The Thin Difference

Throughout my career as a creative director, I’ve managed more than my handful of integrated campaigns that have included broadcast, advertising, event, and the traditional marketing efforts. Each has offered their own complexities, and, sometimes unforeseen, variables. At the beginning of every single effort, I’ve always asked myself three questions: (1) what are the key deliverables? (2) How do they solve the goal of the target audience? And, most importantly, (3) who on my team will be impacted? Without answers to these questions, the team’s churn rate increases, and deadlines… well, there’s no point to even bother considering them.

Yet, when attempting to answer the third question, specifically for the development of digital components, understanding the role each team member will fulfill is critical. Let’s face it, 15 years ago digital wasn’t a leading demand in any strategy, nor was there a demand for the visual design or interaction design roles. Granted these two competencies are still evolving today, but it has been my experience, when discussing them with marketers that they are interchangeably referenced, and the critical role they play is overlooked. So, what’s the difference between these two individuals?

What is visual design?

Visual design communicates and enhances your brand — I’ll get to that later. This is also why everyone seems to have an opinion about it. It communicates interactivity, prioritizes information, reduces the complexity of workflows, and creates relationships between the visual elements on a screen. Needless to say, it’s an essential aspect of user experience design for applications. What people commonly overlook is that for every type of user interface element the interaction designer specifies, the visual designer must design a widget or devise a corresponding style. And the visual designer must consistently apply these styles to every instance of each element throughout the application — focusing on one very important characteristic, desirability. The visual designer primary role is to concentrate on the enhancement of the brand by supporting positive first impressions and the ongoing emotional experiences of a user.

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Why two distinct roles?

Multidisciplinary roles are important to have on any team; however, it’s hard for one individual to be responsible for both disciplines — one ultimately suffers. There’s a productive tension that exists between the two — think of it as writing and editing at that same time. Quite simply, visual design is not interaction design. Visual [interface] design persists in being more craft, and less of a science, and thus, requires graphic design training as an essential foundation and involves, more emphasis on behavior, less on style. Why? There are numerous and unique constraints to consider when developing media for screen — content changes state over the course of time and an understanding of how that experience is related to brand.

Enhancing brand

You may or may not remember, Head and Shoulders shampoo was once advertised with the tagline phrase, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” The implication was that you better not have dandruff on a blind date or a job interview. This campaign captured the insecurities of consumers but also encapsulates a social psychological truism: first impressions hold sway over time — people buy a brand that they’re more familiar with. Mind you, a brand isn’t just about first impressions. It’s the embodiment of all the qualities people associate with the company, product, or service. The logo, of course, just happens to represent those qualities. And it’s those attributes that are the basic elements for establishing a brand identity — these can fall into two associations, functional (e.g. high quality) or emotional (e.g. trustworthy). Now, any great corporate marketing person can tell you what the attributes of a brand should be, but they may not necessarily match the perception in the market or how customer’s views affect their purchasing behaviors. I know, I know, its all seems very scientific, but I promise you it’s not — take the examples below.


Enhancing usability

Consistent use of the logo and typeface aren’t enough. Visual design makes the product immediately desirable and identifiable. Compliment that with good behavior and it determines how people feel about the product in the long run. This is called the aesthetic-usability effect — aesthetic products are perceived as easier to use than less-aesthetic products, and users are more forgiving of usability flaws in products that are aesthetically appealing. Visual design enhances usability by adjusting the visual weight of elements based upon their priority, indicating relationships and meaning through shared visual properties, and providing affordances for behavior. Simply, bad design = frustration...


So what's the big deal

Visual design is not graphic design. Although graphic design training is an essential foundation, visual interface design involves more emphasis on behavior and less on style. And most importantly consisders the unique and numerous constraints, with a greater emphasis on information design and how content changes over the course of time. Great visual designers are hard to find — good ones have a solid understanding of graphic design — great ones think in visual systems, not one-off designs. thus it's important to respect the talent and value they bring to any engagement.