The DIY Design/Development Problem

DIY Design/Development
DIY Design/Development

NSConference recently posted videos of all their speakers for this year’s conference, and Marco Arment was one of the keynote speakers. Interestingly enough, his topic was app marketing, something often mocked on his podcast. Still, perhaps unsurprisingly, he did a great job explaining what works in the App Store. And overall, his talk is a great watch for Overcast fans, as he recounts the app from conception, all the way to launch.[1]Let me preface what I am about to say with this: I have nothing but the highest regard for Marco Arment. His work with Tumblr helped jumpstart the one-man-blog. His mobile applications have become huge contributions to the App Store ecosystem. Before Instapaper, there was no great read-it-later service. And before Overcast, podcasters who wanted to listen at greater than 1.0x speeds were stuck with crappy audio. He is nothing but an inspiration for wannabe indie developers, bloggers, and podcasters.

That said, his thoughts regarding the design/develop conundrum currently plaguing the App Store saddens me:

iOS 7 made good design a lot easier for developers who aren’t necessarily designers by training or by skill

I’ve learned the basics of typography and spacing and layout, and I had Louis Mantia [link added] pick a good color for me, and that’s basically all you need in iOS 7 and above. This new visual language is very accessible to developers. You still need some design help if you can get it, but it’s a lot easier to stand out and be good because there is a lot less cost involved in doing thatI’ve read a few of Eli Schiff’s pieces, mostly because Marco linked to one in particular (with disdain). Ignoring the disagreement between the two, Schiff makes some spot-on arguments about the recent trend of developers doing more and more self-design work in their apps.

Here he is from his piece entitled Fall of the Designer Part II: Pixel Pushers:

More and more, we are seeing a convergence toward a universalized front-end developer role in design, with the ostensible visual designer becoming an abstract coder, thus renouncing any ties to the graphical nature of interface design

[This is] illustrative of a larger movement that expects interface design to come a distant second to development.I am tempted to include more quotes from his piece, but really, you should just read the whole thing. In the old days of application development, developers wrote the code, and collaborated with designers to create the desired UI/UX. As design trends moved away from skeumorphism and toward flatness, developers were finally in a position to self-design. Gone were complex textures and heavy gradients, and in their place were easily SVG-able designs, coded with simple flat strokes and backgrounds.

The flat design esthetic has permeated so much of the web and app landscape because designing for flat is incredibly easy. No longer do developers have to rely on designers to make their UI come to life.

But the stink of having to rely on designers and appreciating their value are drastically different. There must be some middle ground, right?

I do not want to take out of context what Marco said. That’s what seemingly got Schiff into trouble in the first place. The purpose of Marco’s talk was to empower developers to better market their apps, and thus, be successful in the App Store. His idea concerning self-developed design was merely an example of one of the ways app developers could have better success on the App Store. ‘It’s now easier and cheaper to do decent app design yourself,’ is basically the gist of his argument. And I can’t disagree with him.

It feels good to do something yourself. I created the logo for TheOverAnalyzed in about 30 minutes. I learned the absolute basics of Sketch, and ended up with decent SVG for the site’s logo slash brand. Is it amazing from a traditional design perspective? Obviously not. Any designer worth his salt might look at it and scoff. It will never win any awards. However, it is a deeply personal graphic for me, because it represents the culmination of months of effort on my part. And it is because of this that I understand the desire for developers to do their own design.

I grew a blog about nothing (still about nothing) from 0 to hundreds of readers. Designing the logo was the last piece in the puzzle. It marked the end of my tweaking the site and otherwise hacking Squarespace to my liking. Moreover, the art is based on my dog, whom I care for deeply.

But if a designer half as good as the average Dribbbler offered me their suggestions, I would be a fool to ignore them. No amount of DIY savings will make a finished project any better than what a professional could have done. And likewise, no amount of ‘Oh look, I can figure this out myself’ design work will ever be as good as what someone like Marc Edwards might have done.

I am not an app developer, so everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. While I can’t truly understand developers’ pressures to make money, I am a normal, and I understand my own pressures to make money. In the end, we all want to make a good living. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If designing something with a ‘code first, design second’ mentality makes developers lives easier, power to them. Perhaps it would have taken Marco twice as long to ship Overcast had he done the traditional design collaboration route. I’m sure glad we had Overcast last July and not this July.

Still, I’m in agreement with Schiff. The thesis of his argument is that design shouldn’t be one of the shortcuts app developers take on the road to success. I haven’t asked Marco specifically, but based on all the good taste he injects into his projects,[2] I can’t imagine him disagreeing with Schiff on a fundamental level. Just because something is easy or cheap doesn’t make it worth doing all the time. What will it take for old-school design to return to the level of importance it previously held? An unflattening reversion to the skeumorphic designs of old? History has a tendency to repeat itself. Only time will tell if ‘design-first’ will come back into the fold. I just hope good designers are still around if/when that time comes.

  1. If you podcast, check out John Gruber’s The Talk Show episode with Marco Arment from last year, right around the time Overcast launched. And, if you can’t get enough, check out the part 2 of Gruber’s interview with Marco.

  2. Just take a look at his headphone mega-review. No web design nerd can view his source and not know he loves well-designed JavaScript-y stuff as much as the rest of us