I’m not a graphic designer

26 March 2008, 13:35

I really enjoy inspired graphic design and typography. Whether on screen or on paper, I appreciate the added value when a master of these crafts has pulled through a bold vision, down to the oh‑so‐important details.

Having a heightened perception of the two crafts, I have read about their theory and techniques during the last twenty years. And I am able to apply some of that, for instance in my presentations, which are not of the ‘force‐fit the powerpoint template’ variety.

at the interface

This perception and knowledge also enables me to work and communicate much better with graphic designers and typographers on my projects. I understand their point of view: it is not about making it look cool, it is not decoration. I talk in their terms about goals and possible solutions.

Which is important since the interaction architecture (making the ‘building’ function) sets the scope and boundaries for their design (the ‘interior,’ so to speak). Both of these have to be up to scratch and made in cooperation, or else the result will be a damp squib.


But I know I am an amateur in graphic design and typography. From Latin: amator, meaning loving these crafts, I must also admit that I am no good at them. Whenever I try, I futz around, endlessly. It has all the symptoms of not being competent: not knowing where to start; no vision and steady direction; and most telling of all: not knowing when I am finished.

I am still ashamed of having made the first business card and first two websites of m+mi works in this way. And have been surprised when professionals had anything nice to say about them. What a relief, when I hired a graphic designer/typographer to work on the current website.

Yes, I still had to do all the interaction architecture work for the website (of course) and the close cooperation takes effort. But getting a typographical system, color system, page designs, logo, patterns and illustrations delivered competently was worth every penny.

In short, I’m not a graphic designer, nor a typographer.

what about you?

I meet quite a few people whose job is interaction designer, interface designer, screen designer, (G)UI designer, user experience designer, web designer, et cetera. And on those occasions there is always something in the air: that we work in the same ballpark, cover the same bases.

Sooner or later this turns out to be not exactly true, more often than not. Over the years I have developed an acid test to see where somebody stands:

‘if you feel that photoshop or GIMP is a vital tool for your design work, then you are not in interaction design, you are in graphic design’
the ps acid test

You don’t agree?

flip that

First of all if you were in user interaction then you would know it is all about structure and pixel‐based applications are simply not conductive towards radical changes of the proportions and order of an interface. It should take five minutes max to do that, not at least half an hour.

You would not dream of using photoshop or GIMP if you had to do actual interaction design with any reasonable efficiency. Makes me wonder about these job ads for the types of designers mentioned above, that not only list a full suite of usability skills, but also full proficiency with the whole CS3 suite.

Between all that usability surveying and graphic design, is there going to be any time left to get some actual interaction design work done?

party like it’s…

Second, if you were in my ballpark, you would know that next‐generation user interaction can be fully created and painstakingly specified using the technology that architects used in 1908. Paper, pencil, a typewriter and gaslight is all it takes. No electricity required.

This is because the most important work of interaction architects is done with our eyes closed—or in my case, staring into infinity.

Realising the product vision with a bold interaction vision; seeing how everything is connected; moulding the flow of a series of activities; taking the point of view of a million users; reducing complexity; reducing clutter: none of that is done in front of a computer screen.

once removed

Not a line I draw ends up on an end‑user screen. Not a word I write is compiled into code. Not a sentence I say instructs users. I draw, write and talk to enable the specialists I work with to excel at what they do and realise inspiring software for my clients.

I’m not a graphic designer, I am an interaction architect.

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3 comments · post a comment

at 02 October, 2008 01:33,Anonymous Anonymous commented
While I agree with much of the sentiment in your post, I'm disappointed by your over-definition of roles and your acid test.

In the last decade, the web design profession has been splintered as larger teams have been built to do projects that used to be tackled by a web master or, that very usefully generic role, a web designer. Now we work in an environment with information architects, user experience engineers, interface designers, graphic designers, front-end coders, and on and on. I'm not sure that such specialization has been especially useful for the web design profession, though such long titles certainly make us sound clever. The melding of terms into "Interaction architecture" only further confuses the scene.

It's unfortunate that the term "web designer" has come to be associated with someone's cousin who built their motel website. Without that stigma, I'd just say I'm a web designer – I'm a guy who designs websites – and be done with it. Instead, I go for the next most generic term, an "interface designer" – a guy who designs the part of websites you interact with. I think you alluded to this when you wrote that after learning more about your colleagues, you realized you were more similar to each other than you originally thought based on their titles.

As for your Photoshop acid test, it's certainly an oversimplification as most of these absolute tests are. In June, 37signals instigated a web-wide discussion on this very subject. Designers such as Jon Hicks rose in defense of visual tools and I think he really nailed the argument as well as I possibly could have. Sure, I agree with your sentiment that 'visual design' shouldn't be one's primary focus on web design, but that's a narrow-minded view of Photoshop's capabilities.

When I design the interface for Digg or Pownce, I spend a great deal of time in Photoshop, wildly throwing around elements. I've spent time considering the architecture and interactions by this point – now I'm ready to delve into how this UI will actually get implemented. I can code as well as most, but I want to remain free to form new ideas and visual associations. Photoshop is just a visual tool that enables me to see my ideas and test their validity in a realistic scenario.

Phew... I think I've written enough. I appreciate the thoughtful piece and perhaps we can pick up this thread at Zap Your PRAM... looking forward to meeting you. 
at 13 February, 2009 10:08,Anonymous Anonymous commented
I don't see how you call yourself any type of designer. User experience in websites or web applications is visual. The interaction is interaction with visual objects. If you don't know how to think in terms of visual interface design, ie: layout, navigation systems, consistent arrangement of controls, etc., then you're not a designer.

At most, your a project manager who has read a few books and subscribes to a few usability feeds.

Stop calling yourself an interaction designers.. or any designer. You're diluting the value of that word in the marketplace. 
at 13 February, 2009 16:46,Blogger Unknown commented
Wow Anonymous,

that is quite a statement to make, being anonymous.

Let me also make a statement: design is not what it looks like, design is how it works. And by extension, design determines what it is. Visual design is part of that, but just a part.

I am really comfortable with my role of architect, directing how the interaction of complex systems are to be made to work for users. I am also really comfortable with the fact that visual design is not my schtick. I work happily together with visual designers, on that part of the design.

I can feel your anger and I think it is a good thing, for your development. You already know there is a difference between what I do (interaction architecture) and what ‘interaction designers, interface designers, screen designers, (G)UI designers, user experience designers, web designers, et cetera’ do. That is a start.

Next step is to start observing who lives to make things work, and who lives to paint… 

If you like to ask Peter one burning question and talk about it for ten minutes, then check out his available officehours.

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