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The Visual Designer's Guide to Thriving in Tech

6 tips for navigating a graphical career in a user experience world.

Digitally-minded brands are clamoring for UX talent to plan their next breakout product. A rich assortment of specialized roles have bloomed to meet that demand — interaction designers, user researchers, and content strategists to name a few. The influence of the graphic design generalist has receded and a new specialization emerged: the visual designer. That’s the person who contributes the squishy, aesthetic aspects of the software experience. But tech shops struggle to operationalize visual design because it is so subjective. Where does visual design fit and how do we measure it?

Software teams still need inspired graphic design if their application is going to serve the business goals. A talented group may build a clever piece of software, but technology isn’t a product without compelling aesthetics. That’s why this is the time for visual designers to reassess and reassert their place in tech. Here are six tips for doing that.

lots of hand drawn images stuck to a wall

1. Play Nice, Please

The best way to lose friends on the UX team is to interfere with other people’s hard work. One example is when graphic designers reshuffle the wireframe because they followed a muse. Don’t do that. Some people worked hard to research, design, and iterate that user flow. Second-guessing is not just rude. It interferes with the team’s efficacy. By understanding the contribution and value of each role, visual designers build goodwill and improve the function of the whole team.

Cultivating an enigmatic, creative persona doesn’t command the authority it could twenty years ago.  Designers can no longer say “because I said so” to rationalize design decisions. Data drives the business of tech. Software teams flourish when information flows free. To prosper in tech, graphic designers must learn to be comfortable with discussion, scrutiny, and accountability.

2. Address the Business Goal

Accountability fosters job security. The practice of UX advances because it is so plainly accountable to user’s goals. A UX team assesses interaction design decisions by observing the outcomes of user behaviors. The visual designer’s work is more difficult to quantify. Teams do test visual design work, but they flounder to attribute meaning to the results.

If interaction designers answer to the user, the visual designer answers to the business. While the interaction designer enables users in their goals, the visual designer influences users toward the business goals. The best visual designers discover where business and user goals meet to tell a seamless story. Successful software experiences are more than usable. They communicate brand credibility and deliver happy surprises. The visual designer draws the narrative arc that makes users want to be customers.

3. Think Beyond the Wireframe

If a technology product tells a story, the visual design influences the customer’s journey by crafting a continuous motif, conveying the user forward. Visual designers ensure the first moments of the product experience match marketing’s promise. They vividly suggest users goals for maturing as a customer. They reward daily reuse and sharing with prospective new users. Some of this activity is happening within the software. Other touch points are happening in the market or on social networks. Visual designers have a unique opportunity to be the architect of a unified tone across all these points.

Avoid being a decorator. Decorators focus on the task of theming a wireframe while the rest of the team considers strategy. Avoid being a layout clerk. A clerk applies technical proficiency in design rules and layout tools to deliver mock ups. Decorators and clerks are inevitably relegated to low-value roles on the team. The essential visual designer adds value by communicating a product vision spanning the full customer lifecycle.

4. Propose a Concept

The visual designer manifests the product vision through a concept. It’s neither a mood board nor a style guide. Think of a concept as the movie poster for your software product. With the concept, the visual designer defines a unique aesthetic northstar for the whole team to follow. Maybe the product is for an exclusive customer so the concept unites design patterns used by luxury goods. Or the software has a grassroots mission so the visuals borrow from a handmade design tradition.

Concepts are just as practical as they are visionary. During the product design process, the whole team will consider hundreds of small and large design decisions. Taking each decision ad hoc exhausts the stakeholders and denies the experience a continuous narrative. A strong concept puts the design process on rails, providing a narrative reference. The visual designer shows the way by providing the bedrock criteria for all those decisions that are otherwise hard to call.

5. Produce Plenty of Options

The visual designer isn’t just the keeper of good taste. They earn their keep by generating ideas. Don’t gild a single idea. Direct your inspiration to create lots of options. Software teams love to test so give them plenty of material to test. Business sponsors love to be part of the design process so give them plenty of pieces to mix and match. Work in volume to deliver conversations, not certainty.

As a creative person, the visual designer has a unique obligation to create raw material from nothing but a vision and input. Research and data inform, but new ideas spring from cognitive leaps. Remember, those ideas are cheap so don’t get attached. If you can think of one, you can think of six and edit ruthlessly. Stifle your ego. Be generous. Work in volume. Share your ideas and then let go. Maybe even join in tearing them apart. It’s freeing.

6. Bring the Flair and Appeal

Just like a good story has both plot and mood, good software is both useful and affecting. The personal aspect of technology still relies on an ethereal quality of grace. Walt Disney sometimes called it flair or appeal — those things that make your product worth engaging. Visual designers are the keepers of that expressive flame. When they are generous, flexible, and humble, they can thrive in tech.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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