Types of Design

January 9, 2015 Jonathan Berger

“Design” is a messy word, and describing which type of design you mean can be tricky. Sometimes it’s more helpful to describe types of design not as crisp definitions—”Visual Design looks pretty, and UX has boxes and arrows”—but instead in the spirit of Family Resemblance, i.e.:

things which may be thought to be connected by one essential common feature may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is common to all.
Wikipedia on Wittgenstein’s notion of “Family Resemblance”

At Pivotal Labs, design decisions—not deliverables—are the basic unit of work, and we practice (and hire for) several flavors of design:

Visual Design

usually describes directing the users experience and attention using the formal elements of graphic design: figure, ground, color, type, rhythm, and hierarchy. It’s often taken to be a synonym for Marketing & Communications, or “MarCom” design, but is more than just branding and the like—any time visual tools like contrast or hierarchy (rather than, say, Javascript or a <blink> tag) are used to direct a user’s attention, that’s visual design. This type of work is often memorialized in high-fidelity mediums like Photoshop, style guides, and hi-fi clickable prototypes, and is a key piece of building visual design systems within a product or product ecosystem.

Front-End Engineering

usually describes working with code to implement design decisions. This type of work is often done in a text editor, browser, and terminal.

Tactical UI or Usability

usually describes interaction design, information architecture, user flows, and the tactical nitty-gritty of arranging elements on and across a screens. This type of work is often memorialized in medium-fidelity mediums like wireframes, user-flows, entity-relationship diagrams, clickable prototypes, and interaction studies.

Strategic UX or Product Design

usually describes the “are we building the right thing? How do we know?” part of design, using tools like ethnography, contextual inquiry, user-testing and research, leading to hypotheses, experiments, and (in)validation. This type of work is often memorialized with lean hypotheses, paper prototypes, card-sorting, affinity-mapping, and other pieces of the UCD and Design Thinking toolkit.

We also value perspectives from other design fields like typography, illustration, game design, etc. We love it when designers bring specialized skills and interests, and while we don’t have the head-count to hire (e.g.) a dedicated typographer, it’s great to know that when you hit a tough typography problem you can ask for help at our daily Design Standup. Someone who’s strong in typography will invariably say “I can help out, come find me after lunch”.

No single designer (or candidate) at Pivotal is expected to be an expert in all these things. We hire for empathy and aptitude, and we look for people who’re strong in at least two of those four types—and interested in learning others. In this way, we can pair designers with complementary skill sets to support the needs of a given project (or phase), leading to high flexibility in allocations and team structure, as well as high levels of skill transfer. No single project is confined to just a single flavor of design: there’s always some mix (and it usually changes over time). Recognizing that “design” is a messy word, and developing a common understanding (or better yet, ubiquitous language), and that the design activities (and the definitions thereof) aren’t cut-and-dried is a good step towards more effective communication.

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