Graphic design is UX design

A while back it dawned on me that I’ve been a UX designer or product designer a lot longer then I originally took credit for. In many ways I’ve been a UX designer the whole time.

Until now I’ve considered the point in my career when I transitioned to a human centric approach to design as being the shift from being a print to a digital designer. (Specifically when I began doing ‘real UX’ mentored by the awesome Leisa R., and then all the books I read and workshops I took.) However, now after a several years working in the industry, it’s obvious I was always designing with the ‘human’ in mind (if not in practise).

TL;DR I’ve always been a UX designer because even as a print designer I considered how the person would use and consume my design.

Good commercial designers understand from the beginning of a project the audience and consumer of the work they are designing. There might not have been personas, but there was an understanding of kinetics. We’ve just not traditionally called these people ‘users’ (a fairly loaded term in itself), however we considered what appealed to customers and how they would interact with our product.

As I come from a traditional graphic design background, and not say industrial product design, I would suggest this link is not often discussed. (Whereas with industrial design, human-centred design has long been a consideration for decades).

Take for example designing a book, magazine or newspaper. On the surface there’s the tone and style that appeals to the core audience. Then on a deeper level you are designing your physical product to meet the customer’s needs—how it will be held and where. Even deeper you often make choices around the paper stock, finish and weight to convey importance and quality. Book designers consider the cover to entice the consumer to pick up and eventually buy the book, where good book designers consider the gutter and margin based on how the book will be held and read (single thumb in paperbook spine grip versus wide outer margins for the two-handed read, or both).

A decade ago we began to see the breakdown of an old stereotype in newspaper design—the broadsheet for serious journalism and the tabloid for a different audience. Then in a few markets the serious papers shrunk. The Times went to a tabloid, The Guardian adopted the ‘Berliner’ and a lot of papers followed.

Since this was just before the iPhone, people, most busy commuters, read the news on to go, and this change to the physical product was a response to the needs of the customer. Once everyone realized that trying to read a large broadsheet on a cramped underground train was agony, the industry (slow) changed. Then the iPhone arrived and now we get news on our phones! Except that’s not entirely true, thanks to poor signal underground, we play candy crush or continue to read the carriage ads in order to avoid eye contact. I should point out today how very few news apps cater to the offline mode reader (not just a problem for subway riders but Canadians with too-expensive mobile data).

This stuff is historic (text setting) and academic (the science of reading). The way we read is evolving but there have been truths that predate digital—text size, spacing and line length—gleaned from research. Eye-tracking studies of people reading printed newspapers with follow up survey’s was another form of user research used to improve the products.

The nice thing is of course that these experiences translate well to digital product design. The foundation in good typography and typesetting helps with typesetting a mobile screen design, as does the fundamentals of graphic design (hierarchy, contrast, emphasis, colour theory). Consumer behaviour, situational understanding and psychology have always been a consideration of design.

Actually this seems obvious now that I’ve written this.