Not-not-design: Confessions of a Terrible Designer

I’m a terrible designer. I’m an amateur with Adobe Creative Suite, I know almost nothing about color theory or typography, and I don’t—in fact, I can’t—make your website or software interface “pretty,” a role often rightly understood as the designer’s. I’d guess that at least three-quarters of my work isn’t even meaningfully visual; I spend most of the day reading and writing, talking and listening.

The problem is, I’m a senior designer at a well-respected healthcare software firm.

My boss likes to call what we do “‘Big-D’ design,’” a term architect Larry Barrow seems to have coined. That means we don’t just (“just”) crank out detailed designs and styleguides, but we also tackle all the research, analysis, and communication that leads up to that final step. It’s a nod to the importance of the thinking behind the final design deliverables—also leading to the concept “design thinking,” popularized at IDEO and Stanford’s

I like the idea of elevating design’s reputation among non-designers into Big-D territory, but the mere addition of a capital letter doesn’t communicate how much worse I am at the lowercase version than my colleagues. So, I’ve also taken to explaining that my work is “not-not-design,” a less intuitive term, but a productive one in that it allows me to tell a good story:

In one of the interviews for the job I have now, I was feeling skeptical that I could or should end up in a design position. As I showed one of my wireframes, I wanted everyone in the room to understand that such barebones presentations are as high as I climb on Fidelity Mountain. I said something to that effect, and the design group’s second-in-command said, “But that’s not not design.”

And she was right, that’s not not design. If design is the process of learning about users and business needs and working towards concepts and eventually some visual deliverable, then I’m doing at least three-quarters of that work. What I do is (not-not-)design if anything is.

So why do I have such a hangup? Why do I feel it’s awkward to be introduced around our enormous parent organization as “the designer on the project?” Why do I need to rally behind a term like “not-not-design” in the first place?

My own problem probably starts with web marketing agencies, where I spent my professionally formative years, and where, until recently, design and user experience (UX) didn’t often overlap as disciplines. UXers worked on strategy and architecture; designers tackled the visuals and brought the interactivity one step closer to its eventual life in code. In the best cases, the two might collaborate some as they worked. Sometimes there’d even be a developer at the table.

The UX field does also have a well-documented terminological problem (OK, one more), which is that even those of us inside it don’t often feel certain what it means to call ourselves UX designers, architects, or strategists. It’s easier for some firms, like my current employer, to sidestep that question by just calling everybody “designer,” and to explain the depth of that term later. It’s just that between the moment when somebody sees my business card and the moment when they learn what I do (and do not), I feel a little bit like a liar—and perhaps a little bit undervalued, too.

Misunderstanding the role of the designer—ignoring not-not-design, in other words—is bad for everybody. If I were a designer at an agency like the ones in my past, I’d want very badly to get to spend as much time as the UXers do talking to users and stakeholders and poring over secondary research before I even started thinking about layout and type. If I were a UXer at one of those places, I’d want to feel like I had a strong influence on the final visual representation of the product, even if I lacked the skills to help create that representation directly. (In other words, I’ve found a pretty good fit in my current employer.)

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no value in identifying and articulating the differences among these many roles. There is and ought to be a community of people talking productively about how to do better work in the areas that will probably always elude me. Likewise, I like talking and learning about things that may never interest some of those people.

All I’m saying is, despite my protestations in the job interview, I do belong on something called “a design team,” because not-not-design is design, too.

Posted in Technology, Web | 1 Comment

Exercises for New Parents

  • kidlifting (all muscle groups)
  • swaying/bouncing (quads, patience)
  • sex (imagination)
  • rageful clenching (jaw, glutes, adrenal glands)
  • spouse-shouting (abs, rectum [if neurotic])
  • door-slamming (anterior delts, lats, eardrums)
  • house-fleeing (right lower leg, right wrist and forearm [if manual transmission], teeth / inventiveness [when pulled over])
  • divorce paperwork (small muscles of the dominant hand)
  • loneliness (small muscles of the dominant hand)
Posted in Life, Sport | 2 Comments

Why I’m Buying a Case for My iPhone 5

As documented by Geoff Barnes, I waited a long, long time to upgrade from my iPhone 3GS, skipping directly to the 5.

Besides my sharing Barnes’ experience of the near-impossibility of one-handed operation of the iPhone 5, I also continue to lament the squared-off form factor of the backside of the device.

Yes, the diamond-bit chamfer on the edges makes the phone feel better in the hand than the 4/4S did to me—or else I wouldn’t have bought the 5 any more than I did the 4 or 4S. I do feel those edges digging into me, but not as much as the 4S did when I auditioned it at the Apple Store.

What my 3GS provided that none of the newer models do, though, is some kind of safeguard against dropping the phone. The rounded back put more surface area of the phone in contact with my skin, making sliding toucher. The composite material, much tackier than the aluminum, doubled down on that friction. All told, I’ve probably lost control of the 5 more in a couple months than I did in more than three years.

The light weight of the 5 also means trouble, combined with the slipperiness of the aluminum. With a new baby at home, I spend lots of time in pajamas and gym shorts, and the svelte, smooth iPhone 5 is so susceptible to jostling and shifting that it falls out of my pocket literally every time I sit down on my couch or in our glider (when I’m wearing those clothes). It’s hit our hardwood floor more than once, and I feel sure a cracked screen is in my future. The 3GS, of course, never fell out of any of my pockets. It was just too heavy, which again I preferred.

The sad bottom line is this: When I find one, I will buy a case for the phone that makes the back rounder and the device heavier. Like Farhad Manjoo, I’ve been derisive about cases in the past, but the fact is that having a case on this phone would make it a better phone, for my purposes. I’m glad it looks so pretty, but it just feels a mess.

Posted in Life, Technology | 2 Comments

Also About Those Long Line Lengths

This morning, Tyler Galpin took a shot on Twitter at Stuff & Nonsense’s new redesign:

Yay for completely unreadable line lengths on a screen larger than a laptop. Constraints, dude.

Andy Clarke defended the design choice, saying, among other things:

I don’t want to put constraints on line-length. That’s not a designers’ job. It’s a user’s job. If anyone wants to change the measure in a flexible layout, they can do it easily by changing the browser window width on their Mac or PC.

By me not limiting line-length, a user can let big text fill their screen and see more of it at a time. A constrained, narrow width would force them to scroll and I don’t want that. If you think my logic’s flawed, or you can think of a better solution, I’m all ears.

As luck would have it, I’m all mouth.

So let’s chat for a minute. Let’s chat about two things that users can do to improve readability, as needed:

  1. lean in to the display
  2. invert the colors of the screen image using OS-specific commands

These acts have dramatically different barriers. The first requires only a minimally functional set of core muscles—no conscious thought or fine motor control whatsoever. The second, some problem analysis, a conscious decision, prior advanced knowledge of one’s OS, and a modicum of fine motor skills, depending. (I still often botch the iOS home-button triple-tap.)

The greater the set of requirements to perform a task, the more the designer should do to prevent the user from having to perform that task. Absent some principle like that, how could we say that, in general, designs shouldn’t feature white-on-black body copy? Or, I don’t know, 6px body copy?

I would argue that the action Clarke empowers his users to take—constraining line lengths by adjusting browser window sizes—has more requirements than the scrolling he’s trying to help them avoid.

Scrolling is easy and barely conscious for many people in many cases. It’s such a fundamental act of web reading that we have many different ways to do it:

  • the arrows on the scroll bar
  • the whitespace in the scroll bar
  • the scroll position indicator in the scroll bar
  • the mousewheel
  • the trackpad
  • whatever you call the top of the Apple Mouse
  • the space bar
  • the down arrow key
  • tapping a phone’s screen and dragging (so easy I do it with my nose when I’m wearing gloves)

And so on.

(Okay, one more: In Instapaper’s iOS app, you can just tip your iPhone or iPad to scroll. Marco Arment seems to have taken scrolling to be so important in developing an app for reading that he wanted to make it even easier. This despite the tap-and-drag’s having been, again, an absolutely fundamental iOS interaction from day one.)

By contrast, resizing a browser window as Clarke would prefer we do requires, first, that we make the conscious decision to do so. Anecdotally, when I make the decision to resize a browser window, it feels like I’ve done a lot more analysis of the problem I’m having than when I scroll, a behavior that I started using in, I don’t know, 1987. I bet you feel more or less the same way.

There are also fewer ways to resize a window. Historically, you could use your OS’s maximize and related buttons or you could grab the bottom-right corner of the window. The buttons probably don’t help Clarke make his case, since they don’t resize with enough control or predictability to be useful in trying to adjust text sizes.

The latter method, grabbing the corner, was such an interface problem—with its small targets and somewhat sloppy, two-axis behavior—that, starting with Lion, Apple decided to change the model significantly. I’m stubbornly attached to Snow Leopard, so I can’t speak to the effectiveness of the new resizing features. (And to be fair, Apple tackled scrolling, too, not that I was jazzed about those changes.) But it’s tough to imagine an argument that resizing is easier than scrolling, the dilemma as Clarke figures it.

All told, if it were my site—and, at the moment you read this, it will be—I would much more readily encourage scrolling than resizing.

Posted in Web | 1 Comment

What Corporate Donors Want

A recent non-profit client just a year old had taken on an aggressive campaign goal: raising $12 million in 2011 from corporate sponsors alone in its second year. I was tasked with conducting research to help the organization understand what corporate donors want.

My findings, below, were based on primary and secondary research and my experience with fundraising and development efforts. The factors listed make the greatest difference for corporate donors and are presented in an order of rough importance.


Small- and medium-sized businesses especially look for opportunities to give locally, as one might expect. For such businesses, which usually lack national profiles, donations that impact the immediate community go further in terms of raising profile and making an appreciable difference. The preference for local philanthropy may also be a matter of convenience, insofar as local groups have an advantage in terms of conducting meetings with and giving presentations targeting corporate giving officers. Finally, many businesses likely understand that improving their own communities will lead to happier employees (and customers), and to greater recruiting potential.

It may be a surprise that many large corporations with national profiles also choose to give locally, largely for the same reasons. What “locally” means, thought, is a complicated question. For example, PNC Bank is well-known for philanthropic efforts near its branches but especially near its corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA. (The name of the company’s philanthropic website bears out this community focus.) Another company in the top half of the Fortune 500, Dow Chemical, notes in its philanthropic guidelines, which are divided by state or region, that they target nonprofits that “address a social, economic, educational, or environmental need in a city/community in which The Dow Chemical Company has a presence.” That presence can be in manufacturing, corporate, distribution, or any other activity in which the company engages.


Corporate philanthropy can only meet the corporation’s goals—again, profile-raising and community improvement, among others—if the recipients make good use of donated funds. As such, corporate giving officers look for evidence of past effectiveness and, for younger nonprofits in particular, potential for future success. This evidence can be quantitative or qualitative, focusing either on efficient use of funds (e.g., helping a great number of people with minimal financial commitment) or on individual success stories (“human interest” case studies or testimonials). Nonprofits that can provide both kinds of evidence will find the greatest success in attracting corporate donations.


In a post-Enron, post-housing-bubble era, many businesses face an increasing demand for transparency. This is most true for public corporations, of course, but also holds for companies owned by groups of private investors or by venture capitalists. In order to preserve the integrity of their own books, most corporations look for philanthropic opportunities with nonprofits that can show how they have used funds they’ve received in the past, with nothing vague or irregular in the breakdown of expenditures.


In some cases, the “bragging rights” that accompany philanthropy drive giving officers at larger companies to seek out nonprofits with unique service offerings, unique positions within their fields, or otherwise unique perspectives on their causes. Also, since most corporations prize innovation internally, their philanthropic goals tend naturally to fall in line with that disposition.

Safety in Numbers

Another consequence of the increased demand for transparency is that corporate giving officers tend to take comfort in making donations to groups that have already attracted other corporate gifts. It may be an unfair prejudice, but donors perceive an organization as less likely to be fraudulent or otherwise troublesome if it has received many corporate gifts in the past. By donating to well-established recipients, officers protect their own reputations and those of their employers. Attracting many donors may also be seen—again unfairly—as likely to correlate with a nonprofit’s success.

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