The Importance of Graphic Design in UX, Article 1 of 2 – The Current Situation

Par Pascale Morneau


Design_graphique_en_UXGraphic design is essential to user experience (UX)… but is this clear to everyone?

Since I started working in UX design, including interface design, I’ve encountered different visions and approaches to graphic design. In my opinion, many people aren’t grasping the essence of graphic design.

The goal of this first article of a two-part series is to communicate my perspective of this situation. In the second article, I will attempt to articulate the eight principles that best demonstrate the relevance of graphic design in order to dispel some persistent myths.

The Big Picture

Things that I’ve heard have given me the impression that people do not understand the mission of graphic design, regardless of whether they are working in the field. Here are some examples:

“I need a good graphic designer to review and improve my work for it to be beautiful.”

“The logo is awful, but it doesn’t matter if the interface is functional.”

“Graphic design is only about personal taste, so it’s a secondary concern.”

“The graphic designer will screw up my wireframes, again.”

I realised that these thoughts stem from myths about graphic design. I will attempt to dispel these myths in my second article, so I won’t linger on them now. I’ll start by looking at the main problem. The fact that graphic design is very visual leads people to think that it is superficial. In truth, graphic design draws deeply on the product’s DNA in order to communicate the product visually.

I have to admit that even I had the tendency to overlook graphic design after my master’s degree, being completely captivated and fascinated by the concepts and methodologies associated with information architecture, research and documentation, ergonomics, and others. I thought that these areas of expertise had more potential than graphic design to inform the creation of high-quality products and services. After much reflection, I realised that these products and services can’t exist without graphic design and, thus, that graphic design is essential to UX.

What Montreal Designers Think

I wanted to find out if other graphic design professionals have sometimes felt that graphic design was a secondary concern for their colleagues and clients. I was surprised to find that this is not the case, at least not everywhere. Certain agencies do not operate under this assumption.

Patrick Williams, certified graphic designer (DGA) and creative director of TP1 agency, has never seen graphic design as an afterthought. Josiane Marquis, artistic director of LG2’s interactive activities, shared her thoughts on the matter:

“Fortunately, I’ve never felt that design was secondary in creative agencies. I’ve had the chance to work with several agencies that put ideas and design first, above everything else. If we want the best ideas to become a reality, everyone involved has to work as a team.”

For his part, Frederic Blache, associate creative director and interaction designer at Blache & Yong, has noticed some problems. He shared the following insights based on his experiences:

“I’ve often had the impression that graphic designers were taken less seriously than UX professionals. UX analysis is serious; we don’t really question it, whereas graphic design is more about intuition and emotions. Certain graphic designers didn’t help the cause by acting like divas; they generated the “I do what I want” stereotype. When I began, I spent a lot less time on design than I did on UX; currently, there is more of a balance.”

I also asked Elaine Bossé, freelance designer. Here are her thoughts:

“It seems like the world is divided in two: there are those who want to make sure that it works and those who want to make sure that it’s profitable. In fact, design teams often work separately from product development teams, making things much more difficult.”

How Do We Make Sense of What’s on the Internet?

Negative opinions of graphic design abound on the Internet, further proof that my representation of the situation is not an exaggeration. Here is a quote from an article published in FastCompany that I found to be particularly arresting:

”Unlike UX designers who are concerned with the overall feel of the product, user interface designers are particular about how the product is laid out. They are in charge of designing each screen or page with which a user interacts and ensuring that the UI visually communicates the path that a UX designer has laid out. For example, a UI designer creating an analytics dashboard might front load the most important content at the top, or decide whether a slider or a control knob makes the most intuitive sense to adjust a graph.”

What Does it All Mean?

The relevant question is: Why has this situation arisen? I think that there are several important factors at play.

Poor Definition of Profiles and Roles

One obvious reason why we find ourselves in this situation is that the profiles and roles of each team member are poorly defined. Every designer has a particular profile that makes them competent, or not, in the different areas of a given project. Without defined profiles, it is difficult to make the necessary determination of who is responsible for what.

We tend to avoid the question altogether; rather than addressing it and potentially stepping on some toes, we prefer to proceed with a blurry understanding. This can result in miscommunication, misunderstanding and ultimately, a more difficult project. With this approach, collaboration can only be complicated. Macefield explains:

“There is a high degree of overlap between the roles of the information architect, interaction designer, visual designer, and usability engineer, so potential for conflict exists across all of them.” 

In my first article about theroles of UX designers, I defined the UX designer as the person with the best overview of a project. He/she must work closely with all team members and stakeholders, to ensure that everyone has the chance to partake in the discussion and process of project development.

Let’s be honest: teamwork can only be effective when it is hierarchically structured, which entails having a leader. It is generally agreed that the UX designer is well placed to assume this role, as Pabini Gabriel-Petit says:

« On every project, there should be a lead designer or creative director who sets the vision, or design strategy, and is responsible for all final design decisions for that project. Typically, that person is a UX designer […]»

The implication here is that graphic design shouldn’t be treated as one of the last steps of a project, to be undertaken by a separate team. It should be an integral component of the project, from start to finish.

A practice that is too inclusive

I often hear people in the field complain that the term “design” is too vague and too broad. I think the problem is more about the way we apply it than about the term itself.

For example, the broad field of medicine includes dozens of specialities, yet we do not feel the need to question its name. What every specialist does is clear and established. With respect to the term “design,” the problem isn’t that the term is too inclusive, but that the practice is. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple and rational as with medicine; when it’s all about nuance, concepts can sometimes seem completely abstract. Certain people have taken advantage of this ambiguity by falsely claiming to be a designer. I’ve literally seen this phenomenon in action at events when everyone is suddenly a “designer”, wearing a badge as evidence.

I’m not sure how to explain my disbelief; sometimes it seems like we take one step forward and ten steps back. When design is finally recognized as a great tool for innovation, everyone is suddenly a self-proclaimed designer! I would never accept the badge of “doctor” or “pharmacist”; it’s a question of respect for the field.

The Absence of Design Philosophy in Academic Programs

I studied design for seven years, but not until entering my master’s degree did I first hear about the fundamental concepts of design. What is “design”? What’s the difference between design and art? What do we do exactly? Why is it important to use established methodologies, to analyse and make informed design choices? All of these questions tormented me and gave me many a headache, but they left me fascinated, leading me to continuously seek to better know and understand my field.

I believe, therefore, that academic programs have a responsibility to open designer’s eyes to these questions during their studies. At present, this is a serious gap in graphic design programs, which are based on enabling students to master technical skills and creativity, without focusing on understanding the “why” underlying the practice.

What’s Next?

What should we do? Give ourselves some strict rules and definitions? This may prove difficult, since design typically needs a lot of space for exploration.

Besides learning to improve day-to-day collaboration, I think we first need to have a clear understanding of what we do and how to protect our field. Theorising, discussing, listening and understanding will help us establish our credibility and will allow us to better adapt as the field and associated technologies evolve.

In my second article of this two-part series, I will outline the eight principles that show the extent to which graphic design is essential for UX. I think that it’s important to have guiding principles in our field; they help us to define our territory with delineations that are tangible, yet flexible.

For more information:

BUFORD, S. (2011). «Web Information Architecture : A Very Inclusive Practice», Journal of Information Architecture, 1(3), p. 19-40.

BURRY, M. (2014) «UX, Visual, or Graphic: Wich Type of Design is Right for You?», General Assembly.

GARRETT, J.J. (2010). The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web, 2e édition, New Riders, 192 p.

JOHNSON, J. (2010) «Designing with the Mind in Mind», UX Matters.

MACEFIELD, R. (2012) «UX Design Defined», UX Matters.

M. SIX, J. (2014) «User Experience and Accessibility | Working with Visual Designers», UX Matters.

WIKIPEDIA (2014) User Experience Design