While working on my SXSW talk about the influences I think print design is starting to have on interaction design, I became curious about how many talks at the recent IxDA ’11 conference had to do with aesthetics and visual design. After a quick survey of the 50 talks and workshops from the conference, I only saw 6 talks (give or take) whose subject I believe spoke to the aesthetics of experience. Only 3 of those were specific to visual design in UI. I posted this observation on Twitter, which sparked a really nice discussion. It’s tough debating with 140 characters at a time, but it’s a conversation worth carrying on, so I decided to carry on here instead.
The reason I posted the note in the first place is because I believe that the visual quality of the products we make is much more integral to our discipline than is being discussed. Style matters. If our mission is to improve the human condition through good experiences, then we can’t ignore the aesthetic. It should be an equal part of our mission. Not talking about it is ignoring it, and right now, as a group we’re not talking about it.
Below, a wordcloud of the topics covered in the lightning sessions and workshops at IxDA '11. What we did, and didn't talk about this year.


In other design fields, there is a balanced tension in the discourse around form and function. In the best examples of any design practice, the considerations of the form and function are tightly interwoven. They push and pull on each other. Since the focus of interaction design in its short history has largely been on making products easier to use, formal interests have often taken a back seat to function – to the point that the aesthetic expression of the things we make is seen as a wholly separate discipline. In some ways, it makes sense. We use different tools and processes, have a different focus, and have different skills. But Interaction Design, as a field that cares so deeply about great product experience should embrace such a closely related discipline as Visual Design as integral. They benefit each other; A beautifully designed product will also be perceived as functionally better and easier to use. A design is incomplete without quality in both the surface and the mechanics. And as companies start to think of the interface as their brand, aesthetics are more important than ever.
Rather than viewing ourselves as subset of design, focused only on behavior and systems, can we instead look at our work as a superset: a holistic practice focused on bringing together all the theory and tools relevant to creating great interactive products and experiences? Can we build a conference the pulls Visual, Industrial, Motion, Fashion, and Architecture in from the fringe? The exchange is already happening in most design studios, so let’s bring it to the conference and make it more central. I’d like to know the form philosophies and tradeoffs behind the creation of Mint.com, Omnigraffle, Twitter, Flipboard, and Photoshop. What were the challenges? What are the opportunities? With Interaction and Visual Design practices divided as they are, we lose a necessary and meaningful exchange if we go to separate conferences. If it’s not a larger part of our discourse, then our aesthetic course will continue status quo. In my opinion, the status quo isn’t great. It’s time that we hold ourselves to a higher standard of aesthetics in the products we make. More dialogue is needed. Our relatively central role in product development gives us the opportunity to make sure that visual design isn't an end of the waterfall activity. I want products that beautiful just as much as I want products that are easy to use.
Near the beginning of the Twitter conversation, I suggested that a sensible distribution of topics at the IxDA conference would be 25% Think (Design Theory), Make (Interaction Design technique), Art (Aesthetics, Visual, Form), and Practice (the Business of Design). Of course, a quota would be silly. The conference should reflect the interests and submissions of the community. So I guess I’m saying that I’d like to see us take more interest in aesthetics as a group. So next year, will we be talking about it?
If you’re interested in this topic, follow me on Twitter here. I'll be talking about this topic more in a couple weeks at SXSW.
And thanks to everyone below for the great conversation