Piquant media design wants and needs

I want. I need.

3 March

Posted by

Read Hugh Heffernan’s thoughts on the role of design in our time, and designing for wants and needs.

At their core, designers find solutions. How to tell a story effectively. How to develop a system that reflects the various beliefs and operations of an organisation. How to create packaging that can stand out on a visually-noisy supermarket shelf. How to intuitively guide a person from the lobby to a particular department in a hospital complex. The individual tasks vary, but there is always an underlining thread that must be addressed. Do the solutions that designers envisage meet a want or a need? At first it is easy to conflate wants and needs, I need this therefore I must also want it, but in reality it is rarely as straightforward a process.

Often when meeting new clients, they come with a specific task in mind; this could be a new brand, or a website, or a social media campaign. Before rushing off to gather research or sketch up logomarks I tend to linger on this proposed task for a while and ask why? When you ask the question why enough times the core challenge is revealed. At which point the designer is no longer faced with a task, but rather a challenge posed as a question. How do we communicate a large scale-shift in our company without alienating our customers or employees? How do we make our customers aware of the full breadth of our services? How do we shift societal habits towards a more sustainable way of living?

When a designer is faced with a challenge it is then up to us to find the most effective and appropriate solution. This way of working is not overly concerned with what a client wants, instead it directly tackles what a client needs, and what their audiences need. Often, we are not working for our clients, rather our clients’ clients.

Where Dreyfuss assumed that greater good would come of giving people greater ease and the wherewithal to use the time they saved in pursuit of higher goals, we know that higher goals have to be designed into the things we make. It’s not just that objects can make our lives easier – It’s that the objects in our lives can in fact change us.

– Cliff Juang, User Friendly.

In Ireland we live in a designed landscape. We take it for granted that services should work efficiently (maybe with the exception of buses) and that products function as described. Often we only think about design when we are faced with a bad example, such as a poorly conceived form that is utterly frustrating to fill out. Good design acts as an invisible guide through our daily lives, from road signage to retail environments and online platforms. This invisibility is a key component to what is known as user-friendly design.

The idea behind user-friendly design is simple. Do not expect people to adapt to a service or product, instead design should adapt to people. This is a research-driven and empathic approach that requires we understand the context, capabilities, and challenges of specific audiences. At its best user-friendly design should be intuitive and instantly understandable, its form should imply its own function and operation. This design philosophy was intended to make our lives easier and, in the western world at least, this has very much been the case. But is ease-of-use all we should expect from good design?

Given the turbulent nature of the world we live in I don’t think it is enough to just aim for a faster delivery or a streamlined service. Good design’s invisibility means that we often do not consider it with a critical eye. We all must confront the design we face daily. Design can provoke use, such as Facebook’s Like Button, illustrated with an innocuous thumbs up, a miniscule feature that we all use to convey our emotions and beliefs in an instant. Beyond the initial effect, the unintended consequences of these design decisions can be monumental. We now know that a simple thumbs up can form echo chambers, spread misinformation, and breed toxic ideologies.

Design alone does not solve a problem, but it can act as a framework that empowers people to find solutions, share knowledge, and even transform the way in which we interact with the world. The principles of user-friendly design are still applicable today: empathy, research and added value, but we must think about more than the individual user, we have to consider how the design decisions we make today will affect our lives and the lives of others in the future.

Conversations in the design community are moving away from the idea of the user-friendly and towards principles of sustainability, accessibility, inclusivity, and liveability. These concepts include user-friendly practices yet go so much further, they are targeted in approach yet comprehensive in effect. We all have an active role to play in the pursuit of a better designed world, design for ease is not enough, we must design for the most vulnerable among us, champion the silenced and protect the defenceless. I believe there are solutions to the problems we face, we just have to be empathic enough to find them and brave enough to enact them.