Has Graphic Culture Disappeared in the Design of Digital Products?

{ 🎨} – Graphic culture: where did it go?

A kid checking a typography book. Photo by Paul Hanaoka.

User-centred design (UCD) is today a standard for digital product and service design. It was designed by Donald Norman and Stephen Draper to counter-balance technology-centric design. Many technologies are at the basis of new uses: blockchain, machine learning, cloud computing, virtual reality … Design can be the bridge between these technologies and their uses.

The pitfall of user-centred design as it is used in North America and Europe today is that it substitutes without nuance the application of standardised methods and responses to the sensitive approach of creation. User experience design has become a recipe that leaves little room for creation. Few are the voices that rise to distance themselves from this approach.

Enough design methods wrote Jon KolkoMethodology and process are very interesting to talk about but, there is no point in denying that fact, but I fear that the digital design field has eventually produced much more discourse about (user-centred) method than actual (good) design.

French digital designer Jean-Louis Frechin has developed a reasoned critique of what he considers to be “Answers to partial problems, easy to objectify, incomplete prostheses erected into dogma.” (Le design des choses à l’heure du numérique, FYP, 2019, p. 134)

Donald Norman also pointed to the weaknesses of user-centred design and UX. He gives three reasons: first, the user can not be universal, he is “a moving target”. Then, a sum of needs, expectations, opinions and feelings do not make a product. On the other hand, it is the observation of user activities that informs the listening and research phase. Finally, too much attention to needs and their literal translation into design can remove its cohesion to design and add unwelcome complexity. Just as it is not a sum of features, the design of a product or service can not rely on the word of users. “Users are an objective and an ambition, they are not the solution”, to quote Jean-Louis Frechin.

To summarise, “UX’s methods cover more speculation than reality and not enough creative design.”  It’s up to us, digital designers, to come up with an approach that truly supports creative ambition to create the digital aesthetic that is lacking in the 21st century. In the user-centred design approach, uses, shape and aesthetics of the interface are treated as different entry points of the project. The artificial segmentation of expertises led to the devaluation of UI skills. On the contrary, it is a matter of articulating and harmonising the user research and the creative vision in a global creative approach.

Several books about graphic design. Photo by Jeroen den Otter.

Where Did Graphic Culture Go?

Worse, where did the graphic culture go?

Have we not knowingly relegated it to the background? Do we still teach graphic design in schools where UX designers, interaction designers and service designers are trained?

Brad Frost replaced Neville Brody, Muriel Cooper, Susan Kare and Paul Rand. By dint of industrialising the design of our projects, lean UX here and design system by that, our productions have been erased and faded behind the experience supposed to become the alpha and the omega of digital products and services. This lack of flavour is widely perceptible in the products of our start-ups, which also show a loss of symbolism and meaning. It is unfortunate to note that digital design has not produced what M / M Paris, Stefan Sagmeister, Saul Bass and many others imagined in the field of graphic design. 

In Le Dormeur éveillé, a text that remains famous, Gaston Bachelard expresses the importance of the imaginary: “Our belonging to the world of images is stronger, more constitutive of our being than our belonging to the world of ideas”. This is how the creative side must regain its rights over methods and recipes. It is urgent to rehabilitate the visual and aesthetic part of creation in digital design. 

Benoît Drouillat Avatar

Benoît Drouillat / Head of Design @ Oodrive

Designer, teacher and writer. Founder of Designers Interactifs, a leading professional organization in France. In parallel, he collaborated with numerous schools and published several books about digital design.