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Andy Budd: Its just design

Leading UX expert and co-founder of the Clearleft agency Andy Budd asks 'Can something be described as good design if it’s highly functional… but looks shoddy?'

BIO: Andy is a founding partner and MD at UX design consultancy Clearleft. He is a well-known speaker at a host of global web design conferences including UX London, An Event Apart, South by Southwest and Inspire. Find him online at

A lot of the discussions I have about our profession seem to conclude with somebody saying something along the lines of, “Well, it’s all just design really”, or “It’s just good design and bad design”. This is a convenient way of terminating a conversation when you’re bored and have a bus to catch. It’s the designers’ equivalent of Godwin’s law.

In the most part I agreed that user-centred design and task-centred design are really just Design. Graphic design, product design and architectural design are also Design. You could even argue that engineering and programming are forms of Design, if you believe that Design is ultimately about making decisions which affect the final manifestation of a thing.

However it’s not an especially helpful statement. Fashion design, jewellery design and architectural design differ because of the medium and the way that the medium is enjoyed. The differences in medium combine with history to produce vastly differing approaches, and it’s these differing approaches that I
find particularly interesting.

Within digital design, there are varying approaches (or schools) including user-centred design, task-centred design and genius design. All of these approaches have evolved to address a wide range of needs, and in turn produce slightly different outcomes. None of these approaches is an island, and good designers will often mix and match techniques. However, every designer uses a slightly different mixture and comes up with a vast array of results. Some with more success than others, of course.
Defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design though is even harder. Is good design just a matter of aesthetics and personal taste, or can something be described as good design if it’s highly functional and fit for purpose, but looks shoddy (I’m thinking of big players like eBay, Amazon and a host of other high-traffic websites here)?
Interestingly, it’s mostly senior people that use the ‘It’s just design’ argument, and I think there is good reason for this. Like Buddha reaching enlightenment and realising that we’re all basically interconnected, designers at the peak of their careers start looking across disciplines and noticing the similarities. We are all part of this big interconnected thing called Design.

Congratulations. You’ve reached design nirvana. Let’s all hold hands and pat each other on the back (not at the same time, obviously).It is at this point that many designers ascend to design heaven (or possibly up their own backsides) and detach themselves from the suffering of the average man. However, just like Buddha, I think that a few of these design gods would benefit from coming back down to earth and selflessly helping their fellow designers to reach a similar state of mind.
Once you’ve reached enlightenment, you can’t go around telling people how obvious and interconnected everything is or you’ll start sounding like David Icke (the lizards are responsible for everything, honest). Instead, the way to lead people to that understanding is to provide them with models of the world that expand their understanding and lead them to their own ‘light-bulb moment’.

This is much in the same way that physics teachers will explain Newtonian mechanics before moving on to quantum string theory. 
This is why I find conversations about the nature of design useful. It allows designers to expand their horizons in different directions until their models start to overlap – to apply different lenses to their practice in order to understand how the various moving parts work, and where they fit in.
Sure, it’s all just design in the end, but that doesn’t make user-centred design, task-centred design or any other schools of design any less useful or relevant.le to provide them with experiences as individual as the consumers themselves. The era of the one-size-fits-all website is over and adaptive marketing is the future.