It’s Easy to “Make Things Pretty” But Very Hard to Make Them Meaningful

Note: This is Part 16 of the Ruminations for Aspiring Designers series.

Half A Point

“They don’t understand design. They just want us to make things pretty. What a shame!”

That designerly complaint is legendary and legitimate.

It’s a good point. But it’s also just half the point.

As a designer, whenever you’re asked to “make things pretty”, what you should actually do is to make things meaningful. It’s just that, sometimes you can indeed make it meaningful by making it pretty.

“Make things pretty” is a vicious loop: the more you agree to do it, the more you’re asked to do it.

After all, incompetent management’s perception of design is just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here’s the bitter truth: it’s not hard at all to make things pretty, but it’s often much harder than expected to make them meaningful.

Therefore, complaining about “making things pretty” is just half the point.

The other half of the point is a question–

Can you make it meaningful?

In other words: regardless of whether you can make it pretty, can you make it meaningful?

Making Things Meaningful

If you can make things meaningful by design, then you have a far better chance of helping people understand what design is really about. That is specifically the case when you clearly explain your design decisions to the satisfaction of your boss, organization or client.

Designing a presentation is a classic case. Ask any great speaker and they will tell you that it’s not just about a nice deck. In fact, it’s so NOT about a nice deck. It’s the compelling stories. It’s the fascinating ideas behind. It’s the affective emotional charge. It’s the elegant logic. It’s the absorbing narrative. All in all, it’s the meaning of it. After all, making a deck pretty is merely easy. The hard part is making it meaningful.

In more cases than many designers would like to admit, more people haven’t even got to the stage where they care about whether something is pretty. In many cases, the designed things aren’t even usable or useful.

Most designed things are only usable or useful when they’re meaningful. Sure, making something pretty do make people feel that it’s more usable or useful than it looks; but that’s not often sustainable. People find out sooner or later. It needs to make sense first. Something makes sense only when it’s meaningful.

The question about whether design is necessary or affordable is beside the point. Design is inevitable. The alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all.

Douglas Martin, Book Design: A Practical Introduction (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990). Via Berkun, Scott. How Design Makes the World (p. 12). Berkun Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

So how do you make things meaningful?

There are at least three ways to achieve that:

  • Ask four questions of design
  • Use frame innovation
  • Listen like a pro

Ask Four Questions of Design

The first way is to ask Scott Berkun’s four questions of design (Source: Berkun, Scott. How Design Makes the World (p. 159). Berkun Media LLC. Kindle Edition.):

  • What are you trying to improve?
  • Who are you trying to improve it for?
  • How do you ensure you are successful?
  • Who might be hurt by your work, now or in the future?

Additionally: What’s the value? What problems does it solve?

If it solves a real problem for some people, then it’s meaningful to them.

Use Frame Innovation

The second way is to learn to frame and reframe the problem. If the current framing of the problem and/or the solution doesn’t make sense, then you have to reframe it to create meaning.

You’ll need to improvise and innovate.

Both the innovation of solution and the innovation of meaning help make design meaningful, albeit in different ways.

Listen Like a Pro

The third way is to listen carefully and professionally.

Sometimes meaning is bit like fame – you don’t find it, it finds you.

Listening like a pro is one of the best ways to uncover meaning.

It Takes Practice

There are certainly a lot more ways to make things meaningful. Hopefully the three mentioned above get you started.

It’s certainly not easy. It takes a lot of practice.

If you can’t make things meaningful, then, well, maybe just try to make them pretty at the very least. You owe it to your client.

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