To many, graphic design and UX design could be considered quite similar. Now I’ve had my foot in both camps, is the above true or are they actually very different?
Where it began
Pre-2016, I was in the dark about UX. It wasn’t a ‘thing’ at University, and it only became apparent embarrassingly late into my two-ish years as a graphic designer when I attended a user testing talk. At the time, I questioned why UX wasn’t more common. Surely everyone wants validated designs and proof that their investment was well spent?
When I got the job at our small (but awesome) UX agency, I was expecting many similarities to graphic design with the addition of psychology research and user testing in the lab. I expected the same kind of briefs, same processes and tools, but with proof to take back to the client that yes, we are on the right track. On the whole, I wasn’t wrong but I had definitely missed a few bits out for sure. A year on I can finally see how different the two seemingly similar roles are.
What it means to be a UX designer (compared to a graphic designer)
What clients want v what they get
As a graphic designer, pleasing the client was paramount. If they wanted something, we’d make it. Simple. Here at the UX agency, if clients say they want something, we ask why. What problem is the client solving and is it really a problem for people in the first place? We don’t just accept what clients say and often have challenging conversations to make sure the users’ voice is heard.
Graphic design is subjective and quite frankly, many clients think they are undiscovered experts, with their own strong feelings of your work. Thank goodness UX is different — most things are shaped by evidence. We test our ideas with real users, hear what they have to say, re-work and re-test to help us be more confident that what we’re doing will work.
We take clients on this journey with us so it’s not just our opinion against theirs, we’re working together using the evidence we’re collecting. It’s a win-win, they know their money is being put to good use, we have actual evidence to help them to make better decisions for their users.
It’s ok to get things wrong. I hated this when I started as it felt totally unnatural and the approach was quite different in graphic design. Here, we throw our best guess together, put it in front of people, and start learning. We NEVER get it spot on first time. The users always show where we’ve gone wrong. The quicker we fail, the longer we have to iterate and perfect.
Quite frankly, there is no time for dilly-dallying in our job. Visual design was 70% of my graphic design role compared to 20% in my UX role. You can express your idea on paper just as well as a polished design. That means I can push out the roughest of prototypes and still learn from it. Perfection can come later when your users have confirmed your idea is solid. Tough lesson I admit, but it’s so worth it once you’ve mastered it.
I can’t speak for all but my previous graphic design projects were easy. Here, our clients not only work in very diverse fields, but often have problems which leave us thinking ‘how the hell are we going to solve this’. Unruly databases, complicated tooling platforms, unfamiliar backward processes. Tough. But that is what makes this job great. It’s mega diverse and actually challenging. Plus I know a shitload more about the agricultural and motor sectors than I ever thought I would.
As a graphic designer, we would storm ahead and produce everything we needed to for day one, often meaning we were over time and budget, again with no real insight into whether the thing was even useful. I absolutely love the fact that here we come up with an MVP product, see how it’s being used and then created new things users need based on their feedback. It works a treat and we often find what we thought we needed, actually never gets built.
‘So where do you work?’
Everyone knows what a graphic designer is. Let me tell you, not many people know what a UX designer is (fact). Knowing how to explain what you do to those who have no idea is really beneficial. Having a validated, people-friendly product should be a standard. The more we talk about it, the more people know what is it and make it part of their design process.
To sum up…
Now I’ve read this back, perhaps I’ve been a bit harsh on my previous graphic design role. After all, it gave me the foundation I needed to transfer to UX design. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy it but I remember many a time feeling under-confident in what I had produced or being embarrassed when I had made mistakes — things which rarely rear their head now.
I spent far too long thinking visual design was the be-all and end-all without knowing if what I was doing was benefitting the user or indeed the client. Now, it pains me when I (regularly) see something visually beautiful but poorly thought out. I’m converted for sure.
It’s only been a year and I feel like I have so much further to go but I am well on my way to becoming a ‘good’ UX designer.