Andy Proehl, Senior Director of User Experience at Meltwater


What is your relationship to visual design?

I’m a design director in the SaaS space. I’m a “wireframer” / interaction designer by nature. But I learned the critical importance of visual design while working in Sony’s consumer products Design Center. Intellectually, they knew the importance of UX design but if a concept did not have strong visual appeal, it would be rejected out of hand.

Because I’m a design director, my visual design / design system team reports to me.

How is visual design quality judged at your company?

Most designs go through a couple design reviews prior to development. They also go through the normal agile grooming process. Our CEO and VP of Product will also let us know when they think something isn’t up to snuff visually. Our platform is heavy on data visualization and the visual quality of those gets a lot of scrutiny.

What sort of visual design feedback do you find you focus on in the design reviews?

It really depends on the component or feature. We aggregate content from disparate media sources so, visually, we have to present that in a standardized form to our users. Visual hierarchy and information density come up. We try to use color primarily for charts and graphs and CTA buttons so managing that comes up. I personally am most involved when the visual design is tightly tied to function such as different visual content layouts to support different use cases.

How do you balance the good and bad things about higher information density?

When I worked for Sony, we collaborated on some TV interfaces across the Asia, Europe and American markets. There were distinct regional preferences for information density. In Asia they preferred very information dense layouts that provided the impression of getting more value. In America and especially Europe, the preference was for “cleaner” open layouts. Less density, more white space. Neither is objectively better but there were clear market preferences.

At Meltwater, the issue is more use case specific. For news/editorial we present more open, scannable layouts to make it easier to scan the metadata. But the volume in social media is higher so we provide a more compact layout there so users can quickly scan more content. We also give users the option to choose what kind of layout they want (Google does the same for Gmail).

I believe that almost all visual design decisions can be tied to function, not just aesthetics. There’s almost always a reason behind a designers decision to emphasize or de-emphasize a visual element.

Over the years have you personally settled on any visual design preferences that come out in your critique?

Hopefully very few. I have a strong focus on alignment to quiet the page and I’m a strong believer in clear visual grouping of elements on the page. Most designers have this but non-designers are often unaware. None for color other than changing black to dark gray for type. Mostly san serif type for UX work but I experiment with typefaces in my personal work (cartography).

Do you find any useful overlap between the rules for good maps and the rules for good interfaces?

Yes and no. The most interesting thing about maps are that they straddle the line between documents we read and images we view. Same could be said for interfaces but maps are more of a hybrid media. My maps stem from my experience creating them early in my design career working in exhibit design. But I’m also a firm believer that design should always be serving the needs of the client or user. I see my maps as a pursuit of art and, as such, an effort to escape logic, rules and requirements that dominate my day job as a designer. It’s a journey but I try to keep the 2 worlds separate.

Is there anything about visual design I haven’t covered and that you want to share?

Yes. I tend to prefer minimalist, clean design. But I do believe in the importance of ornament. A long time ago, I studied architecture in school. The architect I most respect is Luis Sullivan. Not only was he Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor but he is also considered by many to be the father of the skyscraper. You can think of skyscrapers the way the metaverse is today… a new unproven technology with many skeptics.

The ability to build tall was enabled by the elevator (itself a new technology). But skyscrapers needed to be introduced to people in a way that would make the public accept them. Luis Sullivan did this by making ornament a key part of the design. Now it’s fine to have an all glass facade but I think what Sullivan did to soften the image of a new technology was genius. Here is a Pinterest Board that will give you a sense of the level of ornamentation I’m talking about.