User Interface Design and… Art?

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My background is in art, painting and drawing to be exact.

I received my undergraduate degree from The School of Visual Arts in New York. Ever since I can remember, I was making art, painting, doodling, drawing. I once drew a whole “photo album” of my stuffed animal’s fictional lives.

As I sit at my computer in the morning, and fire up omniGraffle, I sometimes wonder how I arrived at this place. I love this place, don’t get me wrong. I get to be creative in more than just visual ways, I get to work on a variety of projects, there are so many benefits to working in web design and development. I wonder about this because it seems like an unlikely journey to take, and when I try to retrace my steps I see that my journey was filled with taking chances, learning, and being incredibly lucky.

Still, I think that being an artists has a lot to do with what I do day-to-day in my current role.

STUDYING HOW TO SEE

In one of my favorite drawing classes in college we often did an exercise where we would have about 30 seconds to draw a model. Then the model would change poses and we had to swiftly being a new drawing. We did this about 20 time in a row, sometimes more.

The first few drawings I produced from those exercises were, simply put, just bad art. In some of these drawings I focused too muchon one area, and when time was up – I ended up with a detailed element without any context on an otherwise empty piece of paper. Other times, I failed to capture the essence of the pose completely.

But after a while my drawings improved, and I ended up with some of the best pieces I ever produced in art school. This is all because in that class we weren’t learning how to draw, we were learning how to see. Once you can see a composition, your skills will take over and you will be able to translate what you saw into a beautiful drawing. The skill of drawing is something we all already possessed, and the skill to see was the missing piece.

Turns out learning how to see is a fundamental skill of a UX designer, because we are concerned with the overall context in which various visual elements appear.

WORKING WITH MATERIAL

In art school I took a variety of classes that included: wood working, watercolor, and lithography. I have worked with hundreds of different materials and explored the different applications these materials can be used for.

In one class, it was an actual assignment to go to an art store and feel different types of paper, spend time carefully selecting the exact piece of paper, with the exact dimensions and the exact texture and weight that we would want for a specific piece of artwork we were working on.

BLAH BLAH BLAH… MATERIAL DESIGN, RIGHT?

Yes. Google’s Material Design is big right now. The concepts behind it are deeply rooted in, well, material. As an artist who has worked with physical properties of material I am so fond of Material Design ideas it feels like second nature to design in that way.

EVOKING EMOTION

In art, we evoke emotion. That’s really the only thing standing between a piece that is sold and a piece that is stored in the artists’ basement. We do so with the use of color, color combinations, shapes and lines. We sometimes include figurative elements in our work which hold an emotional value for the observer or tell an emotional story, other times we rely on shapes and colors alone in an abstract piece to communicate a specific mood.

In web design and app design – we must do the same thing. Who is going to download, let alone purchase, an app that is not answering an emotional need? It’s not all about emotion, you say, maybe so – but a very big aspect of why people buy and download apps is emotion.

Do you need a calendar app on your phone or can you use a paper and pen to keep track of all your appointments? The answer is you could use a paper and pen, but it would be a lot harder to manage. Calendar apps provide so much more functionality than just the ability to list appointments: you could set reminders, link to an address that opens up a map of the location, invite others, etc. But which calendar app you end up choosing out of the many that are available does depend on emotion.

Painting

I guarantee that among the 2189 calendars available in the app store (I did a search on 11.21.14) there are many with overlapping functionality. Users choose one of those calendar apps based on emotional factors, such as: an app being popular or having good peer reviews, the color of the app, a clever name for the app that resonates with the user,etc.

User Experience and Interface designers work daily to evoke the correct emotion in interfaces. There is a wonderful book on this topic called Designing for Emotion by Aaron Walter, I highly recommend it.

THE IMPORTANCE OF REFLECTING ON OUR OWN HISTORY

Looking back at our journeys to where we are today can shed an interesting light at our own unique perspective, no matter what our career choice ended up being.

For a while I felt that my history as an artists was not up to par with the many Computer Science graduates I often encountered in this industry. And if they aren’t graduates of such college programs, then they went to the Computer Science school of life where they were programming at age 7.

I didn’t go to either of those schools. I went to art school. And turns out that was a pretty good foundation for a career in technology after all.

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