Overcoming the “User Designer” Disease

I constantly struggle with design, it’s sort of a never ending three sided war: my imagination vs. design knowledge vs. design tool proficiency. But I came to a realization a while back that most of us rely too heavily on the last part — the tools — and forget what actually makes a quality design.

Look, just because you know Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign really well, doesn’t make you a fantastic designer — it makes you a really great Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign user. I constantly struggle with design, it’s sort of a never ending three sided war: my imagination vs. design knowledge vs. design tool proficiency. But I came to a realization a while back that most of us rely too heavily on the last part — the tools — and forget what actually makes a quality design.

How many designers do you know (or maybe even you) that will instantly get into a pissing contest about what Adobe product is best for web design? But, as soon as somebody brings up “hierarchy” or “typography” those designers tend to duck back into their cubes. Despite our proficiency with the tools of the trade, web designs are not created by these programs.

Really great designers aren’t users, they are creators. To them, designs are created way before they grab their sharpie or click open Photoshop. For me it’s the classic rivalry between Kurt Cobain and Joe Satriani — alright, there’s no rivalry here, but trust me it’s an awesome analogy. Satriani is arguably one of the most polished and skilled guitar players in the universe. He does amazing things with a piece of maple and redwood; nobody on the planet would ever say he “sucked” at the guitar. Where Satriani is a calculated master guitarist, Cobain is a mediocre guitarist at best. So then why was Cobain able to create one of the most unique musical revolutions in the last forty years? Among other things, Cobain was not simply a user of the guitar, but instead he was a creator who used the instrument to express his ideas.

The Disease

I affectionately call this type of disease the “user designer disease”. The disease usually starts early and usually infects newer designers: designers who first graduate college or first start to work in the business. Becoming a user designer starts innocently enough. You learn how powerful these great tools are and you start to build a dependency on them. You start to realize that these applications can do so much that you start to toss away your sketchbooks and notepads. Anytime you have a creative thought you start to pop open your Mac, launch Photoshop and start playing around with the pen tool.

As a recovering user designer I now see the disease all to well. It’s like buying a new luxury car that can parallel park for you, it’s sounds great when you use it, but eventually you start to realize who is really in charge. The disease is a designer killer. It’s a skills killer and most importantly it’s an imagination killer. Like the chicken pox, the “user design” disease is something we all need to get in order to become healthy, happy designers. You’ll experience many different effects when you have the disease, but there are two main, horrible effects that can and will cripple your growth as a designer: deterioration of versatility and reproduction.

The Effects

Being a great designer doesn’t simply mean learning how to use the tools of creation, it’s about being able to create despite the tools of creation. Often times our proficiency with design tools becomes a crutch for us: propping us up and helping us get around, but never allowing us to run.

There are some bad effects to allowing yourself to use creative tools as a crutch, aka, become a “user designer”. The first major effect is the deterioration of versatility and imagination. When you start to use the tools as creative devices and allow them to take over your creative process you start to limit your expression to what you are only capable of doing in the application.

Real design is not limited to how you can create something in Illustrator; rather, design should only be limited to the delivery of the design and the needs of the user (or client). When you limit your creative expression to the tools’ abilities, you are only as versatile or imaginative as the tool itself.

The second horrible and awful effect of being a user designer is reproduction. Instead of finding clever design solutions to your client’s or users’ requirements and finding a design solution that is best for all parties involved, it’s much easier to copy what other popular sites are doing and using nifty Photoshop techniques to accomplish it. That is not design, that is reproduction. Reproduction is a bi-product of buying into popular trends and limiting your process to the tools of the trade. Cookie cutter web designs are simply the designer’s inability to express themselves and solve design problems.

The Cure

Don’t worry, there is a cure for the disease that is becoming the “user designer”. Depending on how far the disease has spread you may have a long hard road to recovery. Now, I’m not the greatest designer and I have some major weaknesses when it comes to design. But in my experience, the best way to throw down the crutches and run is to continually learn, continually grow and continually be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. This takes time, energy and most importantly the ability to be open to new ideas.

Overcoming the itch to rely on design tools and replicate only what is trendy at the time, starts with going back to the basics:

  • understanding design principles/elements
  • understanding what makes a design good or bad
  • be willing to drop your own personal bias
  • step out and experiment; fail when needed
  • continually study the craft
  • don’t copy, find inspiration from others

Proficiency of the tools isn’t a bad thing however, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t spend time learning the power behind the applications. But be careful with them, don’t let them start become your creative process, rather, let them be a part of your creative process. Going back to the Cobain vs. Satriani analogy, you don’t have to become one or the other. Instead, set your goals higher and work towards both — become Jimi Hendrix instead.

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Patrick Cox

Patrick is a UX Designer and Researcher at Instructure (Canvas LMS).. He also enjoys family, snowboarding, sports, bacon and is jealous of your beard.

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  1. Excellent article, Patrick. You’ve put perfectly in to words what has been swimming around in my mind, formless, for many years.


  2. > Reproduction is a bi-product of buying into popular trends and limiting your process to the tools of the trade. Cookie cutter web designs are
    > simply the designer’s inability to express themselves and solve design problems.

    98% of Themeforest and other template sites.

  3. One of the best articles i have read in the whole internet 🙂 I’m web designer of http://www.hybridixstudio.com and well yeah this article wake me up and make me think about how we as web designers need to create new art, not design the same similar websites just because they are like the trend stereotype to design.

    I love this website now, you guys have been creating new and awsome stuff with jquery tricks and articles like this is what make me come back here, I really think codrops is more awsome than css-tricks {junk} 🙂 IMO.

    Keep rocking you guys u have support from mexico 🙂

  4. Nice observation. The article would be more valuable if you wrote more about how not to become this ‘user designer’, though. I mean, it is easy to learn a program, but where and how do I learn those basics? I’d love to learn more about those fundamentals, but I always have a problem finding good sources.

  5. So true!

    I always tell my young designers (they are really good using PS etc…) that a great designer is not a person with great software skills but a person that can create something from nothing with the minimum tools available and can communicate the design very well.

  6. Couldn’t agree more! thank you for putting this into words. My imagination, moleskin notebook and ball point are my most valued tools when it comes to creating the right solution for the project at hand . Ive seen the same vicious cycle of “design” where research, brainstorming and conceptualization is skipped over, lots of wasted hours in the software trying to make something “perfect” without a blueprint and generally a inferior product is the result.

  7. [Don´t forget Sonic Youth]

    I see de desing like something too much static; even if it isn´t, it´s become
    frome somebody who has learned with papers, who works with his hands;
    I think that it´s very important to art, an artist should use his hands but,
    here we are.

    I feel that the tecnologies changes has come so far… I just was burned by
    its shock…

  8. Thank you, I’m new and was having a conversation with a pro about not being able to visuslize the code so I use dreamweaver to help me see what Im doing… he said id always be DW coder, my response was a little sarcastic I said is the alternative always being limited by current code? ie there are always limitations with any medium— any– even pencils and paint and canvass.

  9. Patrick, I appreciate the punch on my face. It made me rethink all I thought about design before. And believe me, this post will make all the difference to a lot of people interested in the matter. Thanks a lot!

  10. I find it ironic that this article appears on a site that, in it’s current iteration, is really the epitome of current web design trends at the moment. Nothing original or fresh here.

    That being said, the development tuts are quite informative, again, as trendy as some of the outcomes are at the moment. Hopefully people will learn to take an idea and extend it further than merely copy and pasting code.

  11. Brilliant article and 100% true these days. People just jump into the software without thinking what they are about to design.

  12. Before I began doing Markup and CSS, I was really good with Photoshop and Illustrator. Now I am at best average. I started off as a Flash guy and really wanted to develop cool, simple sites like my 09 version (http://route19designs.com/R19D-09/) of my site. Somehow I got stuck in the middle. Do I focus on Actionscript more, CSS, PHP or keep sharpening my skills with the graphics. This confusion led to some really ugly sites, before I started getting it right.

    • Agreed. I see web developers who can’t create a web page by hand in a simple text editor like Notepad or TextEdit, and it makes me sad. They use snippets and libraries and frameworks for everything, even when it’s overkill for their needs and custom code would be leaner, faster and easier to maintain.

      Whatever your discipline, the tools should support your abilities, not be the source of your abilities.

  13. I’m going “JIMI” with this one! A great read, and great points to follow. Thank You!

  14. I passed this on to my design co-workers. Good stuff.

    This article will do me some good too. Now that I’m getting a Nikon D800 this week, I will work toward being a Paganini amongst photographers, and avoid becoming a Heifitz.

  15. This article was bang on. With the exception of the music analogy. Cobain was early on in the grunge movement, but he didn’t create a musical revolution, and I don’t know if it’s the most unique either.

  16. Great article, Patrick! Unfortunately it’s often hard to get started with a design. Although I usually fire up Photoshop first, I really try to push myself lately to start the creative process at paper and not digitally. Scribbling is definitely the way to go!

  17. In the same way makeup applied effectively appears natural, limitations of tools should have no affect on your work.

    I think I am a better designer because of them.

  18. Excellent! I tell all of my students about this. A lot of times, the tools can get in your way literally. When snap to point or snap to grid is on, for example, a lot of times we tend to rely on the programs decision to align objects or place objects in association with others, instead of relying on our gut instincts.

    Great advice for newbies.