About design

A quick and dirty definition of design

I’ve been asked to help with the selection of a new designer for my current project. I’ve never interviewed anyone, but it occurred to me that it would be interesting to ask the candidates to give us a simple and quick definition of what they think design is.
I’ve come up with a sort of ideal answer, for me: “Design is a project-based discipline which uses creativity, research and experimentation in order to find and implement a solution for a problem.”

This sounds about right to me. In fact… I feel like printing it out in big letters and hanging it over my workspace.

About design

Design is not advertising

I like designing things for people. I like it when people enjoy things I’ve designed: either because they enjoy the way it looks, or because they enjoy using it and get a good experience from it.

Fortunately for me, I have a job that allows me to design such things and get some enjoyment from it. Unfortunately, I also have to make ads.

I understand the need for promotion and commercialism in today’s economy, but I really don’t like it. To me, designing ads is a waste of time.

First, advertising is not made for the people, it’s not created to serve or help anyone other than the advertiser wanting more sales. Secondly, the functionality behind advertising is driven by the need to fool people into feeling like they need to obey the ad.

We all know advertising creates false needs in order to increase consumerism and feed the world’s economy as we know it. There’s no need to be naïf about it in order to understand that it is wrong. We don’t have to ignore its existence or pretend not to understand its necessity, to dislike it.

So, creating an ad campaign is painful to me. Especially because at where I work, there is a lack of distinction between a designer and an advertising person (whatever they’re called). Just because I can design a space, illustrate an idea, create an interaction, it doesn’t mean I can come up with clever ads. I’m not an advertiser, I never studied advertising or marketing, and worst of all – I couldn’t care less.

So I come up with ads, they get sent up to marketing, and shot down because they don’t fit the company’s communication. And I get pissed.

I get pissed because, obviously, marketing should have their own ad designers – preferably designers that understand advertising – and their own copywriters, and their own people to do all that stuff. Study the audience, come up with the ads that work and so on and so forth. I can design the products – I cannot sell them, to save my life.

The structure is wrong, and that’s a management mistake – nothing to do with me, really – so I understand I will continue to have to work in advertising and come up with ideas to promote products. I have to strongly resist the temptation to be honest: “look, our product’s ok, but it does crash a bit and you might want to try these other guys as well”; and I’ll have to put aside my personal hate of misused exclamation marks; and I’ll have to take deep breaths and wait and hope that one day I won’t have to make any more annoying ads, that people fight to ignore anyway.

About this website

WordPress 2.0.7

If you are the one person subscribing to the Design for life feed (Hi Gus!), you may have noticed feed problems since I switched to FeedBurner. That, as it turns out, was a WordPress bug – not a FeedBurner bug.

It is apparently now solved, along with a few security fixes in this 2.0.7 WordPress release.

About design

The Apple iPhone

Apple has done it again. Perhaps now even more than ever: the whole world is talking about the iPhone. Some people even want to buy one, not realizing it’s not even going to be on sale for at least six months to a year (depending on where you live).

I’m no Mac nut, nor do I believe in treating companies as if they were religions, but I have always admired Apple’s design-centered products. The iPhone is possibly one of the most clear examples of this practice: it is almost design in physical form.

The whole thing was created with its use in mind, as a central drive for the concept.

Use. Utility. Function. Form. Design.

The thing is logical and intuitive. It looks like it should look: like it works, like you can pick it up and use it, no need to RTFM, unless you really, really want to.

The iPhone is not perfect, for the simple fact that nothing is. But any discussion as to whether or not it is the materialization of a great idea, is purely theoretical: of course it is a great idea; whoever disagrees is merely embarrassed to admit they’re horny just looking at it. People are raving about this product without even having touched it: this is perfect marketing. The product appears so ingenious, so good, so attractive, that it sells itself as an idea, long before it hits the shelves.

Even if the iPhone turns out to be crap, by the time we realize it, we’ll all own one already.

As a designer, it gives me great pleasure to see a product like this being introduced. It helps people see that design is not “doodling”, it is the shaping of ideas into products and solutions. It takes a bit of art, a bit of research, a bit of madness and a lot of freedom. And that, I think, is all behind Apple’s newest gadget.

About design

The three designers

I’ve been thinking about design quality and what it really means and for a while now, I have this notion that divides designers into three categories.

The first kind, are what I call “solid steel”. The solid steel designer’s work is… well, solid steel. It’s impenetrable and indestructible and even if you chip it and bend it, somehow, you are always left with solid steel.

The work is solid, because the designer is solid. It’s someone that takes time to work out the details, to figure out structure, function, form and use. Usually, these people are professional designers – either with a good foundation study, academically speaking, or with good experience, or both. They know their craft well and are prepare to defend their work, not because they’re trying to come up with excuses not to change it, but because they know it so well and understand it fully.

There is reason behind everything a solid steel designer does, things are not random or done “just because”.

The second kind of designer, of course, is the shit designer. This designer’s work stinks, evidently and the problem is even worse: the more you pick at it, the more it comes apart and the more it comes apart… the worse it stinks.

This designer is usually one of three things, or maybe combinations thereof: an amateur, an idiot or a lazy person. Nothing seems right in this guy’s/gal’s work: things are out of place and awkward to use, the message isn’t clear and nothing looks particularly attractive.

The thing with shit, though, it’s that it is widespread. Nobody likes shit but unfortunately, it is everywhere. But we’ve got to admit one thing about shit: shit is honest. It doesn’t deceive you. You clearly identify it, and you only step on it if you want to, or if you’re caught off-guard and distracted. That’s why, I think the last type of designer is the final one.

And that’s the “shit-chromer”. The shit-chromer is, obviously, someone who chromes shit. This designer’s work is poorly thought out, constructed out of random ideas that have no base on reality and exist only in the designer’s ego. This is the guy who thinks he’s the best because his stuff looks good, when in fact, if you look underneath the chrome, all you still got is shit.

So this is shit served on a gold platter. Fake, disguised shit, usually wearing the season’s clothes to please the market and having no other root besides a slight organization of elements and a nice choice of visual bling.

Where the solid steel work, works, no matter how deep you strip it down, and the shit work is just, well… shit; the chromed shit work looks really nice, until you actually pick it up, and that chrome layer comes apart and you’re left, suddenly, with a desperate desire to find a sink and a bar of soap.

Case studies

Open plans are evil

I work inside a large corporation. Even so, we’re quite lucky that our little corner of the company – despite being the biggest national web brand – is not at any rate heavily incorporated.

We enjoy a certain amount of freedom to be creative – inside certain borders, obviously. But still, there are certain corportation practices that – it seems – can’t be avoided and end up in the way. Like, say, middle management.

But anyway, that’s not what I want to write about. I want to write about the open plan. It seems big companies love the open plan or its evil twin – the cubicle open plan.

Both are really terrible ideas and were probably designed by someone with a cushy office space, unconcerned with problems of privacy, space and comfort.

I understand that in a space where lots of people have to work, it’s impossible to build individual offices for every single person. I also know that if everyone had an office, very few people would ever get to see a window, and people would become isolated or prone to lazyness without supervision.

But the solution does not have to be closed office spaces. I believe people can be organized into teams and put together, in smaller groups, in large-ish rooms. Ten people to a room isn’t too much and allows for everything an open space provides with the advantages of a bit more privacy, a bit more comfort and – surprisingly – a bit more contact between co-workers.

In an open space type of arrangement, where 50 or 60 people work in close proximity there is a tendency for people to be extra quiet, for the simple reason that if you talk you might be disturbing 50 or 60 people, some of which don’t even share the same profession as you. In a smaller room, where your team lives, you have an easier time communicating with the people in it and when you talk, chances are, the people in your team might not be totally uninterested in what you’re saying.

Better team roles are created – people understand better who, inside the team, is better at what – and thus, people learn to better collaborate.

For a while now, I’ve been working for a special project inside the company and have been in such a room for almost two years. And it’s paid off big time. The people in the project are in constant contact, we know each other well and the work flows a lot more seamlessly between – for example – me, the designer, and the lead programmer.

For quite some time, I’ve nurtered the idea that the deisgn team at where I work – which these days isn’t so much a team as a bunch of designers, quietly mousing away in the open plan (except for me, the lucky bastard) – should be moved to a room on its own. The designers room could, potentially, lead to a cool, creative atmosphere, where we could exchange ideas, learn and teach each other and be generally more “designy”, than it’ll ever be possible in that ugly, impersonal, evil open plan.

Case studies

Google logo

Google logo

Google has become a household name. More than that, Google has become a verb. The company is so recognizable in fact, that nobody really notices it has a rather bad logo.

The Google logotype seems to have been made by an amateur with Photoshop and a bit of time in his hands. Yet, its high level of recognition doesn’t really invite a redesign.

Here’s what I don’t like about it:

  • Excessively decorated serif font that really doesn’t match the company’s simple and clean-cut interface design
  • Seemingly random choice of colours. It’s almost blue, red and yellow, but then the “l” is green. The blue and red appear on two letters, but the yellow and green don’t. It doesn’t really seem to make sense and it’s too saturated.
  • Really cheesy drop shadow that seems to have been applied using Photoshop’s default settings.
  • Equally cheesy and exaggerated embossing effect that really doesn’t fit well with the font style used. The type being thin and elegant, the embossing being crude and “fat”.

It’s no surprise, then, that the commemorative illustrated logos work so well. It’s a good idea, the illustrations are generally nice and really improve an otherwise poor logo.

I’d be really curious to see Google order a logo redesign. I’d say it’s quite a task to keep the company’s public recognition while improving the logo.

About design


SHiFT stands for Social and human ideias for technology; it’s a conference taking place in Lisbon, organized by portuguese people, about technology humanization and its social and comunication components.

I had the privilege to attend SHiFT, yesterday, and witness a well organized and, above all, very interesting event. I was most impressed with the design-centered vision that’s already a reality, especially in the United States; the way in which design is perceived as a complete discipline contrasts with the still prevailing portuguese vision of designers as “those doodling guys”.

Maybe the future can finally bring an appropriate place for design in the value creation process within modern companies. The current internet-based comunication and social interaction technologies represent a unique opportunity for designers to, once again, have a fundamental role, not only in the visual and ergonomic creation, but also in the implementation of production strategies and product and systems optimization.I still nurture the idea that someday, in a product meeting, someone will suggest “let’s have a new idea”, instead of “let’s see what everyone else is doing”. We need to hear a cry of “Eureka” in Portugal.

This post was originally written in portuguese, and published in Macacos sem galho.

About this website


I have been having this itch for a while now and today, after attending SHiFT, I decided to finally scratch it.

So welcome to Design for life, a new weblog dedicated to design and related themes.