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The State of Product Design in 2017

The way we design for digital experiences is outdated. The next big thing in design thinking is designing with intention and emotion.

As a designer working in NYC, I’ve noticed a few design trends over the past five to ten years that have emerged most prominently within the tech community with the rise of product design. As digital products become more ubiquitous, they begin to look more and more similar. The digital space is dominated by asexual, cookie cutter-like apps and websites that feel flat and soulless. Even if users interact with a product on a daily basis, they rarely ever get a sense of who the company is and what they stand for. The best example of this is LinkedIn — so massive, so ubiquitous, yet completely devoid of aesthetic personality. Do users feel like they understand the brand on a deeper, emotional level? Does the end product communicate the personality and beliefs of the people who built it? I would venture to say that for most people, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding no.

This widespread lack of personality in our digital products is a direct result of two concepts have dominated design thinking for the past five years.

Current Mantra: “Good Design is Invisible.”

“Invisible design” has always been a concept in the design world, but it went mainstream in 2011–2013 as a rebellion against the heavy-handed web 2.0 design aesthetics of the early 2000’s when drop shadows, beveling and unrestrained color palettes were everywhere in the form of overly-designed Flash sites. Invisible design advocates called for the stripping away of excess, stating that design should be optimized for task completion. The design community became obsessed with conversion, shortening the funnel, clicks, and success rates. In 2013, Facebook designer Julie Zhuo wrote a great article about the trend, citing Dropbox as a relevant example. But to be clear, Dropbox does not have truly invisible design in the way that we now understand the concept today in 2017. Their brand is not entirely minimalist and task-based. It is fun, whimsical, and at times (*gasp!*) decorative. Their designs evoke a level of personality that is far from invisible — and these small touches are what differentiates the brand from more cut-and-dry competitors like Box.

Our understanding of “invisible design” has mutated over time to represent an approach that’s spartan, sterile, and dogmatic in practice. Designers now associate this concept to mean that if color is to be used, it has to have a specific meaning, and if there is no meaning, there should not be color. Icons and illustrations, if they are to be used (even with text!) must explain *exactly* what the concept is, no matter how intangible or complex.

Current Mantra: “Data is King.”

It’s often said that we are living in the Era of Big Data, where everything is quantifiable and measurable. At most tech companies, data drives all major and minor decisions. One only has to look at design portfolios now to see the effect of big data in design. Instead of showcasing entire experiences, designers are building portfolios full of buttons, checkboxes, and micro-animations. On one hand, big data feedback is an incredibly powerful idea — it reminds us that design is subjective, and that what we design is not always what tests well. This allows us allows us to learn, improve, and iterate on designs. On the other hand, it leads to a fragmented design approach and strips away emotion and intuition. No wonder digital experiences often feel like they lack an overarching feeling or personality. When everything is A/B tested and redesigned on the fly, we lose the holistic, creative vision and end up with a Frankenstein-like combination of independently designed components and styles.

The other interesting thing that happens as a by-product of big data is the watering-down of unique ideas and styles in exchange for designs that will appeal to the masses. Some of the most memorable brands have taken a stand to support polarizing causes or designed using unconventional colors. In an effort to appeal to the widest audiences, there are now a lot of plain, politically-correct, blue-colored apps in app stores that are mildly palatable to everyone but loved by no one. These apps are politically correct, overly tested, and bland — they are compelling in any way.

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The WebRecital is a dedicated User Interface/User Experience professionals who come together to provide design and research workshops, portfolio reviews, and educational outreach to the greater Seattle area.

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