. The word affordance can be defined as:

  1. A visual clue to the function of an object.

  2. The quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling.

As Aral Balkan says, “The way a thing looks creates inherent expectations about how it is meant to be used. This is called an affordance.” So a designer’s work primarily resides in this area: providing visual clues to the function of the website or app. If a designer’s work has intuitive affordances, then it is successful.

What others say

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says in The Little Prince: Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away

The truth

Designers solve problems that happen to be visual in nature. They don’t simply make things look pretty. In the case of websites and apps, form and function are inextricably tied requiring intuitive affordances.