Design is like a job interview.

I love design, but I hate the fact that so many people seem to misunderstand what it really is.

That said, true to my designer’s mentality, I‘m not here to complain.

Instead, I’m here to offer a solution: two quick articles to help people gain a better understanding of the true nature and purpose of design.

This first one is a helpful analogy:

Let’s pretend you’re an employer conducting a search for an open position at your company.

You narrow it down to two finalists, and on interview day:

  • Candidate 1 makes a striking first impression. They’re well-dressed, they’re very personable, and their smile lights up the room.
  • Meanwhile, candidate 2’s first impression is… well… kinda average. Their clothes are surprisingly casual and disheveled, and their demeanor is somewhat serious and harder to relate to.

But then the interview starts, and when they open their mouths:

  • Candidate 1 turns out to be completely unqualified. Their skillset is average at best, and it’s clear they either lied on their resume or bullshitted their way through the earlier stages of recruitment.
  • But candidate 2? Pure genius. Sure, they’re a bit prickly on the outside — but that fades away somewhat as their high level of skill and passion for their work shines through.

So which one do you choose?

Hopefully candidate 2. It may have been a rocky first impression, but when it comes to the actual problem at hand — in other words, the reason you started the recruitment process in the first place — they’re the one who can actually get the job done.

Sadly though, when it comes to design, I continue to see people choose “candidate 1” — figuratively speaking, of course, because this was merely an analogy, and I’m not talking about the hiring of designers.

Instead, I’m referring to the designs and design characteristics we choose.

You see, despite the rising importance and prominence of design over the last two decades, the fundamental misunderstanding many people continue to have is that it’s all about appearances — especially “making things pretty.”

It’s the age-old “form vs. function” debate — and in far too many circles, form is still kicking function’s butt.

I’ve seen it in potential clients who come to me without any expression whatsoever of the needs of their target audience. Instead, it’s all about organization-centric vanity goals like “we want things to pop” or “we want our brand to look more fierce” (which reveals that the word “brand” is also misunderstood, but I’ll save that for a different article).

Worse, I sometimes see it in professional designers who talk about “expressing themselves” and whether or not something is “trendy” or “cool” — yet they rarely talk about the people they’re designing for.

And the results are predictable as we end up with:

  • Websites and apps that look beautiful but are hard to use.
  • Buildings that are “modern” and “sleek” yet inaccessible for people with disabilities.
  • Marketing messages that are completely lost in translation because they were set in the smallest, thinnest light-grey fonts you can possibly imagine.

But here’s the thing:

I’m not advocating for swinging the pendulum so far in the other direction that we have function without form.

In fact, it’s usually a false choice. In most cases, we can — and should — achieve both form and function.

Back to our job interview analogy:

If a jobseeker wants to maximize their chance of success, they should strive to be a hybrid of candidate 1 and 2: someone whose outward first impression is genuinely positive and personable, and who is also highly skilled and qualified.

In other words, it’s the best of both worlds. Things should look good and be good — and when it comes to design, the bottom line is this:

  1. Looking good (ie: form) is often your ticket in the door. If you want people to notice your design and give it a try, then you should make it attractive and likable on first impression.
  2. Being good (ie: function) is how you get people to go from try to buy. If you want people to choose your design, and continue using it for a long time, then you should make it accessible, usable, and reliable.
  3. On the rare occasion that form and function truly do come into conflict, always choose function because a design that doesn’t solve a problem has no reason to exist.

Make sense? I hope it helped — but I’m not done yet. To prevent these continued misunderstandings, we need a better definition of design…