08 November 2006
Charl Grabe, Global Edge Design
Charl Grabe, Global Edge Design

In a volatile industry still finding its feet, IT (Information Technology) is grappling with the concept of Design playing a part in its growth. The Design industry would argue that they play an indispensable part indeed. This article aims to highlight a few points in order to facilitate a better understanding between the Design and IT Industries.

The Graphic and Industrial Design disciplines have been maturing since the Industrial Revolution, over a hundred years ago. Industrial designers were commissioned to develop the best ways to produce goods (factory machinery), and to develop the best products (e.g. motor cars). Graphic design was used to promote these goods to the public, and later to help transfer information in many other ways. Graphic design became the vehicle for directing people through transport systems (e.g. London Underground), or to recruit soldiers to fight a war (e.g. the "Uncle Sam Wants You" poster), or to entice people to buy (e.g. product catalogues).

The IT Industry, on the other hand, is experiencing unprecedented development. It pays its employees well, and facilitates a huge new gold rush pushing for quick results, promising businesses and consumers unequalled convenience/ efficiency/ functionality.

While the Design Industry has become increasingly sophisticated in its methodology, theories, infrastructure and education, it seems to have left its consumers behind. The IT industry being a very large portion of that group of consumers. In turn, IT people became empowered to do many things that the designers could not, and making far more money for themselves at that! Dare we say that technology itself has spawned a whole generation of design amateurs who get their "design" qualifications within three to twelve months of software training! Very few web designers are able to draw a balanced composition on paper, let alone on a computer screen. Basic design principles such as typography, line, form and colour are subordinated to issues such as time, money and usability.

These are the "designers" currently structuring information on the Internet, "designing" newsletters or the like, from the comfort of their own back yard garages (at a fraction of the cost of "real" designers). It has certainly become difficult for the Design industry to protect its own integrity, let alone to differentiate their three-/ four-year design qualification against the plethora of "cheaper" options. It is only the really clever branding strategists such as Nike, Sony or Virgin that seem to get the most out of this obvious truth. One can only wonder what the other corporate giants are missing.

The real problem started the minute that design was brought to the computer. Suddenly "geeks" became interface designers, or paying clients commissioning aesthetics. Design, as a human science, became the servant of other less humane objectives. The fact that technology serves people seems to get lost in the process. People lose the human factor when they forget the value of design to differentiate people, products and services.

Differentiation by design
Going back to Industrial Design we will find that many products do the same thing, but they don't look the same. Hundreds of toothpaste brands claim to make teeth whiter, but only Aquafresh puts colourants in the tube to make the product look different, causing the perception that Aquafresh is different. Many vacuum cleaners claim to clean carpets the cleanest, but the design of a Dysan not only looks better, it cleans better. The same principle goes for the design of the I-Mac as opposed to the home PC's available.

Industrial designers like Allessi develop products with a personality, as people with emotions, values and perceptions use them. Marketing guru Tom Peters repeats that emotions and perceptions are key in selling. They are also important in gaining people's ongoing support for a product or idea. When something is visually different from another, it creates a selling point immeasurable by time and money.

Marketers have been using the term "Unique Selling Proposition" for years to identify the qualities in their products that are truly unique, and sellable. Designers have been finding visual and verbal solutions to make these unique factors sell.

Interface design as differentiation
Suffice to say that any web site or computer interface must be functional. In fact many software products vie for the attention of potential buyers, and usability studies ensure that things work the way they should. It is also clear that many of these packages look nearly identical. Then, occasionally one software development firm has the vision to make their interface distinctly different in look and feel. These packages are the ones that leave lasting impressions on the users, even if they happen to offer less functionality than the bland competition's.

Regardless of how sophisticated the back end of a site's architecture is, it is only by the visual front end that the user is able to judge its worth. More than a mere cosmetic exercise, the look of an interface governs the perceived value of that computer product. One may compare the difference in look between Windows and Mac interfaces to discover yet another example of this truth.

For Global Edge Design, the issue is not to "dare to be different", but being different to survive! Users often spend the majority of their lives (at work) in front of a GED interface. GED implements interfaces as a corporate culture building tool and a way to bring back the human factor so lacking in IT. These are experiences, interfaces between people and computers, as well as between people with one another. Let's DESIGN IT!

About Charl Grabe

Charl Grabe was born in 1970, and graduated with a BA (FA) in Information Design from the University of Pretoria. Charl has done work for various large South African and UK-based corporations, and has received numerous design awards, including the International Web Page Creative Achievement Award. Other examples of his work may be seen at: