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Blog Post

Joe Natoli Asks: Is Design the Same as UX?

By Ilise Benun

There seems to be some confusion between “design” and “user experience.” That’s why we asked Joe Natoli, founder of Give Good UX and author of Think First, to present a workshop at HOW Design Live 2017 in Chicago on “What UX Really Is and How to DO It.”

In the meantime, here’s the beginning of an answer to the question, “Is design the same as UX?”

According to Natoli, a significant portion of online media—aided and supported by UXers in fear for their jobs—would have you believe that UX (user experience) is an exclusive club that only those with the right talent and extensive training can join.

It’s not true.

In his opinion, every designer—whether we’re talking print design or UI design—is a UX designer to some degree.

Design as a discipline starts with visual communication that solves problems: how visual things resonate with people, and the degree to which they understand, can interpret and act on what they see.

Natoli learned design at Kent State University, where, he said, the emphasis was always on whether or not the design served the purpose of its existence (communicating brand message, informing, educating, etc.) and how it was perceived (and received) by the viewer/audience.

“UX and UI design are the same gig,” says Natoli. “You’re thinking beyond what’s on the screen—you’re looking hard at the appropriateness of content, of cues that motivate people to act, of steps in a process. You’re evaluating whether the visual communicates why something matters and how it works. You’re determining whether people will perceive value or know how to do something based on what they see.

You’re not making visual decisions because they look nice—you’re making them because they serve a purpose, because they accurately say what needs to be said, in a way the recipient will understand.

These same rules governed every print design project I’ve ever undertaken—and that’s thousands of them.”

So if you’re a designer of any kind, you already have much of what you need.

“I started my career in 1989 as a print designer, and all I did when I moved to UI/UX a few years later was to apply the same principles of good design that I used in my print work. We didn’t even call it UX then, by the way—the term didn’t exist. Many of my colleagues and I were doing the same work we have all come to know as UX. We just called it design.”

Design (and UX) vs. Decoration

There are plenty of great print and UI designers who simply have visual talent, and their work is beautiful to look at. The missing ingredient, from a UX standpoint, is often appropriateness. Typical success metrics like increased product adoption, profit and market share don’t happen because, while the work looks great, it’s not appropriate for the audience or the business.

So, in Natoli’s view, the difference between a decorator and a designer is:

  • A designer thinks a lot harder about the visual decisions s/he makes, and those decisions are informed by research, investigation and fact.
  • A decorator relies on his/her instincts as to what looks good and what doesn’t. Most designers who have never intentionally learned the timeless principles of design are in this category.

But even those in the decorator category can absolutely make the leap to UX designer simply by educating themselves. By learning to become intentional about the visual decisions you make. Those decisions should be sound, and should deliver meaning and value to the people who use what gets designed and built. 

That learning, by the way, can take place when you attend Natoli’s workshop at HOW Design Live, “What UX Really Is and How to DO It” to be held on May 2. Register for HOW Design Live by January 24 for the very best rate!

This workshop will teach designers how to make the leap to UX work by:

  • Understanding the common groundbetween true design work (visual communication + problem-solving) and UX work.
  • Understanding the difference between decorator and designer (and why the latter almost automatically delivers good UX).
  • Learning howwhere and why UX is applied in the digital product development process, from initial strategy to pre- and post-launch testing.
  • Mapping their current strengths as a designer to corresponding areas of UX work.

In the meantime:

  • Check out Natoli’s new book on UX strategy, Think First!
  • Visit his blog for UX advice, articles and tools
  • Watch his video series, Tuesdays with Joe. Here’s a recent episode, Should UXers and Designers Learn to Code?

See you in Chicago! Register for HOW Design Live by January 24 for the very best rate!