Aren’t All UX Designers Visual Designers?

Posted By Debbie on April 26, 2018

With the number of jobs looking for a “UX/UI Designer” who bathes gleefully in the whole UCD process but is also a fantastic visual designer, one would think that there is a complete overlap between UX design and visual design.

There are two ways that we can look at this: talent and education.

Artistic Talent

Artistic talent. Not everybody has it. People have shown you their “art” and you have cringed while finding something nice to say.

You cringed when you saw the website your postman’s manicurist’s boyfriend’s dog walker made. She says she’s a web designer and artist! But does she really have talent?

Art requires talent. Not everybody has it. If you have natural talent, you can develop it further. I’m low on the visual design talent scale. If you sent me to art school, I’d end up with more technique and expensive supplies, but there may be a limit to my natural talent.

We watch the limits of natural talent when we turn the TV to the latest singing competition. There are always many “singers” auditioning who are sure they have excellent voices, fantastic talent, and everybody says they’re great! They are boo’ed and laughed off the stage. You’re sharing them all week on social media because they were so awful.

A poor ability to self-assess talent plays into all this, but we’ll save that for another blog post.

I believe that being good at UX is a talent. Being able to organize items and do information architecture, that’s a talent. Not everybody would be good at that. Like building architecture, not everybody would be good at interaction design.

Deb, aren’t you being hard on people? Can’t anybody just learn this stuff?

I’m not naming names. But I know some people who had fairly clerical/admin job backgrounds. Their employer decided to move them into UX and sent them to the most expensive courses, workshops, and certifications on the continent. Think of the most famous, most expensive non-college courses and yes, they went to those. Graduated! Got certificates.

I saw their UX work and it was poor. They didn’t exhibit any of the approaches I would look for if I were hiring. They were super nice! But it was clear that UX design just wasn’t a strength for them, even with all their courses.

Which brings us to…

Education

If you look at UX certificates, there is typically not more than one course or learning unit devoted to visual design. It’s normally more of an overview of visual communication. The unit might sweepingly cover typography, color, infographics, and maybe some print layout.

The rest of the courses and units are specific to UX principles, approaches, tasks, deliverables, etc… This tells me that they don’t expect you to be an (excellent) artist. You can get by with the minimal artistic skills that I have. 🙂

What about art schools? If you review their curricula, there might be one survey course on UX. As an example, I checked the course catalog for the Academy of Art University, which offers certificate programs, and AA, and a BFA. I checked the graphic design degree options and found only one UX course. Here is what it said you will be able to do after taking the class:

  • Define demographics and needs of user audience for a product
  • Analyze user needs and stakeholders
  • Define interactive sequence to accomplish tasks
  • Define platform limitations that effect user experience
  • Evaluate degree and quality of product usability

Great. But that person wouldn’t be a UX practitioner after that one course.

So who are the hybrids?

Whenever someone would tell me they were a UX practitioner and a graphic designer, I would ask them their background. Usually visuals, design, art school.

And then I ask them, when you look in the mirror, what do you see? The artists tell me, “An artist.” The UX people usually tell me, “A problem solver.”

I might also ask them what their UX process is. Sometimes I get, “I like to make wireframes.” And I nod, knowing that’s not really a “UX process.”

It makes me think of the old Mitch Hedberg comedy routine where someone thought because he was a comedian he’d also be a good writer.

“When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things. All right, you’re a stand-up comedian, can you write us a script? That’s not fair. That’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, “OK, you’re a cook. Can you farm?” “

Not all [thing] are [other thing].

Some cooks are excellent farmers. Some farmers are excellent cooks. But not all cooks are excellent farmers and not all farmers are excellent cooks.

Not all UX “conference speakers” are good practitioners. Not all UX practitioners are good conference speakers.

Not all singers are good songwriters. Not all songwriters are great singers. Not all singers who have hit songs sing well!

It’s harder to find true UX talent.

I have met only a few people who were truly, deeply talented in art AND had all the right UX stuff. I have met MANY amazing artists. I have met fewer amazing UX peeps.

I believe there are more talented artists out there than there are deeply talented UX practitioners. I still suggest hiring a UX specialist and separately hiring a visual design genius. They can collaborate. They don’t have to be islands. But they also don’t have to be the same person.

For the hybrids, it’s easy to find out what their strengths truly are. Ask the right questions. Review their work. Learn their approaches, steps, process. Make sure they really fit the UX needs your team has… because it won’t pay to skimp on your UX.