Jamie Mill, Lead Product Designer at Relive

What is your relationship to visual design?

The first thing that comes to mind is it’s one part of my profession, and my current job, so my role does involve an aspect of visual design. I kind of view it as a third of my role, like product thinking, interaction design and visual design, so roughly it’s 33% of my profession. As a design lead, it’s maybe not so much hands-on visual design, sometimes more feedback and coaching, but occasionally it is still hands-on as well. So, there’s a professional relationship in that it’s part of my role.

Other meanings of the word relationship, visual design is something I find interesting and sometimes frustrating, it’s also something that I suppose I’ve been doing, maybe even all my life but maybe since my teenage years. But I didn’t call it visual design, I would have called it desktop publishing or graphic design or something. Only maybe in the last eight years did I start thinking of it as a thing called visual design as a complement to other types of design.

Did I put words in your mouth when I called it “visual design”? Would you call it something else?

No, I would call it visual design, and I prefer the term visual design over UI design because I find UI design, it literally means user interface, which is more than just the visual part, I think, there are voice user interfaces for instance. So yes, I’m okay with the term visual design, although I always feel terminology and naming things and defining things is a black hole that can absorb a lot of energy without much conclusion, so I try not to get too hung up on names.

Do you remember how you came by the names you use?

Well, when I mentioned those three parts – product thinking, interaction design and visual design – I became aware of those three as a trio when I was applying for a job at Facebook. They said, make sure you show us these three things, because this is what we consider a product designer to be. I don’t think that was the first time I’d heard the phrase visual design, but it certainly then stuck in my head as, oh yes, okay, that’s one third of what product designers tend to do.

I don’t know further back than that where I first heard it. I think I must have just seen it online, in discussions about UX and product design.

Some people want to refer to “UX and UI design”. How do those line up with the way you describe “interaction and visual design”?

Yes. I think, again like a bit of a black hole of defining things, but when I hear people say UX and UI design, I think they don’t know the difference and that’s why they sort of anxiously say them both, to try to cover everything, say, oh we need the UX/UI to be done, or we’re hiring a UX/UI designer. They’re a bit nervous that they don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they say both of them to cover all the bases. But roughly, I do think that probably when they say UX they’re thinking about the interactions, and then when they say UI they’re thinking about the visuals, because there isn’t a clean distinction, a precise line between the two.

I don’t think the people that say UX/UI necessarily think that UX is more than interaction design, but the field of UX, the field of user experience certainly includes more because it includes user research, it includes psychology. The discipline of UX I think is broader than interaction design, but again I could easily argue that interaction design also needs research and needs psychology, so you could easily say that interaction design covers UX design, or UX design covers interaction design, and can never really arrive at a crystal clear answer.

How do you think interaction design and visual design relate to each other?

I think interaction design is the flow of steps and the structure of the interface. Ultimately, we’re making decisions about the sequence of things someone can do and the way it’s structured in time and in space, and the feedback that’s given. I’m trying not to use visual words, but it’s hard because when I talk about the structure in space then that implies visuals as well. I think there are things that are more clear like a choice of typeface or the hex code of a colour which are things we associate more with visual design. Layout, contrast and typography and iconography, illustrations and all this type of thing I associate more with visual design, but I think there’s a big blurry space in the middle where the two things overlap.

How do you get involved with visual design as a design lead at work?

In most of my jobs I haven’t been responsible for defining the style, the brand. I don’t consider originating creative visual solutions my strong point. I think I’m quite good at enforcing or refining the visual design of something. I think I have a good eye for when something doesn't conform to the style it’s supposed to or if it violates what I think is a basic pleasing design, like some amount of it is objective rather than subjective, and so as a lead I’m trying to provide feedback on what I think is objectively not so good. Either in relation to what our style guide is for the product I’m working on, or just in general, like I think the line height is too large here. So, providing feedback and mentoring in visual design is some of my role.

I guess that’s the main part really, but also hands-on. So, both the jobs I’ve had where my title was lead product designer meant that I was kind of a half player/half coach, so I’m also sometimes doing design either to fill in for someone. If there’s something to be done and I can help, then I will.

You mentioned feedback on objective things. How much feedback do you give on subjective things?

I suppose all of it is subjective although, if I can fall back to something that I think is generally agreed then I think it’s safer. I feel safer giving feedback like, these items are related and yet the distance between them makes them look unrelated. I consider that more objectively wrong. Let’s say 60% objective and 40% subjective. I’m wary of giving purely subjective feedback. I respect that just because I might make something look different, doesn't mean it’s better, there should be room for each designer to express themselves. Unless I can find a reason why it’s objectively wrong, I will try not to influence it to just be the way I would design it.

If you did wade in with purely subjective feedback, do you think people would take you at you’re word, as a design lead?

I think it would depend on the relationship. It depends how I frame it; if I said, hey this is subjective, this is just my opinion, then I would be inviting them to disagree. All my feedback I try to invite people to disagree. This is me talking about how I ideally want to behave, maybe I’m not always actually behaving like this, when I’m in a rush or under pressure or something, but I try to leave room for me to be wrong. For someone to have a better idea.

I find the idea of subjective inputs “battling” interesting. How do you prove who’s right?

I’m trying to think back to recent examples where we’ve been discussing a design and how maybe it’s too much, like too many things happening and we might achieve our goal by taking things away instead of adding more. I’ve felt safe suggesting that because it seems like a safe enough principle. If you can solve the problem by removing stuff rather than adding stuff, probably it’s better to remove. And I think in this case the team was in agreement because… I don’t know if they were in agreement because the end results looked better or because the philosophy sounded sane or what.

You said earlier that original creative work is not your strong point. How does that line up with how much you enjoy it?

There was a part of my career when I was doing more pure graphic design, particularly animated, like motion graphics for TV title sequences. Most of that was creating a style, like branding the TV show and coming up with a style. That felt like fun at times. But I quite like constraints, I quite like rules that I can follow, rationally, and I didn’t find a lot of rationality in that space where you’re just trying to come up with something. You’re constantly finding the balance between being inspired by someone else but not wanting to plagiarise that versus trying to be creative and new, and that whole space of trying to do something purely creative without any rational reason for making the choices, I found a bit too unnerving.

I think I’m more happy in a space that’s more about functionally. About making a visual design that works, so designing an app, designing a website, laying out some text typographically. I would find that more fun than designing a logo for instance; designing a logo I find not so enjoyable because it’s like an infinite space of creativity that scares me more than just producing a functional design that I think works and is elegant.

When you worked on TV title sequences, did you work with other people who seemed more comfortable with the creative side?

I worked with people who seemed to be less anxious about their own creative abilities. People I was working with, or others I was competing against for the same work, I don’t know how they felt about it. I guess I had a bit of imposter syndrome there, like I didn’t know if I am good enough, if I’m creative enough or artistic enough. But I couldn’t really know if others felt that way or not, I assumed they wouldn’t be doing the job if they felt too anxious about it.

Do you have any insight into why some people felt more comfortable with original creative work?

No, but I can think back to my art college days where, I did a one-year art and design foundation specialising in graphic design. That was the first time I compared myself to other designers, other fine artists. I went from being at school where I considered myself quite artistic to suddenly being in art college where everyone is artistic, and maybe I’m not the most artistic person here or I’m not the most creative person here, and that shook my confidence a bit.

Did you see a difference between how they worked and how you worked?

I don’t remember actually. It was too long ago now; I just remember this feeling afterwards, it’s why I decided not to study graphic design at university and I went to do music technology instead. I found music technology had a bit more rationality to it, it’s using technology to solve creative problems whereas in pure graphic design and fine art it’s a bit more conceptual and expressive. I just didn’t know if I had it in me. Or maybe I just wasn’t that interested in expressing myself creatively, I was more interested in practical problem solving. That’s when later, learning about the world of user experience design it was like, oh okay, this is maybe what I was looking for. I can use design to solve problems rather than use design to put colours together in a new way that nobody’s ever done before, like the pressure to do something that nobody’s ever done before, that was maybe… That’s what I felt, that’s how I interpreted graphic design. To always be new, designing something that was new and novel. Whereas UX design I feel like it’s not about making it new, it’s about making it work, and often it doesn't have to be new, in fact it can be counterproductive to be too new because it’s too unfamiliar.

There’s an element of “need to be new” in marketing work, like landing pages.

I’ve never really worked on marketing websites, so I don’t have much experience of that. I’ve more worked on tools and apps. Behind the scenes stuff.

What do you think is important about visual design in that area?

I think clarity and elegance, so using visual design to make something clear, to make the conceptual model clear so the user knows what’s going on with this product, what’s going on in this screen, what can I do, what’s the hierarchy? So, I think one side clarity, and then the other side is elegance, do I find this at least non-offensive to my eyes? Ideally is it even a little bit pleasing to look at? Does it have some character that is maybe appropriate for the tool, like if it’s a medical tool, maybe it's a different character to a game for kids, so is it elegant in the way that the visual character is appropriate for the product?

Earlier you said you find visual design interesting and frustrating. What did you mean by that?

The reasons for it being interesting? I find it satisfying when you refine a design to make it better, either clearer or more elegant. I find it interesting because I’m quite an analytical person, so I quite like analysing why does this design feel off, and how can I improve it? Or when I see someone else’s design I think it’s great to look at it and say, this feels great because they did this or they did that, that’s a nice idea, maybe I can put that in my collection of ideas I might try. So, there is a sort of curiosity and satisfaction and intrigue about observing visual design and making visual design improvements.

The frustrating side? Maybe, always wondering if there is a better design available than the one I’ve hit on, feeling that, okay probably there’s a better design but I’ve run out of time, or, there’s a better design but we can’t really get there because too many other things would have to change, like having to make trade-offs: well, I would like to design this element like this but then it will look completely different to the rest of the app so in this case I’m going to choose global consistency over local style. It’s sometimes unsatisfying when I can’t achieve the improvements I like, either because of constraints in the product or constraints in time or constraints in myself. If I just don’t know how to make this look better, or there are five ways to make this look better and I can’t choose one.

You talked about analysing visual designs. Is there anything about visual design that feels beyond those analytical powers?

That’s a challenging question. I can’t think of examples of things that have felt beyond my analytical powers, but it depends what kind of analysis, I suppose. Generally there’s no mystery to me how any visual design effect is created, I can understand, oh this is this type of typeface, or there’s a gradient going from top left to bottom right or something. Analysing how to recreate it is fairly straightforward, but what’s more challenging is analysing how it came to be, how did someone have the idea to put these elements together? I might not have predicted that these things together would work and yet it does. That’s maybe beyond my analytical powers. And of course that person may have put it together by accident or they may have tried a million things before they arrived at that, there may not have been any grand scheme, but there’s a bit of a mystery to me sometimes how people arrive at a pleasing visual design.

How often do you use post-rationalisation to explain a visual design choice?

You mean like if I did something without particularly thinking about it and then said, this works because of these reasons?

Yes.

Probably quite often because I know that one of the more reliable ways to do design is to just try tons of things, and so when you’re trying lots of things you’re not necessarily trying to reason about what to try and why to try it. When you hit on something that seems an improvement then I do have a strong urge to explain it to myself, like why is this an improvement? Why does this work? To challenge it, I suppose. And to learn from it, oh okay of course it should have been like this because of these reasons, that’s why it works and that’s why all the other things I tried didn’t work so well. I am quite keen, if I find something by accident that I don’t understand why it’s an improvement, to then try and diagnose it and understand rationally why it seems more satisfying.

How important do you think it is for the post-rationalised reason to be true?

Well, since you asked, I think maybe it’s not that important, it just has to be helpful. It doesn't have to be true. But I want it to be true, especially if I’m using it as an argument with other designers to say, hey let’s do it this way because of this, and if it’s just bollocks I would probably feel bad, or someone might think I’m bullshitting my way through it. So I do want it to be an objectively rational reason why this should be this way. Whether it’s important or not, I don’t know. And then what does true even mean here? Truly better, or the reason for it being better to be true? I don’t know.

As soon as I asked the question, I wondered what I meant by “true”. I came up with two options, one of which is “the reason I chose to do this is X”, and that statement is true. The other one is, “the reason this works is X”, and that statement is true.

If someone was asking me, why did you do this? I would happily, probably I would say, it was an experiment, but I think it’s better because of XYZ.

But, everyone is on a journey to become a better designer. I don’t believe I’ve yet fully finished my journey of learning how to be a better visual designer, so if I say “this is better because of XYZ”, that might not be true because maybe I don’t know all of the reasons.

Would you ever be embarrassed to admit that you got somewhere just with experimentation?

No, probably not.

I often wonder if some designers don’t want to admit it.

What would it look like if people were embarrassed to admit it? Would they just not talk about it, or you mean they might give some bullshit reason for their choices, make it sound like the choices were more deliberate than they were in reality?

The second one, I think. I’ve seen designers say “I did X because of Y” in public. With people who depend on their public image, like freelancers, I get the sense that they don’t want it to look like they just try things until something works. It’s not a professional image.

I suppose there could be situations where if you said, hey, I need to do this, my process is to just try things until it works, it may not inspire confidence. I mean it’s not completely unguided exploration, it’s not actually monkeys and typewriters trying things until it works. It’s pulled from my repertoire of things that might work. So saying, I just tried something and came on it by accident also isn’t quite true because I don’t try truly random things. I try things that I have seen other people do or I have done in the past myself.

You said you did some graphic design and desktop publishing in your early days. Was that professional, or tinkering?

That was tinkering semi-professionally, as a teenager. My dad was an illustrator, and somehow there was stuff that needed to be done, and sometimes it was paid, like, we know this person that needs a leaflet to be designed or a logo to be designed. I got quite familiar with at the time Adobe PageMaker and CorelDRAW and these kind of tools for doing graphic design and desktop publishing. Some of it was for fun, like making a family recipe book or something, and some of it was for other people for a purpose, like designing a sign to go somewhere or a leaflet for some event.

With the benefit of professional hindsight, does anything jump out at you when you look back on that work?

Well, I never use justified text anymore but that was a big fascination at one point, it was like, wow, the computer can make the text all line up, that’s amazing, I should use that. It was quite a long time ago and I don’t remember many of the designs I did. I remember some of the topics, but I don’t remember what they actually looked like, I don’t have any of them anymore. I think it’s probably better that I can’t see them because I probably wouldn’t be that proud of them. But I’m still pleased that I had the opportunity to learn the tools and to understand that there was this thing of making, of designing stuff that people find useful.

I find it interesting that you saw justified text as an option and wanted to use it for some reason. Do you have a sense of what that reason was, if you’ve since realised it’s wrong?

So maybe because I’m not designing books, but I do remember probably committing some typographical sins using justified text where it shouldn't be and having all kinds of gappy lines of text that just looked worse for having been justified, and no real benefit.

Another software feature was you could make a clipping mask around an image and make the text flow exactly around an image, which was really clever and maybe there are places to use it. Of course, it comes back to what we talked about earlier, it’s the job of design to make something new or to make something functional, and to me it was like, oh this is new to me, I don’t know anyone else that can do this, everyone else is doing stuff in Microsoft Word and I’m making text flow around a cut out picture of an apple, who else can do this? But then it’s kind of horrible to read when the text is not lined up. It just happens to be going around the outline of an apple for no particular reason.

Probably I’ve committed more of these sins over the years, like in HTML when we learnt how to do round corners for the first time, then everything has to have round corners, and then it wears off and you find some kind of equilibrium where you hopefully use it sometimes when it’s appropriate, but not all the time, everywhere.

Maybe it’s like listening to a new favourite song too many times?

Exactly, yes, fascination with the technology that then influences the design, in ways it shouldn't.

Another thing was auto-trace, like if you have a pencil or a pen drawing then you could trace it into a vector in Illustrator and magically you’ve got a vector version of the drawing, but it just completely butchered any subtlety from the lines from the sketch. I remember doing this a few times, having a sketch of something, auto-trace it so that it was now exactly black and white, there was no grey in it, it was all pristine lines, but looking back it made the illustration look worse.

Thanks to Jamie for his time. Read more about him at his website.