Sociology and Design

Are designers artists or sociologists?

Before I really learned anything about design, I initially (probably like a lot of people) thought it was just about making things look good. I figured it was all about making cool graphics, throwing some nice fonts on a poster, lining things up neatly, etc. Once I started learning more about design, I realized that part of making things look good is doing a lot of research. Designers have to research semiotics: how are people going to interpret certain images, signs, shapes, words, etc? They must consider popular culture, societal expectations, environmental factors–the list goes on.

Research seems especially important in interactive design. Sometimes it’s to the point where it seems like interactive designers are part-time sociologists or psychologists. While creating an interface, they have to consider what they know about how people behave towards certain items. If they want people to swipe, tap, etc, they must consider what affordances to include. After they design a prototype, they must conduct user testing, observing how people interact with their prototype, analyzing their observations, and adjusting the prototype based on what they observe.

Affordance was originally a term coined by a psychologist, and it has since been co-opted by designers to describe clues in the environment that indicate how something can be interacted with. Sometimes, it seems like so much of interactive design is a special kind of behavioral science rather than a fine art. The image of a fine art major is one of a student in a paint smock, standing at a canvas or creating a sculpture. Instead, interactive design students’ studio time is taken up with conducting interviews, creating user journey flowcharts, and recording usability tests, closely monitoring where a person taps on their screen as they navigate an app or website. Even the visual parts of interactive design seem removed from art, as they consult user interface guidelines and use templates and UI kits to create prototypes.

At first, it was hard for me to figure out what part of interactive design was actually design. It seemed like I was just trying to make everything look as similar to other sites/apps as possible, since anything out of the ordinary might be confusing to users. It made me wonder where my creativity was supposed to come in.

I haven’t entirely collected my thoughts on the topic, but my here’s the beginnings of what might be my eventual answer: the creative part of interactive design is producing the interaction and user experience itself. In fact, maybe all design is interactive design, because in the end a poster or a magazine spread or a book cover is also all about the experience of the person viewing it. It’s somewhat like a piece of installation art. Like an installation artist, the interactive designer creates an environment for the viewer. How the viewer experiences and interacts with the given environment is a large part of the piece itself. So though designers use principles of social and behavioral sciences in their craft, in the end they use them as tools to create an experience, not just as an area of study.

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