The role of art in product design

4 min read
Clair Byrd
  •  Dec 4, 2014
Link copied to clipboard

Many people conflate visual art and design simply because of their many similarities. Art and design both require immense creativity, an acute sense of aesthetics and style, emotional intelligence, and the ability to tell a story through visual media. While these are compelling—and sometimes confusing— similarities, the application of these two disciplines is surprisingly straightforward:

  • Design requires a function, art does not
  • Design is results-driven, art isn’t necessarilyTwitter Logo

The main differences stem from the objective of the work. When a designer starts working, he knows in advance what he’s tasked to achieve. He’s driven by an objective, a plan, a client, a contract. The artist’s driver is imagination.

The role of art in product design

How a product looks is becoming more important. This idea is proved by the rapid rise of companies that put product design first—consider Uber for transportation, Virgin’s take on banking, or Snapchat’s impact on communication. Where usability was once the only necessary characteristic, consumers now expect products that are both highly effective at meeting their needs and incredibly visually appealing, simply because of frequent interactions with design-focused brands (read: Apple’s various products).

Without these two things in tandem, the user’s perception of your product can be damaged. Often to the point of abandoning it all together.

So what does that mean for a product designer?

Designers must, in some ways, think like artists. They must logically apply an imaginative idea, translating and clarifying an intangible ideal. Certain art thinking must be considered when designing any new product or feature set.

Art provokes, design clarifies.Twitter Logo

Applying art thinking to your design thinking

Art is purposefully provocative. It’s intentionally emotional. Every stroke of a pen, smudge of charcoal, or splash of paint was meant to illicit a specific reaction from the viewer—pushing and pulling on the viewer’s emotions. Ultimately, designers need to understand how visuals affect emotions, how emotions affect choiceTwitter Logo, and how to use that to your product’s advantage. All design choices should be informed by how someone uses, plans to use, and feels about the product.

Artist’s thinking can be applied to your design—users ultimately stick with products because they trust them, and that trust is developed because the product meets their specific needs and provides the right emotional experience.

Even though emotions often appear illogical, there’s method to their madness. Things that are off-balance will—logically—make a person feel off-balance as well. White space makes people feel calm … but too much and your user could feel isolated. By learning to understand and translate people’s emotional reactions, you can project user responses and better control their emotional experience through your product.

Emotional intelligence

Unfortunately, lots of people are bad at understanding why they feel certain things at certain times, and even worse at communicating them. It’s your job to translate, and then act upon, those feelings for them. The accurate identification, translation, and guidance of these emotions is “emotional intelligence.”

You can up your emotional intelligence with these methods—all of which are super-handy in user research.

Get more from visualizations

A person will be able to identify a general emotional state by looking at something, but this state is defined by more than just what the subject says. Take note of how long a person takes to come up with their feeling. If it’s immediate, then your visual is accurately displaying a consistent experience. If it takes more than a few seconds for the subject to respond, the visual’s intent is obviously unclear or complex.

You can also take note of the person’s body language—do they lean in (read: curious) or turn to the side (read: defensive)?

Ask the right questions

People are better at answering questions accurately than coming up with the words themselves. But don’t just ask, “How does this make you feel?” Instead, be specific. Try, “Does this make you feel calm, or numb?” Specifics will often show you subtleties you may have missed by asking a more generic question.

Specifics will also often lead to a conversation regarding those subtleties, leading to better understanding of your user in general.

Walk in the user’s shoes

Culture and upbringing play massive roles in how a person engages with the world around them, including the products they use. Being sensitive to these differences will help you best identify and understand your potential user’s emotional state within your product. Ask your subject contextual questions to help discover how they’ll react, in context, to different emotional possibilities in your product. Read about how culture has affected people’s habits. Then, internalize those habits and use your newfound context to project possible behaviors inside the product.

How thinking like an artist can help your product designs

The role of art in product design is to best understand, and then guide, your user’s emotional state through your product. As you get better at reading user moods and reactions without needing to ask for clarification, your design process will become easier and your products will become more interesting to users.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard