Product design is going down a weird path, but we can still save it



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Product design is going down a weird path, but we can still save it.

A casual analysis of our current design industry compared to the old days and principles, and why it’s important to step back and re-think our path.

A brave new world

There was a time when we had artists carefully crafting their deep, emotional and ground-braking music, with end-to-end concept and amazing poetic lyrics, further compiling the carefully recorded masterpiece into an album and shipping physical copies for the world to admire — and still being financially successful at it — or when Hollywood films had slow, beautiful openings, stunning photography and iconic soundtracks, with apes beating the floor with bones in their hands while all the wall-shaking drums and horns played in the background.

Don’t get me wrong, we do have amazing artists nowadays, but most of them are probably doing their art as a hobby and earning 30 cents a month from it while begging for likes on their social media.

Our current world environment simply made it nearly impossible for people to actually work on relevant and world-changing stuff. What really succeeds is the fast-pacing, disposable art that people will notice it for 20 seconds on a TikTok video — if you’re lucky.

Billions of views. Zero lives changed.

And I gotta be honest. When I say this, I feel that I might just be getting old, but I do see other people with the same perception. It’s a general feeling. It’s not just the “oh but in the old days…” kinda thing.

Everything is temporary, easy, and disposable now.

Iconic scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The golden age of software design

I started my design career in quite an unexpected way. As a teenager I’d frequently find myself designing cool templates for my old Blogspot page for absolutely no reason— yeah Blogspot was a thing in Brasil back in the day.

I used to spend hours and hours on Photoshop, having the best time of my life, figuring out how to replicate the skeuomorphic effects on the visual elements I was crafting, simulating shiny reflections, choosing the perfect font, designing a realistic drop-shadow to make it pop. Finding just the right color combination, slicing images, and making everything work with a very limited free HTML tool I used at the time — all this on a super slow internet connection and a falling-apart computer.

Not so long after that, I remember when I first came across Mac OS Leopard. The young me was simply amazed. I would just look at all of the details, the carefully crafted icons, translucent buttons, and stunning animations they added when you minimised a window. It was so easy to use, and the satisfying feeling I had while looking at all this was so intense I can’t even describe it!

Not to mention Windows Vista, with its horrible performance and functionality, but for sure the interface was ahead of its time. They simulated frosted glass (glassmorphism) in 2007! This was really impressive for the time being. The form was there, but well… of course it lacked function pretty much entirely. However, it served as a solid base for the hugely successful Windows 7 that came right after — which by the way is still used by millions even today.

It might seem silly and awkward that I’m referencing old software as an example of a golden age. But the reality is, these and other amazing and ground-breaking old software were made in a very artistic and “crafty” way, without most of the many complex frameworks and processes we have today, and also with no Figma or Sketch, no Miro, no Maze, no Mobbin or whatever other tool you may think of. I’m sure they used other types of processes and framework, but in general the work was richer in creativity and pixel crafting than today, and this is an interesting thing to think about.

What’s really core design and what isn’t? What really matters?

A brave new industry

The average design work is slowly becoming a robotic operational task. Designers are diving into a facilitator role more and more, rather than a creative role. We’re managing co-creation groups, surviving meeting after meeting, survey after survey, looking for the most optimal user flow based on some benchmark on Mobbin or desk research. Maze testing with users, tirelessly looking for what they want and designing what is expected to be designed because “the user analytics points to that direction”, specially now with the vibe shift we are facing today.

Modern tech culture is all about the low-hanging fruits, the fast wins, the MVPs, and the most optimised user flow. And that’s all fine. But once you’re in MVP mode, you’ll never really get out of it.

A young student once asked me “do I need to know UI if I want to be a designer?” and I was heart-broken, although I wasn’t even surprised given how we are presenting ourselves to the world now, with all our processes and frameworks, tools, high salaries, creative titles on LinkedIn, and how we constantly show that we’re smart and that our job is difficult.

Sure, it’s true. We are definitely a lot smarter and faster now. But then you look at most of the digital products around and… they’re not so impressive anymore, are they? Have a deep look at the apps you use every day. They’re basically all the same, with a few exceptions.

Prompt: A sad designer surrounded by post-it walls in the style of a Van Gogh painting

All of our workflows and routines surely make our boss and stakeholders think we’re working hard, but if we don’t put the same amount of effort into the basics — form and function, creativity, craft— everything is just useless.

And let’s be honest, while missing the most important part, you might as well just copy and paste your most successful competitor’s screens and flows, change the button colour and illustrations, flip the logo, and you will probably end up with a very similar output. All products look the same anyway, who cares? You’ll even have successful usability tests and conversion rates, or even profit! — And this would only take 3 hours instead of a full year of work, and only one designer instead of a hundred.

1 billion users. A sad and ugly world.

Being a designer is way more than that. The work is not only about raising conversion rates. This should be a consequence. The world deserves more.

What’s the one step further?

Ok, so we’re caught up in our routines, worrying too much about our Latte and our standing desks, and too little about our craft. But what’s the step further?

Here’s the thing… Every single amazing product in the industry right now, especially the physical ones, has a unique human touch and expression to it. There’s art in design, and there’s design in art.

The users are always people, not robots (yet) – even for B2B products – and if you don’t put that human expression, the gut feeling, the uncertainty, the risk-taking, the warmth, the emotions, you’ll then create a lifeless, sad creature. It might even work, and even have active users and profit, but even a broken clock is right 2 times a day. Doesn’t mean it’s a good clock.

Dig deeper. Craft the border radius of that card to the last pixel, add a little bit more emotion to that copywriting, release that crazy non-sense feature you thought about. Feel excited about it. Break the pattern. Detach the component (ooh! that’s a juicy one). Find an innovative user journey, find a different interaction approach to that boring old form. Make that animation curve extremely satisfying. Study what are the patterns in nature for aesthetics and apply them to the look and feel. Go beyond digital. Dive deep into sculpture, photography, music, architecture, painting, industrial design and even abstract art of all forms. Find and understand beauty and how it enhances the world around you.

Make it clear to your users that the product was crafted with close attention and absolute care. Not for the conversion rates, but for them.

Make it shine. Make it beautiful. Make it the best humanly possible.
Every time.

The highly detailed hand of Michelangelo’s David — The beautifully crafted VanMoof S5 e-bike, innovating in a 200-year-old industry.
Beautiful design of one of the Porsche 911s reimagined by Singer — Perfection.

Form and Function is now innovation

Apple released the “Dynamic Island”. It’s literally minimising applications into a Dock, but with style. They didn’t have to do it. But they did it. And this little interaction is what turned the design community upside down in 2022.

People were amazed, they only talked about that for 2 weeks. They wrote millions of giant LinkedIn posts and articles about “Embracing constraints”. But people were jaw dropped. By a UI interaction. Yes, Design is THAT BIG. And every competitor is copying them now.

Airbnb released their “OMG” category and this also made it to the big media and major communication platforms, as well as LinkedIn and Medium all over the place. People are always impressed by these little giant details. The creative insights, the unexpected.

The one little giant step further.

In order to change the world, there’s no math. Design is a human science, and it’s categorised like that for a reason. You need to show your users what they want. You need to fail before you succeed. You need to go for it, take the big leap to find it. And that’s the difference. That’s the “one step further”. That’s what good design is all about, and that’s where we can’t let it slip.

Don’t ever lose the feeling. Trust your gut, don’t be afraid to fail and don’t only take low risk actions day after day based on analytics. This sucks.

Use your tools, but mainly use your brain.

Get back on track, trust your intuition, test different ideas, look for the unfindable, go beyond what a user told you, they (probably) don’t even know what they want. Show them what they want.

Don’t fall blindly into this fast disposable world.

Take your time. Find new ways. Make great things.

Have fun.

Design.

AI/ML

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