Rico Smith, Senior Visual Designer

What’s your relationship with visual design?

That’s a good question. I used to work in advertising, and I’ve always really loved visual design. I loved coming up with concepts and then visualising them and getting them out to clients. But going into tech it’s been kind of a mind shift because where previously it was about making everything look as good as possible, what I’ve found is moving into the product design space sometimes as a visual designer it gets quite frustrating. In the sense of it sometimes feels like visual design is the unwanted cousin or the kind of necessary cousin but we don’t actually want to spend too much time with him. Like visual design or UI design is the quick thing you do after all the other UX processes like research, requirement gathering and wireframes are done.

What was it you liked about visual design in the advertising industry?

I think even though there were brand constraints, there was a lot more room to play in and room to be creative in a way. For instance, I moved from South Africa to the UK about four years ago and there was one agency I worked at where I basically worked on a banking client all the time doing web banners in Flash. Because the agency relationship with the client was so good they allowed us to really play visually, so we explored a lot of styles, everything from isometric to flat illustrative elements. It was just really an easy environment to explore a variety of different ideas without being constrained too much.

I think compared to tech, it feels like the guidelines are sometimes very, very strict to what you need to stick to, especially since we all moved to this very flat anti-skeuomorphic style, if you know what I mean? I think that was the big thing, and I think what’s really interesting, and maybe it’s just the brands or companies that I currently work with as a visual designer. I think what was really great was seeing your work in the wild very quickly in advertising, so I think that was also really fun. The progression between projects was also quite quick, and that might just be a me thing, I understand, I think there are some designers who prefer working on very long projects and crafting every small detail, but I like to jump between projects, I think my brain just likes the stimulation or something.

Is it that there’s more chance to be more expressive because advertising doesn't stick around for long?

I think so, yes.

Whereas a website…

Yes, I think there is definitely something about that, but it might also be that in… The more I think about it, I almost feel like a spoiled child, but I think in advertising visual design was a really important component, it was deemed to be really important because it had to look slick, it had to look really good. There were so many people that were so good at design in advertising and it was really great working in teams where you’d get to learn so much. I think that was what was really good about visual design in that space.

You mentioned strict guidelines. I wonder if you could dive into that a bit?

I would say that where guidelines get too restrictive I think it’s a bad thing. For instance, I understand completely that if you’re building an app for instance you have to have very strict guidelines, but it sometimes feels to me like… I worked at a bank before where there were very strict guidelines, but the guidelines weren’t very good, but there’s no way to change it because you’d basically have to redesign the entire app from scratch. I think that’s where advertising was different. Like when I was working in advertising of course the campaigns came and went so quickly, even if you had guidelines that you didn’t think were particularly good, it’s at least for a very short time that you had to stick with it and make it work.

What do you think the split is between unnecessary and necessary constraints?

That’s a difficult question. For me, I think necessary constraints is when the brand has a specific look and feel so your brand guidelines say that you portray this type of image towards your client. I’m just thinking about a specific bank that I worked at, in their brand guidelines they had a very specific way of talking to a customer, a way of portraying themselves to a customer, but for instance there were these illustrations that were everywhere across the app and they just didn’t quite fit the language of the brand guidelines, and even though the product design team tried to push the brand team to move away from the illustrations, they were very strict: “We need to stick to this illustration style”. I think when constraints are put in place that actually go against what the strategy of the company is and the guidelines of the brand, then I think it becomes unnecessary.

Do you see constraints where you think “actually these aren’t necessary, it’s just the way the industry’s gone”, or the way the community’s gone?

There might be that. I think for instance, what I mentioned earlier, the insistence on designing flat. From my perspective, I think usability has gone backwards because of it, because as much as people in the design industry think that everybody understands what a button looks like and can just find the button and press it, it doesn’t always work that way. For instance what I’m currently working on in another financial institution is a design system and one of the teams actually came to us and said, “we are working with external clients, the buttons that we currently have don’t work because they’re all flat and they don’t look clickable”. So we’ve worked with them to add some depth to the buttons. So, we added highlights to the top and a shadow to the bottom and just made it look different to the flat non-interactive elements on the screen, and everybody was happy with the result.

It sounds like you’re talking not just about constraints but about the expectations of the visual design community?

Yes, that might be it. Yes, I think that’s a good way of putting it actually, because back when I was in university visual designers were crafters and they were expected to really make everything look as beautiful as possible, and now everything has become extremely, I’m trying to find the right word, functional? Is that the right word? We just need to get it out as quickly as possible, please don’t polish everything too much, we need a design system that needs to look the same everywhere. That’s the expectation, but sometimes it feels like, and this is my bugbear, people see the visual design as not part of the experience, where I think the environment that you put yourself in is totally part of the experience.

What do you think about the idea that the shift to flat design has democratised visual design?

Democratised in the sense that somebody who hasn’t for instance got a very high craft skill can become a visual designer as well?

Yes.

I think it might have. It totally could have. Yes, I think people who initially don’t have the time to learn how to retouch or create a glossy look on a button or something like that, it definitely has democratised visual design, I think.

It’s interesting to think about the design system explosion because people need to think about visual design even less.

Yes, it’s actually weird because… I’m working on a design system right now, and a lot of UXers keep telling me, “Dude, you need to get into UX because in just a couple of years’ time everything’s going to be design systems and then there’s no need for UI designers.” And I’m like, gee whizz, I really don’t know. But it might happen. I just don’t know.

What I find really interesting is on every single app the community, like on Twitter obviously, people have opinions about Dribbble’s usefulness, but if you look at the apps that stick in the back of your mind that you’ve always loved, it is what they looked like. I find actually it’s like architecture, if you go to a specific city in a specific country, you know you’re in that city and that country because of the architecture, and what’s happening at the moment in architecture, everything is being rebuilt in glass and steel so it almost like every city becomes like every other city. I hope not at least, but every single city will eventually look the same, and I’m just worried that if everybody’s going for design systems, everything needs to work a specific way or look a specific way, then we might lose that idea of uniqueness.

On the other hand, I had a friend who had this great talk that he gave about design systems, and he compared it to the basic form of music, like drum and bass or house, and he says that there are people that say all house music is kind of the same and there is this thread that all house music has but you’ve got songs that are vastly different within that genre. Maybe it’s a thing of where the design system becomes just more functional and then it allows visual designers to weave the brand into spaces like landing pages where they can, if that makes sense?

Do you believe the people who say that you should get into UX because everything will be design systems?

I think at large companies it might become a thing, but maybe where visual designers work with smaller clients it won’t. Actually, I don’t see it because the company that I’m working at and involved with the current design system uses visual designers consistently post the initial research and UX Design phase. I think if you’re a system designer who’s a visual designer, then I think you’ll always be the one designing and maintaining the design system. I don’t know, if for instance you like to craft something and create brand experiences then I don’t know if that necessarily will scratch that itch.

What’s really interesting, even though we do have a design system, every single team at the company I’m contracting at the moment, after the wireframes are drawn up, the visual designers will go and actually use the correct components and make it work from a visual design perspective. It is in investment banking where I’m currently working, so it might not seem like the most visually stimulating applications that we’re working on, but I think there is this kind of handover from UX to visual design. I think unless UX designers start thinking of visuals that there’ll always be that role for visual designers.

In your experience has visual design mostly been a separate specialty?

Yes. I’ve mostly been working in banking tech for the last five years and yes, I think definitely. Maybe it’s just banking, but there’s a definitely a structure between researcher, UXer and UI designer and then developer. Sometimes there’s a little bit of overlap when a person or designer has some overlapping skill, but it’s quite defined for each role.

Earlier you said that visual design is treated as the unwanted cousin. What evidence do you see for that?

In my opinion at least, I see UI design as a specialisation of UX design, because I think visual design is not UX design, it’s just within the UX field as a specialisation. What’s really interesting, if you read articles about UX design there is constantly this mantra that says UX design isn’t visual design, and visual design isn’t UX design. I tutored UI Design at an online UX/UI design course and within the course material it says consistently that “UX design is not UI design. It’s completely different. They do different things”.

Maybe it’s very strong of me to say it’s like the unwanted cousin, but it does feel like it’s almost like “ We’re going to do the real work, the UX designers, and then when we need to have the rectangles coloured in, we’re going to throw it to the visual designers”. At least that’s how I read the articles when they write stuff like that. I understand what they’re trying to say, UX design in its current form is very much about figuring out how the business can provide the optimal journey or interaction with the product, and visual design is bolted on top of that. Where once the UX designer has understood what the user requirements are and delivered something that adheres to that, then the visual designer can add to that, but I think because it’s talked about as being completely separate it feels a little forgotten some times. That visual design, instead of seeing it as a necessary final step of the experience it feels like it’s something that you do later and you don’t have to worry about it until you get to a certain point. And I think sometimes some of the applications that currently are being made kind of reflect that. It does feel like a lot of the websites all look the same, and I suppose it’s because of data, and we know that if a home page on a website looks a specific way or is structured in a specific way then it works better, but I do feel like visual design is left very late in the involvement of the process.

My impression is that the sort of opinion you’re describing comes from certain types of community members. What do you think?

No, I don’t think so. Maybe… I wouldn’t say it’s an industry-wide thing, but when you try and move into the UX world, like when I wanted to move away from advertising into tech, the articles that are written do try and push that point very hard, if you know what I mean?

Most of what I see in that area is content aimed at beginners. I don’t see many senior designers having those arguments.

I think so, I think you’re right actually. Maybe I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, you never know. Yes, I think you’re correct. I think when you look at, and maybe just having this conversation is informing me in guiding my opinion to be a bit more informed, but I think you’re correct. If you look at guys that have been in the industry for a very long time, I think you are correct when they say that visual design is a very important aspect of it but it’s like… Because that divide happens so early on, I think there are people, and obviously very successful people, they learn how to collaborate and they understand how everything welds together, but I have worked at places where that hard divide is still there, in the sense that it’s almost like it is a waterfall design process where, like I said earlier, it’s researcher, UXer, UI, and then goes from there. But I think you are correct in saying that people who are successful in the industry don’t really hammer on those separations.

For the record, I agree with everything you’ve said until now, so it’s not that I’m disagreeing.

No, it’s good. No, I agree, it’s good food for thought. All the designers that I look up to do value visual design. I would actually like to hear your opinion of who you would say are really successful designers in the industry that are not pushing that idea. But yes, maybe it’s just about having more conversations.

I think this gets to my next question. My impression when I started out was that most respected designers don’t talk about visual design much. I got the same “unwanted cousin” sense as you, when I read books by respected designers.

Even if you look at the conferences that you can go to for UX design, it’s a UX design conference exclusively so they’re going to cater for that, and maybe I don’t know about it, but it’s very seldom that I’ve seen specifically a visual design conference. I’m talking in terms of product design and tech, it’s very much focused on UX design and research, and even if you go to the conferences, you don’t really see mention of the value of visual design and how to improve as a visual designer.

What’s really interesting to see now is how many people are bringing out courses on UI design, how to be a better UI designer, and that’s really positive. But if I’m thinking about the processes that I usually have to go through, I really like UI animation and bringing motion into visual design, but everywhere I’ve worked at least there’s never enough time to actually do any of that. It sometimes feels like we have to go through all the UX processes again to create patterns that have existed for at least more than five years. How many times do we have to redesign forms? We need to test it at least but we don’t have to go through massive amounts of research etc. to get to the point where we can design a form. For instance, one of the banks that I worked at, there was never time to do nice little animations to say you’ve successfully paid someone. I think maybe I’m jealous of people that work at places like Starling and Monzo because it does seem that they have some nice interaction design… It might not be a design industry problem, but maybe it’s the fact that the product manager doesn't see the value in adding those nice little animation touches, and maybe we haven’t done the groundwork to convince the person that it is necessary.

I think what happens is non-designers read design books and articles and then they say, okay but visual design isn’t really important, it’s only about the experience, and then when it comes to… Maybe it’s just an inexperienced product owner or product manager, they say, okay but there is no business value in adding the little animation at the end, so we’ll just leave it off. I think as a visual designer that gets really frustrating. It might be that I need to start writing articles about the value of visual design and put everything out on the internet so that product owners and product managers can read it and change their opinion. I think that is an instance of where the visual design has become the unloved cousin.

Why do you think design conferences don’t include much content on visual design?

Maybe it’s the same reason why you struggled to get someone to come and talk to you. Maybe visual designers just want to sit in the corner with their headphones on and craft their work. I don’t know. It’s just advocacy, I suppose, more visual designers need to step up and say, hey I want to give a talk on why interaction design or animation within a UI is really important, why surprise and delight is what makes Apple great, and that is why your company needs to put more value in visual design.

Do you think it’s that organisers can’t find the content, or that they don’t look in the first place?

That is a good question. The thing is, I always try and put it back on myself, I believe very strongly in personal responsibility, and be the change in the world that you want to see. For me it’s hard to say. I don’t think as a personal point of just “life philosophy”, it’s very hard for me to put the blame on the conference organisers, I think it’s just… UX has done a great job. UX designers have done an amazing job of advocating for their industry and you can just look at it from the point of view of how many UX designer jobs there are at the moment. Every single massive company is hiring UX designers, and they’ve really communicated the value of UX design and design through the entire organisation. I think it might just be a thing that visual designers need to think of ways to communicate why visual design is very important and be able to talk about that.

It’s interesting that you brought up conferences, because Figma has a conference called Config. I looked through their 100+ talks at the last conference, and I couldn’t find one about visual design.

Oh wow, okay.

At least not visual design of interfaces. I think there was one about creativity, or graphic design.

Yes, okay.

That surprised me, because if there’s any conference run by any organiser that should have plenty of visual design content, it’s Figma. That’s where visual design happens for the majority of designers who have a choice of tools.

Yes, I agree completely, but I think it’s also hard. UI Design is different to graphic design but it’s very similar because it’s visual design, and like UX design it can go in massive amounts of ways in the sense of UI designers can be animators, 3D artists etc. They can be people who work in the gaming industry who create these very skeuomorphic or very detailed interfaces, and that makes complete sense if you want to encapsulate or engross someone into a gaming world, then all your interfaces need to look like that world. I feel that’s an area where maybe conferences can expand upon, it’s like: how do game UI designers get into that industry and what are the skills they use, and what are the applications they use?

It’s that thing of what is UI design? I think that is a question that maybe should be answered. Everybody knows UI design is the visual that you see, but I think because it’s not quite defined yet… It feels like I’m being very arbitrary at the moment, because I feel like everybody knows what UI design is, but it does seem like they should be… Maybe it's when people start talking about it more and showing the differences between for instance something like a very skeuomorphic in-game design versus something that’s very flat and how you approach the differences. Then it might become a little bit more interesting. And how you incorporate animation into it. I think there is scope for it, it’s just visual designers, and I put that blame on myself, we just need to start writing articles and talking about it.

Before the call you described yourself as an optimistic cynic when it came to visual design. What did you mean by that?

I’ve been a bit cynical this entire conversation about how visual design is seen as this unwanted cousin, I’m trying to remember if it’s the unwanted or unloved. I said unloved cousin. So, I think that’s why I would describe myself as a bit cynical. I think there’s so much scope and there’s so much amazing opportunity within visual design but because the industries, and maybe it’s just the jobs that I’ve worked in, it feels like sometimes there’s not enough… like I said it feels like it’s the last little thing that’s tagged on.

But I think I’m optimistic in the sense that I don’t think, like my UX design friend said, it’s a dying industry, I think there’s so much scope for it, and I’m optimistic because I think… I really like being a UI designer and I think the tech world would be a much greyer rectangular space without us. I’m optimistic in the sense that maybe if we had more conversations about the value of UI design or visual design that that might bring us somewhere… It's always this idea of the seat at the table, and maybe if we start just advocating for visual design and the value therein then it will become a bit more fun being a visual designer again.

My thanks to Rico for talking visual design. You can see his website here.