designers as mediators, not toolbelts

this post completes a convenient triptych of design commentary. Paula Scher wrote an article called What they don’t teach you about identity design in design schools… that struck a nerve with me. she points out that a designer has to be “a strategist, psychiatrist, diplomat, showman, and even a Svengali,” when “diplomatically negotiating personal egos, tastes, and aspirations of various invested individuals against their business needs, their pre-formed expectations, and the constraints of the market place.” particularly well-put, i thought.

i’ve been doing some interviews lately, and some organizations just hit me with a list of software packages, putting ticks beside tools i’ve used. this strikes me as old-fashioned and a bit wrong-headed. technical people have such a wealth of tool paradigms in their headbox that no software takes long to learn. besides, it’s a designer’s soft skills that matter. why aren’t they ticking Creativity, Articulate Communicator, and Ability to See The Big Picture? well, they’re harder to quantify, sure, but in many organizations those things actually get in the way. too much creativity on the assembly line and things get…irregular. but then again, that’s no place for a designer. the bulk of design happens before production. too many production questions usually indicates a systemic inability to accommodate an interaction designer. they may know they need one (they probably do), but not how best to capitalize on one.

when i’m asked to show something i’m proud of, i show the Guitar Hero: Legends of Rock score and rock meters. did they stand on the shoulders of prior meters? sure. are they pinnacles of function, or does their beauty inspire tears? no. however, i did have to use all my skills, and better still, the result was very close to my original vision. there were a lot of egos, tastes, and aspirations to navigate. it was the first Guitar Hero for Neversoft, and people were equal parts excited and frightened. <b>there were cool possibilities to explore, but at least as many pitfalls and opportunities to fail.</b> more people were invested in the user interface than usual–from almost every team and discipline you can think of–which obviously complicated things. existing fans were attached to the meters the way they were. could we take them to the next level without alienating anyone?

well, i’m not anxious to relive the excruciating details, but it was a lot more complicated than some would think. there was a faction that believed 3D modeled meters were the sexiest solution, but quite a ways down that road things ground to a halt. there, in the midst of frustrated disillusionment and with a looming deadline, i made the most exuberant and rational case for 2D sprites i could. the director bought it, and ultimately, so did a lot of players. it was the first single video game to exceed one billion dollars in sales. i gave the meters new visual style that invoked guitar amps with even more flair, and proposed the note counter that appears in a fun way to signal note combos. they required research, holistic vision, presentation, debate, elegance, pizazz, courage, diplomacy, psychology, deep ears, focus, conviction, sweat, and jazz hands. i think those meters became an iconic part of an amazing brand, so yeah, i’m proud. is it important that i used Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop? barely.

One Response to “designers as mediators, not toolbelts”

  1. kathleen Says:

    excellent writing!

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