What do designers do? Make things ‘pretty’ and ‘put a new coat of paint on something’, right?

Wrong.

A designer is someone who communicates visually through various mediums. This could be through print design, web design, and especially wayfinding design (the design of directional signs in our environment).

The end result is hopefully something that is visually appealing or ‘pretty’. Pretty should not be the goal, though. It is simply the natural byproduct of a designer who has taken the target audience into account while crafting a readable and functional piece of design (whether it’s a business card or a full-on website). What most people see as ‘pretty’ are simply visual symbols that resonate with a particular target audience and communicate a particular message in an exemplary way.

Some examples

Let’s take wayfinding. Directional sign on the interstate communicate visually. They tell what city you are approaching, which way to turn and so on. They aren’t simply pretty or pleasing on the eyes. They communicate visually. Interstate signs may also look pretty if the text wasn’t white, but instead were a slightly lighter green from the green background color of the sign. Decisions were made by designers about the readability and functionality of the sign, therefore stark white and dark green was the outcome. Design decisions are made in terms of functionality, readability without much focus on ‘pretty’ – because if it communicates visually, ‘pretty’ will hopefully be the natural byproduct.

The same argument can be made for web design. A website should be functional first and foremost. If I don’t know what a link is or what page I’m on, the web designer has failed already. A website can be ugly and functional – think Google search results. A website can be pretty and not functional – some graphic designer’s flash only websites. The best option is for the website to be both functional and beautiful.

On the flip side

Of course a designer should create things that are ‘pretty’ – but this should not be the end goal. Isn’t that what fine artists are for? (EDIT: I mean that fine artist don’t usually have to reach a target audience and therefore don’t need to worry about communicating the same message to everyone) As I often say, there should be balance between form and function. For argument’s sake, form = pretty and function = successfully reaching the target audience.

Form and function work together to create a successful design – but reaching the target audience is the goal, while ‘pretty’ is the byproduct of reaching that goal.

Now it’s your turn! What do you think of the balance between form and function? For designers, is ‘pretty’ the end goal or not?

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