Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Design Future: Passionate, Self-Interested Design May Be Tomorrow Designer Best Path

Sponsored Links

Design scientifically or design for yourself? Design for a specified and scientifically identified marketing target or design for your own pleasure and usefulness? Two really great questions. But to evaluate what may be the very best possible answer to both, I think you need to see beyond design philosophy and into economy and market changes, which are now led by early movers and avant-garde designers on the web.

Photo credit: Sgame

In a long-tail economy, where the loss of shelf space and finite inventories has given rise to new niche industries, to increased and deeper differentiation of products and to opportunities for many small producers to become sustainable without the need for hugely-sized audiences, it may be best indeed to design for yourself without compromises rather than design for a gradually fading mass-audiences.

The word of the game today is personalization. There is no more need to have a design or product that fits the needs of millions. Economies of scale have changed. Production and transportation costs have changed. Digital products have near zero inventory, stocking and delivery costs.

The need to design for the lowest common denominator while appealing to the largest possible number of people is gradually coming to an end.

The future, if we can make it through, is all about designing around designers true needs and passions. Vocational design? No, but certainly a healthy comeback to design roots, where design is not created to sell more of the same to the largest number of people while strictly looking at the economic return of this but, is done on the impulse and personal need to create something useful to improve or make more accessible something that is already there.

Photo credit: Ron Chapple Studios


Design personas, are visual and text based artifacts which help design agencies and their clients to reference and communicate more effectively about their target audiences by prototyping imaginary individuals (personas), which are described and pictured in high detail, while being built on statistical or reference data about the target group the product is being designed for.

Personas can be indeed a great design tool to help designers communicate more effectively with their customers, facilitating the design and evaluation process by virtue of creating a somewhat more realistic point of reference that should help in getting away from personal, emotional and ego-driven design choices to a more rational, scientific and shareable design approach.

Joshua Porter has just published a couple of very interesting articles focusing on this very issue. But while his focus is more on whether it is really true that professional design needs to use personas to be effective, mine is really about seeing how design (or a significant part of it) may gradually evolve away from marketing-based research stats and target generalization and toward a more personal, passionate and self-interested design approach.

The planting ground for "industrial", "mass"-oriented design is gradually shifting to niche, personalized and passionate design, giving way to thousand of self-sustainable niche markets in which smaller but much "tighter" audiences buy tools that match much more closely their specific needs.

Not only.

In this emerging un-massified markets, audiences identify more also with designers attitude, lifestyles and credos, and when they buy a new design they really are trying to buy the whole association of themselves with the ideas and motifs of the designer behind it.

Niche, personalized, custom design are now as easy to market and distribute than it has ever been possible making the break-even point for custom design revenues much lower than in the past.

So, the only resistances still limiting more of such passion-based and self-interested design are only the lack of such awareness as well as of the art and science of online marketing.

Here some of interesting points, Joshua Porter has made in his article about personas. He writes:
"Steve Portigal, whom I've met and whom I don't think is insane, recently said in a presentation that "personas are user-centered bullshit".

But, what is really a persona?

"What most definitions don't say is that personas are a document. They might be a poster, a word file, or a PDF. But they are a document that represents an archetypical person that is passed around design teams.


Personas or personae are fictitious characters that are created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic that might use a site or product.

Personas are given characteristics and are assumed to be in particular environments based on known users' requirements so that these elements can be taken into consideration when creating scenarios for conceptualizing a site or product.

Cooper (in The Inmates are Running the Asylum) outlined the general characteristics and uses of personas for product design and development.

In the context of software requirements gathering, a user persona is a representation of a real audience group. A persona description includes a user's context, goals, pain points, and major questions that need answers. Personas are a common tool in Interaction Design (IxD)"

(Source: Wikipedia)

Yes, highly acclaimed designer, Alan Cooper, is the man who has actually invented personas and their application, with the specific goal in mind to be able to design for a "broad audience of users".

But, as Joshua Porter, correctly points out, "when you design for a broad audience you can't design for each individual, you must make generalizations and design for those."

In the book, The Essentials of Interaction Design, Alan Cooper writes:

"...the key is in choosing the right individuals to design for, ones whose needs represent the needs of a larger set of key constituents, and knowing how to prioritize design elements to address the needs of the most important users without significantly inconveniencing secondary users."

It couldn't be said more clearly. A design approach which is based on generalizing the characterizing traits of a few representative enough individuals to create a product that can satisfy the largest number of users possible.

But is this the best approach to design innovation and creativity? How can new ideas and innovative approaches be implemented if I am always concerned with satisfying the largest possible number of users?

OK, it is evident that my reasoning here is purely speculative.

I am not arguing that existing design projects and professionals should stop designing while using some of these approaches. I am only hinting at the fact that the premises on which this approaches have grown upon, may see soon new competition arising from a new, uncompromising design trend: passionate, self-interested design.

"Cooper's solution is to do real research on folks, grab the trends out of that research, and create personas out of them to help spur discussion and decision making.

Part of that "creating personas" step is to give them a name, a face, so that they are easily referenced.

...The problem is that personas are, by definition, an abstraction of research.

Personas represent a summary of research from many different people. In other words, it's a generalized construct.

But when you place a very specific picture of a person on that persona while giving it a name, you've made it particular again. You're asking people to treat it as an individual person. You've taken the summary and made it specific."

And that becomes a custom, a habit, a way of doing and designing things that pervades all industries. It becomes so much so the standard way of doing things, that it does not even get challenged anymore. And in the process, what gets lost is the most critical question of all: why are you designing at all in the first place?

Are you doing it because this is a way to give something that pays back money, or you are doing it because you want to create something that serve a specific purpose, ideal or need you really have?

Nobody designs for passion, self-interest, love or need?

Think again.

Here are a few examples:

Netflix, eBay, Google Apps, Wufoo, Basecamp, Freshbooks, Yelp, Craigslist, Blinksale (suggested by Joshua Porter).

Delicious, BlogBridge, Irfanview, Miro, Glance, Swarm-It (yes, little-known many of them, but greatly designed and useful tools created with lots passion and self-interest).

And Joshua is right when he states that faced with such evidence the next question begging an answer is: "why don't more people design for themselves?"

And the answers, in my opinion are that most designers:

1) are trapped into thinking that they have to sell their skills to design someone else's idea to make a living,

2) wouldn't know how to market themselves and their artifacts in the online world.

Let's summarize with Joshua Porter's most inspiring statements why the future of design may actually be more passionate and self-interested than you and I have seen so far:

a) "There's a real difference between being a hired hand on a project for a specific amount of time and someone who has ownership as well as passion for what they're working on (ownership and passion can be exclusive as well, but combined, they pack quite a punch)."

b) "It makes sense to me that I'll do much better work (and help my clients much more) if I'm an actual user of the very software we're designing."

c) "...those people who are designing for others are at a known disadvantage: they're at least one degree of separation away from the people who will use the design. Their challenge is harder.

d) "The short-term, part-time attention of a freelance designer or developer can often lead to clunky, duct-taped solutions after the contract is over and the site is actually being used by real people."

e) "The further a designer is from the people they're designing for, the harder it is to design for them."

f) "...designers who design for themselves will make better designs more easily.

g) "Designers designing for themselves are often passionate. It's hard to do as a freelancer or consultant."

h) "Passion comes from having a stake, having a long-term commitment."

i) "If you are a designer and you're not a potential user of what you're designing, you have a higher hill to climb."

Start thinking now how you are going to climb it.

Originally written by for Master New Media and first published on January 24 2008 as "Design Future: Passionate, Self-Interested Design May Be Tomorrow Designer Best Path"

Readers' Comments    
blog comments powered by Disqus
posted by Robin Good on Thursday, January 24 2008, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

Search this site for more with 








    Curated by

    New media explorer
    Communication designer


    POP Newsletter

    Robin Good's Newsletter for Professional Online Publishers  



    Real Time Web Analytics