Eric Karjaluoto

Keep Your Unsolicited Redesign to Yourself

I’m not sure when the trend of producing unsolicited redesigns—and posting them online—became a recreational pursuit for so many designers. Among a great number of “design” pastimes of questionable value (think: web-based typeface identification games; “match the designer with their Hollywood doppelgänger” quizzes; or, the practice of regurgitating jokes about “making the logo bigger”) this new one seems to be gaining a great deal of steam.

I first remember 37Signals gaining visibility through their unasked-for reworking of sites for companies like FedEx, Google, and PayPal. Then, folks like Andy Rutledge took a stab at sites like The New York Times (and were then lambasted by those who knew better). Lately, though, this brand of “watch-me-do-it-better-ism” has become a common practice, with pretty much every ass-hat deciding to produce and show off their “improved” versions of iOS 7, (or whatever other design approach the public at large currently deems inferior).

Of all of these examples, the amateurs’ approaches aren’t the ones that frustrate me. The output of professionals partaking in this nonsense is what pisses me off. Anyone who has practiced design for even a short while should know better than to waste their time—as well as that of the rest of us—on such pointless, ill-informed, and fundamentally flawed pursuits. These individuals aren’t just using time poorly, they’re perpetuating bothersome misunderstandings about the design profession as a whole.

You see, taking a design someone else has worked on, investing little or nothing into learning about the practical obstacles or requirements (e.g., technology limitations, internal needs, traffic patterns) faced, and then reworking the elements to look prettier is easy. However, making such superficial cosmetic changes cannot properly be considered design.

This is what I find frustrating about the “insights” of so many armchair design critics: such people are quick to point out their personal esthetic preferences—but such biases amount to very little. So, while the unindoctrinated designer looks at a website and summarily states that the purchase process would look nicer if styled somewhat differently, they might not know that changing the underlying technology in order to make this small visual change possible, would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or, they may casually propose discarding some “boring seeming” content, which in fact accounts for a substantial amount of site traffic. Similarly, their appeals for utilizing flat styling, which looks so nice in the trend-focused designer’s portfolio, may not take into account whether such changes might be less intuitive for site visitors.

Mature designers don’t allow themselves to grow so preoccupied with visuals and personal esthetic preferences that they forgo greater needs. Instead, they appreciate that viable design solutions are the result of a designer or design team that first seeks to understand the broader situation and associated practicalities. These designers then collaborate with their client to determine a set of goals and objectives—as well as a means of determining success. Finally, the designers work to find a balance of meeting functional requirements and producing esthetic sensibilities that prove suitable. They accept that their unique vision needs to take a back-seat to broader organizational demands, brand identity systems, and other pre-determined requirements that need to be maintained.

The designer who chooses to produce an unsolicited redesign thinks little of any such requirements. This individual has the luxury of working with a blank slate allowing him to produce nearly anything he wishes—free of any consequence or impediment. But the freedom he feels is false, and rarely ever occurs in the real world. Actual design projects sometimes need to integrate inelegant components that simply have to be worked around. The client will undoubtably require changes that are not synchronous with the designer’s preferred approach. And, the production means available may not allow certain beautiful treatments to be implemented without modification.

The design stylist working without a client doesn’t recognize any of this. So, they produce a treatment that presents well on screen, looks nicer than the current solution in use, and subsequently gains accolades from colleagues as a result of the designer’s clean, fresh, and “uncompromising” approach. But this sort of design is unlikely to work, as such designs are really just prototypes put together in a vacuum, free of adequate process and iteration.

Such exercises can fill out a young designer’s portfolio and result in a few high-fives. Apart from that, though, these unsolicited redesigns are utter fluff. They will never be put into use. Those more knowing individuals who shepherd the actual design of these brands will simply shrug knowing that such dalliances are compelling—but largely the acts of novices who don’t understand the whole situation. And the creative directors who could hire these designers immediately recognize the superficial nature of such endeavors—and are hardly ever impressed.

So, what is the inexperienced designer to do, to show off their talents? Let me count the ways! Find an organization with a real design problem (a local deli, shoe store, or craft beer company) and sign-on to produce some design work for them at a low cost. If they’re particularly cash-strapped, you can even offer to do the work for a cut of any new business you help generate. Alternately, if you can code, you can devise your own web app or software product, get people to use your creation, and then iterate as you learn from actual usage patterns. If you don’t have any coding expertise, you can find a small startup with limited resources and help them with their design needs, in exchange for equity in their new venture.

All of these examples are representative of true design—as opposed to the pretend work that’s now clogging online design forums and portals. You won’t gain nearly as many accolades for the sorts of efforts I propose, nor will they look as pristine as your unsolicited spec work for the new Nike Air Jordan website. That said, these sorts of projects will in time be worth so very much more to you. As a result of these sorts of initiatives, you’ll learn how to work with clients, how to adapt when you plan falls short, and how to think about applied design problems. These are the sorts of challenges designers face daily—they aren’t always fun, but they are real.

A brief postscript: I fear that some confuse the nature of my posts as being overly curmudgeonly or as intended to incite vitriolic debate. If you read them carefully, though, you’ll realize that even in my crankiest seeming ones, I’m just making an appeal for common sense. I’m doing the same here: asking you to avoid pretending you’re doing design by dressing up the work of others, and instead encouraging you to concentrate on producing real design for actual challenges, which clients have engaged you to help with.

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