What is design and why is it important?

There are many ways of thinking about design, and many facets of design exist both inside and outside the IT world. You're probably somewhat familiar with at least one design field: interior design, industrial design, product packaging design, costume design, fashion design, or landscape design. In the IT realm, you might find yourself dealing with graphic design, product design, and UX/UI design. Let's take a look at the last four fields and explore some frequently asked questions with the help of some real-world examples and explanations.

Imagine that you've found an interesting book on Amazon. Amazon should now display all the relevant information about the book. Naturally, they also want you to make a purchase. How should they go about this? These demands leave designers with an enormous list of questions to grapple with.

The Design of Everyday Things on Amazon.com
  • Should they show you the book cover? Where should they put it? How big should it be? Should everything in the thumbnail be readable? What happens if a user clicks on it?
  • Should they repeat the book title somewhere, even though you can see it on the cover?
  • What if the book is only available for Kindle and there's no paperback edition? How should they communicate this?
  • If there are both digital and paperback editions, which one goes first? Should one be pre-selected? If so, which one? What if there's also an audiobook?

Design choices can have an impact on user purchases and behavior
  • What colors should be used for the elements on the page? How large should the text be for reading comfort?
  • Does the user have an eBook reader? Do they have a Prime membership?
  • Should the user be asked to sign in first? Where should the "Sign in" button be? What should it look like? What size? What color? Does it even need to be a button, or could it be something else (a link, for example)?
  • What will the website look like on mobile? Will it just be a more compact version or should it be optimized for smaller screens? And what about tablets?
Amazon.com on mobile: the version on the left isn't adapted for a mobile screen, and the user would have to zoom in to read all the text on the page. The design on the right has cut back on the unnecessary elements, so it's much easier to read the title of the book and the info about it.

These and many other decisions can influence the way Amazon (or any product or service) appears. They influence how easy or difficult they are to work with, and they affect what you, as a user, feel and experience while using the product. There's a massive amount to consider, even more questions to ask, and a lot of design decisions to make — and all of these decisions can lead to widely varied user experiences.

An alternative design (and thus, experience) of the page above

Why do we need designers in IT?

The short answer is... to add value.

The long answer: designers improve the user's experience with the product. If users like the product, they'll use it more often. When users use a product a lot, they spend more money on it. The company that makes the product will become more profitable, its stock price will increase, it will pay more taxes, and workers will feed their families. A good design ensures added value.

Let's consider an example to illustrate the effect that good design might have on profits — an online sports supplements store. Here, the user can register, add several items to their cart, and place an order. However, on this site, when users reach the registration form, most of them just leave. Perhaps some of them don't remember their email, or for one reason or another, they simply don't want to give out their real name.

The designer then comes up with a great idea. They want to make it possible to place an order without signing up. The designer creates the new form and a new purchase process to make it easier for clients to order supplements. As a result of the change, the users who walked away when faced with the registration form now feel more comfortable with the purchase process. This small change directly contributed to the company's profits.

Then, the designer comes up with yet another idea. They suggest using autofill to store user data so that whenever a user comes back to the site, they can simply fill in the form with one click. The designer shares the idea with the web developer. Once implemented, the designer and the web developer review the impact of the new feature, and the number of orders had soared! Quite an impressive result.

Finally, the designer gets inspired to add a button for those who order sports supplements on a regular basis. This button will trigger a recurring purchase at a defined interval, and it will also apply a discount for these purchases. The designer pitches the idea to their team leader. Together they calculate unit economics and find out that the idea is worth trying. They add the feature. Indeed, later they find that some people had subscribed, resulting in a slight increase in the company's profits.

What is graphic design or UX design?

There are different areas within the field of design. Let's briefly overview them now.

Graphic design is all about making the individual elements of a design work well visually: icons, shadows, lines, textures, logos, and colors. Graphic designers work with both print and digital products. In the case of digital products, they are responsible for the website or app's look and feel. Is it cheerful or serious? Is it soft or bold? How does the user feel when interacting with it?

Here are some example websites with different designs, graphics, and illustrations that might communicate different emotions. Try and think about what you're feeling as you look at these examples.

The website of headspace.com, an app that teaches you how to meditate and practice mindfulness
The website of a CrossFit gym in Malta at crossfitmartell.com
The platform of a CRM system for small businesses at mailchimp.com
The interface of Practicum's design course

UX design is about user experience and usability. In other words, UX design focuses on understanding how the user interacts with the product. When a user installs an app, they expect some kind of walkthrough for using its main features. Good UX design will answer the obvious questions upfront. What kind of notifications will the user receive from the app and when are they triggered? If it's possible to create an account in the app, can you also change that username, or upload a photo?

UI design is about the look and function of the product's interface. Let's say you have one, or even several, pages on a website. What buttons should you add? Where should you place them? How big should they be to catch the user's attention so that they click them? Where and how should helpful hints pop up? If an error occurs, what will a user see?

Unique, fun 404 page designs can go a long way in making users less annoyed with any errors they encounter on your website

Unique, fun 404 page designs can go a long way in making users less annoyed with any errors they encounter on your website

UX/UI designers work on user interfaces and user experience maps in tandem. Here's a simple example. In the chart below, you can find a map illustrating the flow of screens and the path that a user takes to achieve a particular goal, for example, purchasing a product or finding a store. A UX/UI designer's job is to make sure the flow is smooth, logical, and seamless.

The picture was made using the Squid app. It's a set of graphic elements for a design toolkit called Sketch

Web design is about what the website should look like, i.e. where to place elements, how the menu and buttons should look, whether it's necessary to split the content into two pages, the website logic, and how it should behave on mobile devices.

Web design encompasses both UI and UX design, as well as any other processes that go towards creating a website. Web designers may be expected to work closely with web developers and to possess basic coding knowledge.

There is some overlap between web design and UX/UI design, but in general, the latter uses a far-more human-centered approach, placing the user and their needs at the forefront of the design process.

Design of the Google's main page in 1998, 2007 and 2011 reflects changes in the web design trends. Screenshot source: businessinsider.com

Product design is the process of turning an idea into a product. ****Let's say you work at Uber and your teammate comes up with a new idea: a function that allows users stuck in traffic to chat with each other.

First, the product designer needs to find out if there will be demand for the feature and if it serves the business's needs. If it turns out that the feature is useful, and it matches the strategy of product development, the product design team will start outlining the idea and discussing potential issues:

  • What kinds of features should the chat window have?
  • Should chat be open for anyone online, no matter their location, or should their distance apart be important?
  • What if someone starts harassing people?
  • What if two participants want to meet in real life?

Once these questions have been answered, the product designer will give tasks to UX/UI designers in order to bring the idea to life.

Should designers know how to draw?

Most often, no drawing skills are necessary to be a designer. Designers in IT usually work with digital objects. You don't need to spend five years in art school to learn how to create buttons, input fields, and user experience maps — modern software takes care of this for us.

However, there are some exceptions:

  • If you are a graphic designer, knowing how to draw can help you create more dynamic designs, as well as better forms and textures. A good graphic designer should know at least some basics of fine art and academic art.
  • If you are a fashion designer, you'll need to draw a lot of sketches for your projects, which means drawing skills are essential.

Essentially, being able to draw people, or knowing how light reflects off different materials are awesome skills, but they aren't strictly necessary when designing a user interface.

What skills are essential?

Actually, being a designer requires a solid knowledge of human nature.

This might involve some understanding of any of the following:

  • How does memory work? How will the user remember where to find your product?
  • How do people form habits? How can you make users return to your product and build brand loyalty? You have to determine the right number of notifications, figure out how to increase dopamine levels, and perhaps include gamification and other interactive elements in your projects.
  • How easy is it for the user to interact with the interface? How much time do they spend repetitively filling in the same field? Is it better to interact with a particular feature by scrolling, swiping, or clicking?
  • How do people make decisions?
  • Which factors influence human emotions? What makes a person angry or relaxed? How can you make the user feel good after making a purchase?
  • Can you take into account different reading styles? Do people scan quickly through your text to find specific information?

And of course, this list could go on and on!

User Inyerface, a web game, is an example of a confusing, frustrating, and infuriating user interface. The game is designed to demonstrate a poorly designed UX and to showcase how challenging it can be for a user to navigate through it. Try it yourself: userinyerface.com

Designers create and adapt products to solve human problems. If you know that users don't want to fill in the same fields over and over again, you'll need to come up with a way to save the data from those fields. If you know that users usually scan the text instead of actually reading it, you'll need to find a way to make sure that users get a good idea of the content by using large, attention-grabbing headings and emphasized blocks of text.

As for product creation, if you know there's demand for an app that lets people keep track of their diet and exercise routines, you're probably on your way to designing a cool new fitness app.

That's what design is all about.

Designer salaries

The average salary of a graphic designer is $47,000 per year. A graphic designer's job is to create different graphics, such as flyers, posters, ad banners, and any other masterpieces. It's a job that offers more leeway for fun and creativity, while creating some masterpieces, albeit with the potential for strict deadlines.

The average salary of UX/UI designers is $85,000 to $100,000 per year. ****Their job is to study human behavior and emotions to understand what their target audience needs. Based on that, they then create products that are easy to use and offer successful solutions to user problems. Some UX/UI designers work in large companies that have a benefits package, cool job perks, and nice snacks in the office kitchen.

A product designer earns $120,000 per year on average. As the digital realm continues to evolve and expand, demand for product designers is also growing. Having a product designer on a team is becoming crucial for every IT product company because these designers oversee the product creation process from start to finish.

The average salary for a web designer is $46,000 per year. Various industries are always looking for web designers, especially those that specialize in digital products, like digital agencies or web design studios. Web designers usually spend a lot of their day making corrections, amongst other tasks.

It's worth keeping in mind that the actual job title for the same role can vary from company to company, so the salary information you see above may apply to other job titles mentioned depending on where you're making your job application. For example, a smaller company could have a single designer performing all of the above roles.

What about the age-gender distribution?

If you're reading this article, you have everything you need to become a designer. Your gender, age, sex, social identity, and political beliefs don't matter, and in fact, they can bring unique benefits to an organization. The principles of design are based on Fitts's Law and on the concepts of equality and usability.

What software do UX/UI designers use?

There are many free UX/UI design programs out there, one of the most popular apps being Figma.

To work as a graphic designer, you'll likely need Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator since they are very popular in the industry. However, there are some free alternatives.

Do I need to have a graphics tablet?

In short, no, you don't need a tablet. Even illustrators can work without a tablet. Graphic tablets are tools primarily used for digital painting, and they are not a necessity by any means. For some people, a graphic tablet makes their work much more convenient. Others prefer working without one. But if you've wanted to buy one for a while — do it. It'll definitely come in handy.

What about a large computer monitor?

Having a large monitor is a great advantage, although it all comes down to what's comfortable for you. Making a website design on a small monitor can be a pain in the neck (literally). It's like driving from the East Coast to the West Coast in a go-cart. You'll eventually reach your point of destination, but at what cost? Is it worth it?

Still, before buying a large monitor, try working on a small one. Why? Firstly, there are lots of great options out there, and large monitors with poor color accuracy might be a waste of your time anyway. If you're a UI or UX designer, that might be OK. However, if you're a graphic designer, color accuracy plays a large role. Secondly, designers also need to know how a design looks on an average size screen so some just prefer to work on a smaller screen from the get-go.

Do I need to have a degree in design?

You might have heard you need a degree in design, but that's not true at all.

Most UX/UI college courses spend many hours teaching academic concepts that aren't really applicable at work. Some courses will even have you spending a lot of time behind an easel.

We recommend that you don't waste your time and instead come to the people who do this for a living — we'll help you to get your hands dirty with real-life projects.

Where do I start learning for free?

A digital online micro book on the basics of user interface design.

Web design 101 by Webflow is a free ebook that covers the fundamentals of web design and the web design process.

AIGA Eye on Design is a great place to learn about the most recent trends and issues that designers care about the most.


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