The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Visual Design is not a thing

– August 2nd, 2011 –

Recently, in our industry, I’ve noticed a disturbing increase of the term ‘Visual Design’. It’s often used to describe a job title, or a step in a UX design process; ‘we’ve done the strategy, the product definition, the prototyping… now, let’s make it pretty with some visual design. We need a Visual Designer to do that’. This confuses and bothers me. So, rather than have a weekly debate about it on Twitter, I thought I’d pen a few words here to make my point.

I understand that you can design things without concerning yourself with colour, type and layout. And, yes, in a UX design process the tasks of product definition, wireframing, interviewing and a whole bunch of other techniques and tasks are done before anyone thinks about typography. But, honestly, I don’t know a single good designer who would call themselves a visual designer, or what they do as ‘Visual Design’. There is simply so much more going on that making something pink or blue, bevelled or shiny.

Some people equate graphic design to visual design. You’re dealing with the surface, with the look and the layout. Now, as a trained graphic designer, I don’t think this could be further from the truth. The aesthetic aspects of graphic design are but one part of a whole bunch of necessary skills. To expand on that, here are somethings that I did whilst practicing as a graphic designer:

  • Created paper prototypes of an encyclopedia
  • Interviewed potential customers for a large retail organisation before working on the branding
  • Audited and observed wayfinding pathways in a museum
  • Worked alongside market research agencies

Those aren’t the tasks of someone who just makes things pretty. And here’s the thing: understanding, talking to and observing your audience is a fundamental part of graphic design research. In fact, it’s the first thing they teach you about communication theory: what are you trying to say, and who are you trying to say it to.

So, you see, graphic design is not Visual Design. And given that the look of something –- in my mind at least — can’t be considered holistically without the feel of it, or the use of it, then how can Visual Design be separated as not only a step in a process, but as a job title? Good graphic designers concern themselves with the What, the Who, and the How. The message, the audience and the mechanics. Which is what we do on the web.

If you feel the need to call it something, can we call it what it’s always been called? Let’s just call it graphic design.

Filed in: design.

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