Stop Solving Real Problems Once in a While

{ ❓ } – How to Stop Taking Things Too Seriously

.Photo by Markus Winkler.

Heard of dark mode? Of course, you have. Dark mode is said to reduce eye strain, it has grown in popularity, and user demand. Sketch recently released a new version of their software offering the dark side of the screen, thus addressing a user need and solving a user problem. Beside other UI changes, they also introduced other details such as the one shown in the image below. When in dark mode the bitmap icon turns from a day into a night scenery by changing the sun into a moon picto. Neat!

Animation by Margarita Ivanchikova.
In Sketch’s dark mode the bitmap icon changes from day to night by showing the Moon instead of the Sun.

This detail pointed out by my co-worker did not only leave me with a smile on my face. It also reminded me of a topic that has been tackled many times but remains debated.

In the wake of the UX, human-centred and problem-solving design hype there has been an on-going debate whether designers should aim at solving real-world problems rather than posting shiny visuals on Dribbble or promoting fancy web experiments on Awwwards to win some shoulder claps and «likes» online.

The expression «dribbblisation of design» coined by Intercom’s identically named blogpost became the source of heated arguments and the anti-manifesto of anything causing pure visual pleasure and fun. Although published around 2013 the article and topic are still being discussed.

Design and UX leaders around the world encourage young and aspiring talents to build their portfolios and case studies around real problems and their approach of solving them instead of showing off shiny pieces online.

This is all great, makes perfect sense and I have no issue buying into this. Nevertheless and at the same time, I oppose to such an absolute view.

As creating a single shiny visual or animation is easier than solving a real problem, so is seriously judging it. As the old marketing formula AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) states:

Before you gain people’s interest you need to get their attention.

I lack the skills to produce shiny visuals and animations that win hearts and shoulder claps by dribbble’s and awwward’s community, but I admire people that can. Whether one solves a real-world problem, we all like to be inspired, and we all appreciate a good old clap on the shoulder, a «like» and some attention once in a while.

I consider the act of carelessly and freely designing and producing things the world doesn’t necessarily need as pure «play» and a form of art. These are skills we mastered as kids. But the ability to apply them slowly degrades the older we turn. We unlearn to not think and to just try and do. Instead, we constantly overthink and question ourselves, our work and we try to find a «real reason» behind everything so that we can justify our actions.

«If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.» — Jean Piaget

In the real world, one’s fake case study, smooth screen transition or fancy WebGL experiment might not be viable, account for technical constraints or take real user needs into consideration. It might even violate whatever we think we know is appropriate, based on current and widely accepted UX, design, tech or business guidelines.

But if we do not challenge what is here today and if we do not allow ourselves to freely explore and experiment, we are just going to be trapped in uniformity and the same old reoccurring approaches over and over again. Carelessly publishing stuff enables creators to play, experiment, try something new, maybe even push the boundaries of what’s possible and get feedback.

Even if such visual or code experiments do not serve an initial wider purpose, they might be the solution to a real-world problem we do not even know about yet. And even if they aren’t, someone has had some fun, learned something new, inspired someone else or put a smile on someone’s face.

Going back to Sketch’s icon. Does it solve a problem? No, not that I am aware of. Does it put a smile on my face? Yes, it certainly does!

Cheers to Adrian Zumbrunnen for cross-checks & feedback.

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Dan Nessler Avatar

Dan Nessler / Head of UX @ Hinderling Volkart

Head of UX at Hinderling Volkart and occasional lecturer and writer in the fields of UX and design.