Artsy Blues, or Top five things I want to ask “Visual Designers”

Yep, you recognize this

Devs don’t do this stuff

I believe in good design. That is, I believe that it is super important to make sure that our software looks good and works in a comfortable and classy way.

I also think that Active911 is about ready — and probably far overdue — for a serious infusion of design talent.  I’m tired of having to run to 99designs every time we need something actually creative, and then fake everything in between.

This means hiring a design firm, or maybe hiring a full time visual designer.  ”Visual Designer” or “UI Designer” is apparently what these mythical beings call themselves. I know this because I talked with my brother in law, who just graduated from artsy school, and because I’ve been doing my research.

In fact, you might say that I’m a little obsessed with artists right now.  I see that finding artistic help is going to be an absolute requirement for Active911′s future, so it’s now one of my top priorities.  I want to know how these people think, what makes them tick, and where they congregate.  It’s like hunting an exotic bird in the jungle.

Now this leads me to some interesting problems.  First, I’m not an artist, so I have a hard time evaluating and understanding artists.  If a job applicant takes a long time to draw a user interface, does that mean that they are slow – or just thoughtful?  If I ask for multiple design options and get two instead of five, does that represent a lack of creativity or perhaps someone who already knows what a good design looks like and doesn’t waste my time with anything else? Not to mention the fact that the whole thing – art – is a bit subjective anyway.  (I can be fairly objective about user interfaces, but it requires a pretty careful analysis.  On the other hand, it’s probably easier to evaluate good and bad UI design than to evaluate a chunk of code.  And we do evaluate the code produced by potential new hires.)

Second, we have a wide variety of things that we need help with.  In addition to the apps and the website, we also need illustrations for the help documentation.  We need a trade show booth.  We need apparel and general branding work.  And we need video and animation help.  So someone with skills in just one area might be a little lost.  We need a unicorn.

My third problem is probably the strangest one of all.  Now, my research shows that artists are primarily judged by their portfolios, and that these portfolios are online and also hosted almost exclusively on Dribbble and/or Behance.  So naturally I started looking through these sites for artists with exceptional abilities.  But guess what!  Almost none of the good UI designers (as judged by me and the Top100 list) live in the US!  What?  That’s right.  Despite the fact that there are 300 million of us, and that the US is home to a lot of big software companies, we have a very poor presence in this important niche. I’m still scratching my head about that one.

Oh, and one more thing.  Why do big companies like Intel and Google still outsource artistic help?  Don’t they have big in-house design departments?  Could it be that artists prefer to work in a flock-like team?  I kind of doubt it.  There are a lot of freelancers out there, after all.  On the other hand, they also seem to worry a lot about finding work, so maybe it’s just the nature of the work.  Programming jobs that involve making websites for clients over and over again get pretty boring, but maybe that is the kind of work environment that artists like.  Maybe developers are monogamists where artists are not, instead flitting from relationship to relationship.  I want us to be able to attract and keep a designer just for ourselves. But I want our designer to stay because they love us and our work, not because they feel trapped.  Oh no! Did I just make it weird?

So here it is.

Top five things I want to ask “Visual Designers”:

  1. If you were the only designer at a small company, and had to build things with (appreciative and friendly but non-designer) teammates, would that be cool?  Like some really great devs who are not artists?
  2. Why are so many amazing UI people in places other than the USA? Like almost exclusively NOT american?!  :)
  3. Please explain Nike / Intel / Google / Facebook / etc outsourcing design help.  These companies build their own software and even (some cases) run their own bus line.  They can’t do their own design?
  4. Is there any way to objectively measure someone’s artistic ability when it comes down to specific jobs, for example branding or UI/UX?
  5. Do you feel a need to be constantly moving in order to not feel stifled?

One thought on “Artsy Blues, or Top five things I want to ask “Visual Designers”

  1. Before I became a firefighter I was a commercial photographer (pre-digital, all sliver based). We worked with graphic designers and art directors daily. Sadly, with the explosion of the Web, actual designers were overlooked and many programmers were asked to design not only the graphics but the UI/UX of web sites and applications. I was a self taught computer hobbyist from a young age, and before being hired by my current department I worked as a desktop systems engineer for Seattle Fire. I recently built a web app to manage my current department’s small power equipment, using Ruby on Rails. One thing I am NOT is a designer. I studied design while pursuing a BFA photography degree in college, but would never claim to be a great graphic designer. Sadly the business world seems to not value good designers the way that print media did in the pre-digital days. I have many friends who work in design, and I think they prefer the varied work that comes with working in a design house, rather than as a single designer at a company. As to why US based designers are scarce, it probably has something to do with a general feeling in our country that “Art” is not as important as the bottom line. Art is taken much more seriously in Europe and abroad. Employers who think little of UI/UX often leave this to the programmers. Or they have the programmers design the UI and leave the interface design to a web dev to “make it pretty”, but the interface itself is already set by the programmer. Good design is an “art” but isn’t necessarily “Art”, and the same could be said for interface design. I wish you luck in finding a full time designer. As you noted, many are freelancers, but I’m sure there are plenty that would love to have a full time job. There are designers who like to be the only artist in the group, but many probably prefer to be part of a creative team because it can be more fun and they have likeminded people around them. You could always look into building a relationship with a good design house.

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