Jackson Fish Market
Posted on May 20, 2010 by hillel on Behind the Scenes, Design

What I think it means to be a “true software designer”.

I’ve had this blog post kicking around for awhile. And now, since I’ve been recklessly pontificating about the definition of the term “software designer” I might as well give some background on what I think in detail.

If you’ve spent any time following Jackson Fish Market, you may have noticed that we’re somewhat unconventional as a startup. We haven’t taken any investment, we aren’t looking to flip, we have a female co-founder. The first two appear to be getting less rare, and the third, well, the tech industry still feels much like a boys club, But that’s a topic for another post. What’s interesting about our female co-founder is not her gender, but her role. Even rarer than a woman as a co-founder is a designer as a co-founder. If you’re a world famous designer like Philippe Starck, or if you’re running a creative agency, having a designer as a founder is common. But Jenny isn’t world famous (yet) and Jackson Fish Market isn’t a design firm, it’s a software startup.

There are two ways to understand why we have a designer as a co-founder. The first is to meet Jenny and see her work. The intelligence, talent, energy, creativity, and style that she brings to every piece of work we do should be obvious. But for a deeper discussion you must understand that there is an almost universal misunderstanding of the role of “design” and “designer” at a software firm. Once you understand what great designers really do, you’ll be wondering why you don’t have one as a co-founder. And then you’ll realize how few currently exist.

A true and talented software designer is like a singer/songwriter. The can both write the music and perform it with quality. A great singer will fail singing a badly crafted song. And a poor singer will fail singing even the most beautiful composition. In the case of software design, the song composition is the scenario definition, interaction design, and basic structure of the experience. The song performance is the top-most layer of the user interface, the combination of pixels, some as images, some as text, some animated, some aural (audio pixels?), that bring the experience to the users input mechanisms – sight, touch, sound (no smell and taste quite yet). And while it’s true that you can find a great singer and a great songwriter to partner to create magic, unless you’ve found a partnership of true equals, one side tends to dominate the other, to its detriment. There are certainly some popular music acts today that are created by a team with a performer out front and center. And yet, from my perspective, the vast bulk of genuine artists both craft and perform their art.

When it comes to software, our industry’s penchant for specialization is in full effect. The software designer’s role is divided across multiple people in an organization including the graphic designer, the information architect, the program manager, the usability engineer, the technical writer, the interaction designer, and in some cases the ethnographer or anthropologist. And that’s not to say that there aren’t some interesting talents and specialties in every single one of these roles. There are. But in a world where small teams make great things, in truth, one star software designer can handle pretty much all of these tasks, and the end result will likely be better. Less committee, more vision.

In most software companies that don’t have endless resources, the roles are divided into essentially two. The first role is what I’ll call “interaction designer” for shorthand which is basically everything above except for drawing the actual art that goes on the screen. The “graphic designer” is hired for the rest. And in almost every organization, the interaction designer is “on top”. They run the show. They get the credit. They get the paycheck. They’re in charge. In my opinion, this is backwards. I believe that most of the self-proclaimed “interaction designers” or “user experience architects” are a dime a dozen.

Here’s an observation that will offend many people. It is much easier for someone who’s intellectually curious with aesthetic skills, an eye for detail, some Photoshop chops, and a real sense of style to learn how to do interaction design, and understand how software works underneath the covers, than it is for a software person, (even an interaction focused software person) to learn how to do great aesthetics and presentation. To put it simply, becoming an interaction designer is really not that hard. I know.

If you ask me to create a true software designer from either a) a smart and talented graphic designer, or b) a smart and talented interaction designer, nine times out of ten I will start with the graphic designer because the interaction design skills are much easier to acquire. From my perspective, while there are some interaction designers out there who certainly add value, there are a lot more who are essentially valueless.

And in some perverse irony, it is often the people with the easily acquired skill who spend all their time acting like the graphic designers are a dime a dozen, and that the interaction design discipline is the serious one. I chalk this up to their insecurity. The graphic designers don’t go around shitting on interaction designers. They’re not threatened, and in fact, they often want to broaden their skills to include interaction design. And yet I’ve seen countless people referring to the role of creating the presentation layer as “applying lipstick” or something that can be added later. In fact the aesthetics need to come from a process where a true software designer is involved in crafting their vision from day one. Where a software designer is informed enough to help make technology choices give the experience they’re trying to create. Where a software designer is the person on the team who is ultimately responsible for having and executing on a vision for the kind of experience that the customer will encounter.

Not only should you have a true software designer in your organization, but the organization should be built to serve the needs of that person. I’m sure there are other ways to approach this problem. And there are certainly plenty of customers who don’t appear to notice quality when it comes to product design (note all the customers of General Motors and MySpace). But more and more I think people want to emulate VW and Apple. And I believe the only way to do this is to put a true software designer in charge.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Reply

    Kelly Smith

    May 20, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    If you can’t do graphics work, you’re not really an interactive designer. You’re just a business guy who knows how to position some shapes on a page.

  • Reply


    May 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    You are right, becoming an interaction designer isn’t hard. Becoming a GOOD interaction designer is hard. Just like it’s easy to become a visual designer, but hard to become a good visual designer. As someone who’s worked in both fields, I’ve found that talented interaction designers are rarer than talented visual designers, and worth more. Maybe you just haven’t had the opportunity to work with a great interaction designer yet?

  • Reply

    Aaron G

    June 11, 2010 at 7:29 am

    Interesting post. Thought provoking.

    I sort of agree and sort of disagree. Mainly bc i don’t think there’s a hard rule here.

    I mostly believe the magic lies in a balance of single minded vision that simultaneously harnesses the best talents of various individuals. It’s just nearly impossible to find all of the skills needed in one person.

    On a desert island I’d take a graphic designer over a so called interactive designer any day. In reality, even with a very tight budget one rarely has to make that choice.

    I much prefer well defined constraints, product leadership and then bringing together interactive smarts, usability, graphics, interactive implementation skills, etc. So going back to your music metaphor. Its more about the band leader and chemistry to make beautiful music. This leadership can be from the drummer, bassist, whatever….

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