DDecorate vs. Communicate: The article you’ll write

~ 21 November 2005 ~

The first time we did a fill-in-the-blank I wrote the article. This time around all of you will write the article.

The answer to last week’s fill-in-the-blank is communicate. Good designers decorate, great designers communicate. JSM was the first to guess correctly, and onslaught of -ate words followed.

Here’s where you come in: Be a contributing author for the upcoming article, “Good Designers Decorate, Great Designers Communicate”. Leave your pensive and concise thoughts about this subject in the comments, and I’ll then play the role of editor and compile noteworthy comments. In other words, I won’t write anything for this article — you will. I’ll simply compile your thoughts in an organized fashion.

A few guidelines:

  • Keep your comments short and concise, say 5 sentences or less. This will make it easy for you to leave a comment and hopefully ease the burden of editing for me.
  • Glance over the other comments to avoid duplicating what’s already been said.
  • Enter your website address (not in the comments but in the designated form field) if you want me to link to you if/when the article is published.
  • Should you need help getting started, read Eight things I wish I’d known when I started (#4). This is where I first mentioned decorating vs. communicating.

Who knows — this idea could totally flop or it could totally take flight. Let’s have some fun with it and see where it goes.



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1   Steven Woods ~ 21 November 2005 at 09:59 AM

Great designers are usually so passionate about their work that they HAVE to talk about it, how they did it, what it means to them - they can’t help it because they’re so proud of it. They do it for designs sake, because they love design and part of being a great designer is encouraging others to love design too.

2   Mike Hickman ~ 21 November 2005 at 10:21 AM

In the end, what designers are meant to do is pass on useful information in a way that their intended audience will understand quickly and easily.

Sometimes design gets in the way of the information, taking focus away from the content on the sites we design.

Artists who can convey information easily, are designers who communicate. Those designers who can communicate, while decorating, are masters of the craft we all practice.

3   Olof Lönnroth ~ 21 November 2005 at 10:23 AM

One of the biggest problems in all types of organizations has always been misinterpretation of information. Therefor, if a designer is to do the right thing for his/her client, communication is vital. On top of this, the designer is also a kind of channel through which the designer’s client chooses to communicate with the outside world, and because of this, the designer’s ability to communicate with the target audience for his/her product is important for the quality of the product. Design is communication!

4   Anton ~ 21 November 2005 at 10:35 AM

When a user is first confronted with a design, the reaction can be varied:
- user does not know what to do, and will not return
- user does not know what to do, but is impressed enough to check again later
- user knows what to do, but is unimpressed and continues to seek alternatives
- best scenario: nearly that of invisibility, as the user will just find the information, use it, and reference the material later because of subconscious aesthetic acceptance.

5   Rodrigo Webler ~ 21 November 2005 at 10:35 AM

The problem of decoration vs. communication reminded me of the importance of semantics in the markup we use. It’s a backstage aspect of the discussion, but one worthy of notice.
A deep and true understanding of what’s involved when coding a page, concerning user and business issues, will sooner lead to good markup, semantic-wise, than to a poor one - often busy with stuff that can at best be described as “styling”, but never “design”.
Good communication presumes a clear mind on what you’re supposed to communicate first, and good markup shows just that.

6   Dennis West ~ 21 November 2005 at 10:59 AM

I have a mantra that I would tell my clients when they’d express hesitation to tell me what they didn’t like about a design. What I’d tell them is, “This is not fine art, it’s design.” I go on to explain how I’m not creating something that looks nice to express anything about me, or to display my inner angst—my purpose in what I’m doing is to create something that meets the needs of the client in expressing who they are as a company. They know their business better than I do and I had better listen if they have something to tell me about the direction the design is going.

It’s not that I just let them call all the shots, I listen to them and hear their suggestions and do all that I can to use what they give me because they know their industry—then I offer my advice and input and I believe that it makes the final result much better and makes the clients much more happy when they’ve had significant input into the final product.

7   Jeremy Fuksa ~ 21 November 2005 at 11:09 AM

Given that design for any given message can be wildly different in terms of form, delivery, and aesthetics, the best designers have the ability to not only communicate within the visual lingua franca appropriate for the message, but also verbally.

If a designer cannot verbally support his or her design with a few concise phrases, then the design itself is not all that it could have been. The design should tell the story.

8   Megan ~ 21 November 2005 at 11:44 AM

I think that communication in design is more comprehensive than passing on information. Design is meant to solve a problem. You’re attempting to convey information, but also to get the user to *do something*. That something may be to read more, sign up for a membership, buy a product, or just to remember the company’s name.

When you develop a project you need to know what the business objectives are and how you are going to communicate that message to the user. In that sense, communication plays a key role in the larger goals of a design project.

9   Evan Ziolkowski ~ 21 November 2005 at 12:30 PM

Remember that, within most websites, communication goes two ways. Especially in the case of a business or non-profit organization. When you are working with a client that depends on visitors being able to contact them for services, make sure that whatever vehicle the client chooses to use for communication isn’t inhibited in any way. This is another way where decoration can interfere in a negative fashion - for example, if a web form is overdesigned to the point of confusion, your client could suffer. “Practicality before creativity” is my most valuable phrase to remember.

10   Andrew Rickmann ~ 21 November 2005 at 12:34 PM

Design, like body language, is at it’s simplest a form of communication. While designers may strive for beauty and originality the underlying process of design is no different from any other form of communication. The principle of taking a message and encoding in such a way that it can be decoded and understood by the observer is the essence of good design and like all communication it is the skill of the encoding that ultimately defines its success.

Design is arguably the most important aspect of communication. While words, whether written or spoken, are explicit in their task: seeking to persuade directly; it is ultimately the design that succeeds in doing so, bypassing thought and influencing the subconscious. The satisfying thud of a German car door says build quality, even when you don’t hear it; the subtle lighting and pale woods of an office space say calm and collected; and the ease of navigation through a complex website says we care in a far more convincing voice than the words themsleves.

Design is more than graphics; design is life.

11   Joshua Marino ~ 21 November 2005 at 01:31 PM

Decoration transcends the various disciplines of design. Interior design refers to it as clutter. Architectural design makes reference to unnecessary ornamentation. In the world of “Office Space”, it’s simply known as “flare.”

Pointless eye-candy, just like cotton-candy at the circus, tempts the onlooker with vibrant colors, provides the taste buds with a short burst of guilty pleasure, but only leads to the inevitable and distasteful void of meaninglessness that leaves a consumer confused, frustrated, or at worst, apathetic.

The only remedy is design that communicates beautifully, effectively, and efficiently. Ah!… the satisfaction of a five course meal!

12   Darren Ansley ~ 21 November 2005 at 01:33 PM

Design is more than just style, it’s about communicating ideas or a concept.

The function of the elements within a design is to bring attention to specific areas and to help illustrate certain points. These elements (typography, colors, illustrations, photos, etc.) work together to establish an overall feel or mood that is instrumental in helping the viewer identify with the message that you are trying to convey.

Great design manages to do all of this in a way that is not just aesthetically pleasing, but also effective. Anything else is just decoration.

13   Jordan Gillma ~ 21 November 2005 at 04:44 PM

Being at an art gallery opening last week reminded me of why I am a designer. There was an array of visually stimulating, asthaetically pleasing works, which grabbed your attention. But you could tell that the purpose behind them was insular, they weren’t meant to communicate, they were meant to express. Design on the other hand, should use the asthaetically pleasing, and eye-catching to tell a story, to communicate, otherwise we are just creating art which we, and the occasional other person, look at and go “wow, thats nice”. We don’t want them to look at it and think it’s nice, we want the to look at it and come away knowing more about it.

14   olly ~ 22 November 2005 at 01:54 AM

Unlike a painter or a sculptor, a designer has to deliver function along with (and not necessarily over) form in their creative work. Substance as well as style. Communication as well as decoration.

To deliver the right function, the designer must understand the brief, and understanding is unobtainable without communication.

15   chuck ~ 22 November 2005 at 05:41 AM

Communication is the line which separates designers and stylists. Are we solving problems with our work or are we just formatting data?

The goal should be simple: find out what it is user’s want to do and then make it ridiculously easy for them to do it. You do that by communicating.

16   Andy Rutledge ~ 22 November 2005 at 06:50 AM

Design is not decoration and it is a mistake to associate the two. Decoration merely accessorizes or embellishes the surface of something - disguising it. Putting a disguise on something does not change its fundamental nature. Design is the business of bringing about necessary, fundamental changes in media or in our environment in order to solve real problems (of communication, affordance, etc…), and decoration is worthless in this capacity. The idea that “good designers decorate” is misleading and destructive to both the profession and the endeavor of design.

17   John Dilworth ~ 22 November 2005 at 09:47 AM

Andy makes a good point here - but I don’t think that decoration should be entirely dismissed from the designers vocabulary or skill set.

Decoration is not Design. Decoration is a tool used by designers to enhance communication.

We also shouldn’t downplay the importance of visual decoration and it’s usefulness as a tool that should be used designers. Decoration should only be faulted when it becomes more important, or a distraction that draws the viewer away from what should have been communicated.

I would dare to speculate that I would feel entirely different about this website, and probably wouldn’t visit it if all the “decorations” were removed.

Decoration as a tool should simply be moved to the rear of the designer’s toolbox, instead of it being the designer’s only tool.

18   Brian Andersen ~ 22 November 2005 at 11:47 AM

Because it’s not about winning awards, it’s about winning the bookmarks.

19   Sachin Brojmohun ~ 23 November 2005 at 02:38 AM

One thing my Art teacher kept on saying when I started Design: Less is More!

Just like when you are designing a logo, designing in general needs to be to the point - give the essential information, then decorate for that information.

20   Pierce ~ 23 November 2005 at 04:54 AM

As a designer, the temptation is always there to take a brief and run with it. There is a heady rush of excitement for us as the initial project is outlined by the user; we often form a strong mental image of what we’d like to do, and start designing before the information is sufficiently comprehensive for us to do so. We fill in the blanks with assumptions and suppositions, and two weeks later we are presenting screenshots to a client for a product they are not looking for. Confusion ensues.

This knee-jerk design method cannot truly be considered design in any realistic sense. It is more like decoration. We imagine an appealing layout, colour scheme and type, and throw it over whatever functionality is required, twisting the specifications to fit the “concept”.

It’s not a lack of communicative ability that leads to these situations. Most designers work from a passionate place. The creative nature of the job gives us strong opinions, and the prospect of a new project often makes us get ahead of ourselves. Communicating fully and properly with the client before envisioning the end result does not remove the creative aspect of the job, it merely gives us a better starting point from which to work form and functionality into a cohesive whole; the true goal of any designer.

21   Marius ~ 23 November 2005 at 07:10 AM

If a piece of the design has no purpose, it is basically garbage. It takes away focus from what needs to be communicated.

Take into account typography, color scheme, style, usability, interactivity. Great designers are better at juggling these variables and create a cohesive message. Good designers tend to approach each of these individually, losing that cohesiveness.

Great designers think, “What could help get the message across”. Good designers think, “What would look good in this design”.

22   Joshua Marino ~ 23 November 2005 at 08:39 AM

Communication is much more than simply the transfer of information. Design must meet the recepient of the message in a common place of understanding. No matter how professional the sound system or how talented the orchestra, a symphony played to the deaf fails on every level of its purpose.

This is why determining one’s audience is key in the evolution of any design’s concept. Content may be king, but our audience represents the restless masses, ready for revolt or emigration if they cannot identify with their beloved monarch. If the content is ambiguous or unintelligible, anarchy is bound to ensue.

Art succeeds by being. Design suceeds by doing. If design communicates what it intends, it has succeeded, and is by nature great. Communication becomes the point simply because design is more than creativity. Design is creativity with intent.

23   Kev Mears ~ 24 November 2005 at 06:21 AM

Much like Santa’s little helper in this episode of the Simpsons, communication can seem like blah blah blah from the other side of the conversation. Real communication requires a degree of empathy.

Where design comes into this is planning that empathy into the process. Decoration disguises. Communication enlightens

24   sarah ~ 25 November 2005 at 03:58 PM

can anyone suggest some reading material /essays/books/whatever on or around this subject? my design dissertation is based around the subject of style over content, im particularly interested in how many designers work in one particular/personal style in their briefs. i’m just v stuck for reference material!
thank u :)

25   YaaL ~ 27 November 2005 at 06:30 PM

Just dropping a quote:
La perfection est atteinte non quand il ne reste rien à ajouter, mais quand il ne reste rien à enlever.
(You know you’ve achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.)
[Antoine de Saint-Exupery]

26   Daniel Schutzsmith ~ 27 November 2005 at 08:37 PM

Design aims to provide a solution to a problem.
Decorating aims to cover up the problem.

27   Michelle Flynn ~ 28 November 2005 at 09:30 AM

I believe that the design should organise and deliver that which needs to be communicated, in a way that ensures that content is king. A great designer would then know that the content is king and that the design is the visual “mouth” that controls how effectively the content is communicated.

28   Max Lord ~ 28 November 2005 at 11:27 AM

Decoration is all that which is necessary when the purest communication of design intent is incompatible with the client’s aesthetic.

29   Ryan Nichols ~ 29 November 2005 at 04:48 PM

Everything visual also communicates. Decorating implies the designer had no idea what it was they were communicating, no purpose behind it. That is just plain poor design. All art is an expression of *something* and commercial art is the expression of someone else’s message. Any part of design from style, to layout, to typography and color are all selected to further enhance that message.

30   Jana ~ 29 November 2005 at 08:59 PM

Decorating is a surface thing; it’s all about looking good. Communicating requires understanding; you’ve got to take time to really listen to your client, and time to see through the eyes of their audience, and figure out how to get the two together.

Decorating draws attention to itself, and to the decorator. Communication draws attention to the message — and therefore requires humility on the part of the designer.

Two of my design mantras:

- Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

- Clear is better than clever.

31   Brian Egan ~ 04 December 2005 at 06:06 PM

Stephen Covey, in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly effective people,” outlines the fifth habit as seeking first to understand, then to be understood.

Therefore, before we begin our designs, we need to take some time to really understand where our audience is coming from. Who they are, what their age range is, what their relative computer experience is, what their goals are, etc.

Once we understand who we’re designing for, we can properly adapt our design for their needs.

32   Cameron Moll ~ 05 December 2005 at 06:28 AM

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