Let’s be frank: I’ve done it. I’d wager you’ve done it, too. Design inspiration sites are chock-full of it. The entire design, UX, and creative community does it every single day:
“Ugh, this design totally blows. I could make this look so much better.” Photoshop > New ... > My-Better-Layout.psd
Armchair designers have been around since there was design to critique—long before the Eameses would give them a comfy chair to do it from. You can’t swing a dead pixel in Dribbble without hitting a shiny new interpretation of a popular app or digital service.
Granted, this comes from a well-meaning and natural impulse— natural, but dangerous. Of course we want to improve, beautify, and simplify what users see. We’re designers. But what we usually end up with is the frosting without the cake: all sweet, no substance. And you only get the whole cake with context.
Sure, taking things out of context can be funny, but it can also just be a kind of lazy design critique. Judging someone else’s work is easy — even easier when you lack their frame of reference. Without context, armchair design boils well-considered choices down to petulant personal preferences.
When a new site, app, or what-have-you bursts onto the scene, what we see is only the end result of a long, intensive, and largely isolated development process. You probably weren’t involved in that process. Months, even years of blood, sweat, and caffeine were poured into that solution, and a host of other factors were taken into consideration. Let’s take a look at some of those.
Goals and limitations
This probably isn’t the first design rodeo for the fine folks who built Product X. They’re working with insights gained from many other projects over many years. Those projects had defined, measurable goals to keep everyone on track and ensure it was going to be successful. And any designer worth their salt will base those goals on data and research on what they’re trying to accomplish.
Product teams (ideally) establish project limitations at the outset, and they inform every design decision from start to finish.
Here are a few limitations armchair redesigners almost never keep in mind:
The armchair designer tends to design for themselves —but may not be a member of the intended audience at all! Target users might not have much tech experience, or might need some sort of legacy formatting or verbiage so they don’t get confused.
Most designs get tested, retested, and tested again before emerging into the world. Smart money says that those tests yielded invaluable stats that informed a number of design decisions.
Resources like time, money, personnel, and skill sets dictate a lot about how a project develops. Crazy-talented problem solvers can do a lot with a little, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still human. Big projects are all about the slow burn, and they’re not doing anyone favors by grasping too far beyond their reach.
The armchair redesigner’s only out to please themselves—and their Twitter followers, but the in-house designer has stakeholders heavily invested in a product’s success. And you can bet those decision-makers had a lot to say about how the project should look and function. They’re probably paying the bills, after all.
All right—for as much as I’ve complained about them, I do have to admit that redesigns can be fun and a cathartic way to polish your skills. The trick is acknowledging your distance from the problem that the original was designed to solve, and not inserting your own voice in lieu of the brand’s.
The desire to “patch the cracks” in others’ solutions comes naturally to product designers. But it can be even more powerful as a springboard for intentional, thoughtful conversation. Nobody appreciates it when uninformed strangers tear their efforts apart, but genuine interest in their work is another story!
So the next time you feel the urge to nestle into your armchair and pass judgment, consider starting an open and honest dialogue with somebody who was involved instead. They’ll probably be super juiced to talk about it.