On Dropping the Adjective Before Design

Dan Willis, also known as @uxcrank on Twitter, gave the third keynote at Midwest UX in Columbus, Ohio (slides available here). Discussing how we artificially break down our profession, Dan encourages us to take the adjective before design in our title and drop it. During Q&A, Joe Sokohl (@mojoguzzi) challenges this direction, stating we need the adjectives. Joe points out that there are differences between fashion designers and web designers, architects and automobile designers, and we need the adjective to understand what type of work we do. Due to time, the conversation between Dan and Joe was limited. I leave my additional thoughts below.

I should note: I hate the define-the-damn-thing talks in the community. We should represent ourselves with our craft and our skills, not the titles or description we wordsmith. This causes me to agree with Dan on the sentiment to ”drop the adjective.” After reflection on Joe’s comment I agree that we need adjectives, though.

Designer is too broad a term. Much to Joe’s point, a fashion designer does not do the same work as an architect or interior designer. Sure, there is still sketching and planning involved. Prototyping exists in all walks of design, but the final artifact is immeasurably different. While the process might be the same, the environment and challenges are different; I would not ask an expert seamstress to stitch me up after a major surgery, though both surgeon and seamstress are experts with needles.

I should note, I feel I am not without cause to say this. My background is Industrial Design. When I started working in Interaction Design, there was a steep learning curve to be comfortable in the field. I changed the adjective I used to describe myself. With that I had to learn variations on techniques, deliverables, terms, and methods. So when I say an interaction designer and a fashion designer need their adjectives, it is to communicate to our peers what realm we work in. While the distinction of interaction designer is important, the variation does not belong in our job titles but rather in our descriptions. Conversations typically start with “I am a designer” and evolve to describe information architecture, content strategy, and interaction models. Organizing these in our titles creates a false hierarchy and is inappropriate, just as a cardiologist is not better than a neurologist – both are specialist and both would describe themselves, most simply, as a medical doctor.

I believe this is where Dan’s contention with adjectives stems. We use the adjectives in professional settings to define our toolkit and then create additional adjectives (user experience designer, senior HCI expert, information developer, product usability specialist, product analyst online, chief executive pickle, and more) to distinguish rank, for business cards and family reunions. In reality, though, only people intimate to the field understand the nuanced differences between an Information Architect and an Information Experience Designer. The general public understands Web Designer or, maybe, if we are lucky, User Experience Designer.

Adjectives are important. We as designers of any field need them to communicate to clients what they can expect from us: a house or a chair, a website or a launchpad, an automobile or a highway. When communicating to the broader audience, we should simplify our adjectives to the lowest common denominator and save the nuanced distinction for back channel conversation. And while this is a simple notion, it is inherently flawed. Internal terminology eventually leaches into the general population, and we are left with a list of adjectives that require clarification.

This leads to a cyclical argument around how to frame our work. While there is no simple resolution, we can strive to simplify our adjectives. When used as currency, adjectives are not flattering. Find what works for you and determine how it fits into the broader scheme of things. And remember that as consultants we go to clients and learn their language whether it is finance, business, healthcare, or engineering. So when describing our profession, don’t force clients to learn our language. Determine what will resonate most with them and communicate that. Chances are simpler and consistent is better. If you have thirty seconds at a party: are you an Interaction Designer or a Chief Executive of Web Usability Pickles. Which can our audience resonate with and which can lead to more open conversations, as opposed to trying to define a self proclaimed niche? Don’t drop the adjective, drop the clutter.

In my next post I will address how I have dropped the clutter describe myself as a interaction designer without using a single industry term.

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1 Response to “On Dropping the Adjective Before Design”


  1. 1 台灣大樂透 September 20, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    Awesome article, thanks a lot !!


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