A Case for the Visual Designer - June 2018
Rethinking digital product design process, asking leaders to unlock the value in exploratory visual design to inspire product strategy.
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A Case for the Visual Designer
June 2018
Challenge the protocol.

Some years ago when I entered my career as a designer, I always knew that I wanted to change people's perspective without speaking to them, but with showing them something-preferably a simple something. I was (and probably still am) a bit fascinated with the idea of changing minds in the void of conversation. This crucial piece of personal inspiration never really left, but I think that somewhere along the way it got buried into the dunes of process thinking-and suffocated a little bit.

What I've Known

Upon being on-boarded to my first true product design team, a few years ago, I certainly was able to quickly define my role, and how I could best help my team. I knew what I was good at, I liked that, and I liked when my team members knew that. I never wanted to wear the 'generalist' hat-especially in a product or UX sense-and I certainly wasn't ready to take on the responsibility of anyone else's decision making. I just wanted to learn, be heard, and design things.

Over time, I saw patterns emerging from our teams process-the typical cadence of product work, UX and business decision making, then to visual, then to development. I got really comfortable with it, and I enjoyed it. I think I still really respect this process as a way forward when you've got a backlog of features on a relevant product that's doing well. However, this system is not perfect, sometimes it wastes peoples time, sometimes it creates an echo chamber of 'just ok' product thinking, and in the worst moments it is just an ego-centric whirlwind that loses sight of any true goal.


For me, the master (can be a product or design, not just a person) of something does not seem to be the first to get there, and it also isn't the theorist who rarely executes - it's the one who gets there first with the best and most simplified solution. Masters are just the ones who've succeeded the most, first. (And trust succeeding "the most" isn't always a high bar.)

All along I've felt that visual and graphic design is simply just organizing form, shape, and type to communicate an idea. In the same way we write in some sort of order to communicate a story, visual design needs to have similar themes to work, to communicate feeling, or for someone to be receptive to it. Just like stories, visuals can vary in length and narrative.

In my life, I've had the great fortune of growing up with design software at my constant disposal, even before enrolling myself in design school where the software was again formally taught to me. I'm confident in saying that I have a really objective view on creating many kinds of computer graphics, therefore, I can do a lot of things in a little amount of time. 90% of my visual design colleagues probably think is similar themes, it's just what we do.

I'm also not blind to the idea that as technology continues to improve, and people become more adapted to creating with machine, and in digital native cases, are born into it, it will be quicker and easier to show what you mean visually without costing much time at all. All this to say-tools are constantly making us faster at our craft. (Don't confuse this statement with good work-good work is not fast or cheap.)


In this life of being a visual communicator, I'm very prone to delivering most-to-all things (besides blog posts) I do in a visual frame, because I know it works well, and it's not much skin off my back. Especially now that design softwares have allowed me to be really fast.

Recently, I've had the opportunity to become a Lead Product Designer for a startup in my spare time. As a result of this, I was able to think more objectively about the contributions visual work makes to a team, and about the contributions I want to make as a lead designer. Putting myself in a new situation, I fully expected something like this to happen, but I never expected it to break down my ideas of the product design process I had seen serve my day job team so well (most of the time).

In the beginning, I went into the startup thinking "ok so we have to build a product, let's do ample research, requirements, UX/content org, and then visual." Simple, right?

Well, during research - something hit me. I decided that during this phase I was not going to refuse this urge to create immediately. I felt really inspired by the research I was pulling.

From these feelings, I started a visual sandbox, for our product design, that wasn't designed yet. I said to myself - so I know the goal and I know that this thing inspires me - I'm going to create a little snapshot of how I think it could work in our case. 25–45 well spent minutes later I had a clear view of a product idea, inspired by a who and why, presented in a 90% fidelity visual design. This idea ended up being one of the most simple and intuitive features of our interface.

Doing this felt kind of like a hack, at first. But then after a super receptive response to the visual ideas I had put together in a sandbox/research meeting (I mean like just amped a CEO way up with it) I realized it only felt like a hack because of the rigor from my day job experiences, my obsequious belief in "the product design process," my irrational fear of time wasting, and creating work that "won't get used." As visual communicators, suppressing the unwieldy urge to create "too soon" is prone to making us feel like we aren't doing as much, or as good of a job, as we can. Like I said, visual communicating is what we do.


This leads me to my case, that thinking visually needs to be reborn, especially in a process sense, and especially for digital product teams. Let's not just keep it in its "place," let us really use the value of it. Some form of custom visual, or micro-visual as a part of the inspiration and research process is powerful, and in most cases, it's the place when we feel the most inspiration toward a thing-before we've convinced ourselves of other priorities.

Visual Designers have a case, and that case is their undying idea of how something should look and feel spatially, and how they want someone to interact with it. This process is damn good inspiration for UX. Visual Designers have a real potential to understand product at the most granular level-and then inspire others through that. They should be asked to do this.

Dribbble-esque moments count, they don't have to be fully flushed out products, however they must communicate an complete idea or micro idea. These designs must uphold usability principles, don't add embelishments without reason. Caveat-these are not ta-da moments, they shouldn't be created secretly. They should be presented to people willing to give thoughtful and detailed critique.

Great visual designers have a very intimate relationship with the product, they understand that spark of interaction and they can understand it consistently and quickly (with all nuances included.) More often than not, they also understand the business really objectively- and can sense what the real problem might be with a current state because they see it for its goals, makeup, and function, and not just one or the other.

Thinking about adding this process will inspire product leaders, UX in non visual roles, and produce higher quality interactions. It should also, in my experience, make people more prone to being pumped up and less bogged down. The better understanding the entire team has, the better the product can be, and visuals really help people get there.

Theory is rarely the master. Attention to detail, and trial and error create mastery. Visual exploration shouldn't be considered a waste of time, and it shouldn't always be suppressed by "the process," if we wish to be inspired to a higher degree.

Bring visual designers along in strategy, ask them to create.