Is it really necessary to master TYPE to be an IxD?

21 Jul 2010 - 9:53am
6 years ago
8 replies
1284 reads

For those of who who haven't noticed, or have actively ignored it, there's been yet another debate about skills and what we call ourselves and blah blah blah.  One of the popular positions in this argument has been the importance of various visual design skills in interaction design, such as line, color, grid system...etc.  I have no objection to those.


But quite a few people have cited typography as a core skill for interaction design.  While I wholly agree that typography is a vital element of VISUAL design, I'm not sold on how my wireframes, affinity diagrams, and interactive prototypes are made better by masterful font selection. 


Maybe I'm misunderstanding what people mean, and they'r really setting the bar at font size, scale, indenting and alignment, and aligning a font to a content type consistently.  If so, I'm on board, but I question whether this really characterizes a mastery of typography.


But if someone really believes that selecting a specific font, setting the leading and kerning, and whatever else there is to typography is really a core skill, I'm going to need some convincing.


So convince me...I dare you.


21 Jul 2010 - 11:53am

For starters Dante, I agree with you.  I won't try to convince you otherwise.

This debate that has been happening on here started with someone asking if interaction designers "actually" possess any design skills.  The wording of this question suggests that several skills of these so-called interaction "designers" don't qualify as "real designers."  I honestly thought the question was a troll until I saw how much response it got, and I believe that a lot of the response was a bit lacking. 

It turned into a discussion of, as you say in this post, VISUAL design skills.  But to design an interaction one needs much more than typography, color, composition, grid, and drawing skills.  You know who does need those?  Someone designing graphics. 

I don't design graphics.  I design interactions.  They are different.  (And by the way, I do have graphic design skills and training, so nobody can say that I am hiding behind the "I design interactions" statement because I am ashamed that I can't do graphics.)

A simple example of the difference would be in the design situation of creating a computer interface for a person who is blind.  I bet that person doesn't care about my visual design skills, but I know they care about my interaction design skills.

With the prominence of computers in our daily lives, to design interactions with technology is to, in many ways, design the ways in which people interpret the world around them and make meaning of their lives.  To understand this and design for it requires so much more than a gridded Moleskine, Micron pen, and a Wacom tablet.

I wish I had the time to expand upon this more, but alas I have to go interview someone about something I need to design.  (Add a few more design skills to the list: the ability to observe, ask questions, and listen).  In any case, here is hoping that the conversation continues, and that we continue to grow our understanding of what it means to design the interactions between people and technology.



21 Jul 2010 - 12:48pm
Jack L. Moffett

Hi Dante,

I believe you have a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word "typography". It is the art and technique of using type, which includes not only font selection, but the use of size, weight, style, spacing, and arrangement to better communicate with the printed word. This most definitely includes "font size, scale, indenting and alignment, and aligning a font to a content type consistently".

So, while an Interaction Designer that doesn't do the visual design of user interfaces may get by without it, I would argue that the effectiveness of your documentation will improve with even a basic level of skill in typography. For a designer that does work on the visual design of the UI, it is essential.



21 Jul 2010 - 1:08pm

Visual Skills, Typography, Designer???


I have been quite the observer of the IXDA feed, discussions, debates and so on. It has been very informative, educational and quite entertaining at times. As someone who came up through the track where visual designers became interaction designers and UX, UI, AI designers by default (in the early days) - and as one who is presently in academia, I think I have an interesting and possibly diplomatically global perspective - I will throw out several suggestions.


1) What is a designer? Shall I ask what is an Artist? No one knows yet everyone knows - it can be anything BUT in our case, industry really drives us here: ----  One who gives birth and molds ideas  --- considering our industry, this idea can be an experience, service, product, behavior, Web, app, etc.


Now here is where it gets tricky.


2) Do they need visual design skills, typography, hand skills (sketching), etc.?


IMO - no they don't, as long as they have the support staff to fulfill these requirements and these are required for successful transition from idea to tangibility. We all have great ideas... but there is a real system and process to bring these to life.


The interesting trailer to this is really quite logical  - the more skills you have in your arsenal, the more valuable you are - regardless of the topics - psychology, human behavior, life and cultural experience, visual design, typography and dare I even say programming? Even if your sub skill is not at the level of a top-notch professional, it will at least contribute to your understanding, communication and overall view when dealing with the support staff who are experts in their respective areas.


I do personally subscribe to the Alan Cooper school of thought that it is difficult (if not impossible) for a great programmer to be a great designer (of ideas, not visually).


I have witnessed an elitist attitude at times from some commentary on the position of "design(er)". But it is important to understand that each piece of the puzzle is critical, not just the initial blueprint. It reminds me of the age-old mac vs pc arguments. How many times have we had to hear the babble about this topic, and if you have the word "evangelist" in your title along with the words "mac" or "PC"  IMO you are out of touch. :-) When I have created solutions and products, most of the time, the client wants them to work E V E R Y W H E R E . (of course I know there are platform-directed projects so don't give me a hard time about this).


Before I end, I must address TYPOGRAPHY as noted in the posting.


Typography is an art. Make no mistake about this. Does an IXDer need to know Typography - probably not, but as stated above this is a requirement that needs to be fulfilled from someone on the "team" and it certainly doesn't hurt for IXDers to be knowledgeable in this area (for reasons below). But before letting you off the hook that easy, I will say this. My experience as an instructor at four different universities and as a creative director at three industry firms has shown me that, hands down(!) Typography is the biggest weakness that I have seen consistently from "designer" prospects in my 20+ years. Nothing else comes close.


Consider this. Typography can be much more than selecting a font, adjusting the kerning or leading. Type can be used to provoke emotion, to dictate hierarchy (i.e. wayfinding) and to uniquely represent a brand or culture. These are very real and to discount these elements, IMO dilutes your strength as a designer, whether IXD or a graphic designer. Your only other option is to simply hand this responsibility off to the team's graphic designer, and hope that (s)he is steeped in all of the expertise that makes typography a true art.


I'm not sure if that is convincing or even if it was meant to be convincing, but please know that these key points are REAL. Whether one chooses to accept them or apply them is another posting.

21 Jul 2010 - 3:09pm

Thank you for writing that Exit7278.  It was eloquent and articulated a lot of things that would have taken me a lot longer to put into words.  Your post seems to describe a designer with a holistic set of design tools with a subset of finely tuned skills applicable to their respective field.  Included as well is the respect and appreciation for design tools and skills that aren't part of your core set, but absolutely affect the outcome of "your" design when working with a team of people.

21 Jul 2010 - 1:31pm

I agree with Chad...

I won't convince you either… but some graphic-designer-turned-interaction-designer might. 

The conversations in IxDA that are of real substance and provide insight into "interaction" design seem to be fleeting and far-between.  You challenge a specific group of people who make up this industry with your comments, and it's a fair challenge.  I think it's important to acknowledge the "capital" or values that these different groups/people bring to interaction design.  There definitely is a typography value in an "interaction".  There is also a consistency value and a color-theory value and a symbology (icon) value.  But to state that these values are "core" and a mastery of them is required typically comes from graphic-design posers.

I used to be a graphic designer = did it professionally for 9 years with a BFA under my belt.  I'm well rehearsed in their logic and reasoning.  But interaction design, or designing an interaction isn't designing a poster, or a book.  Reading text in printed narrative form is different than reading 140 characters in a tweet.  Understanding what an "interaction" is is more important than being a connoisseur of fonts, leading, and kerning.  Obviously, if the type/font in your layout is illegible, it becomes a "font problem"… but these graphic design posers tend to focus on understanding "interactions" with what they already know.

Props for questioning typography.  More designers should thoughtfully question what it means to understand Interaction Design.  For starters, more people on this site should start questioning what an "interaction" is.  At it's core, it involves understanding how human beings act in a world.  It involves understanding how human beings see the world.  And it involves understanding how humans understand and accept technology. 

Fonts come and go.  Reading text in one medium is different than in another.  Understanding the human experience of reading text across platforms, mediums and browsers is more important than being a typography snob.  FYI, you can only understand what an "interaction" or "experience" is with a knowledge of those things (philosophy, ethnography, psychology).  Taking an understanding of paintings won't get you very far in the discipline of medicine.  Most graphic designers would do best to acknowledge that their capital and "value" isn't complete in defining this industry.  Having the word "designer" in your job title doesn't qualify your "graphic design" background to possitively contribute to the discourse of "interaction", "humans", or "experience". 

21 Jul 2010 - 9:44pm
Dave Malouf

Dante, were you using the word "MASTER" on purpose? Is so, I would answer "no". This is not about becoming Paul Rand in order to be the next Alan Cooper or Bill Buxton. It is about taking responsibility for core aspects of the communication of interactivity within graphical systems (digital and analog) and about learning to communicate your ideas in the best way to get them the best consideration.

On the point of great collaborations. They exist. People do well with them. But every collaboration is a moment of interpretation. Great design IS the details and like the Architects of early 20th century like FL Wright, they didn't just architect the buildings, but they designed the interiors, created the furniture and left no detail relating to how a structure was to be inhabited left to others. 

Their complexity is no less and no greater than our own today. I just think someone tried to convince us that it is. I'm no longer buying that truism, as I find it to be false and without backing. 

Be THE designer ... Know your limits and collaborate as your limits require for as long as YOU let those limitations exist. 

-- dave

22 Jul 2010 - 12:15am

Great feedback from all.  I especially like Dave's point about limitations...only those which you ALLOW exist.  Makes me feel fat and lazy.

I totally get the "more skills are better" argument.  For me, that meant moving away from the visual into research and an understanding of cognitive and behavioral science.  And if anyone wants me to, I can very explicitly tell you how those skills have made me a better IxD, or at the very least a more valuable contributor to design-driven initiatives.

I'm still not sold on how much value understanding typography really adds compared to some other skills,  And frankly, as long as there is someone on my team who will provide the visual design skills I lack, I don't see "interpretation" as a problem, especially when it frees me up to do things that others in my organization simply can't do.  I guess what I'm saying is that I am willfully allowing this limitation to exist.

But don't worry, I positively will NOT use Comic Sans.

22 Jul 2010 - 7:27am

As usually this is a driven by how you define your roll as an interaction designer. (I try to reference Saffer's diagram in the first book)... If you are, in the process of your job, determining basic page layout and the information hierarchy, typography skills are really helpful. Necessary? Probably not. Understanding how your work will be translated to the final product is pretty helpful.

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