Reductio ad Absurdum

Owning an expensive camera does not a photographer make. Knowing how to annotate music does not a composer make. Having a fancy journal does not a writer make.

Being good at CSS does not a designer make (nor does CSS make anything beautiful). Being able to write HTML does not a user interface expert make (nor does the ability to write beautiful back-end code have anything to do with interfacing with humans).

It sounds obvious. So why do people persist in thinking all of the above?

One thing that bothers me often, is the design of the user interface. I’m a web developer, using Rails and capable of producing valid HTML, CSS and JavaScript. So, I should be able to build a simple interface. But, if you want a more “stylish” interface, you probably also want to play with graphic programs and create neat icons and logos. Hiring a designer is often expensive and can cause the developer to loose sight of the epicentric design decisions.

How does 37signals solve this problem? Do you have a full-time designer working on a website or do the CSS-freakz create the website interface?

— Edwin on Ask 37Signals

I was inspired to write something by this post on 37Signals’ blog. But I got to writing, and when I saw how the words were coming out—almost like a play script—I decided to do something a little different.

And here we are.

fun with Comic Life and stock art

laziness redux redux

I’m not writing as someone who wants to defend her job and her place in the world, but rather as someone who’s tired of seeing people sell themselves (and others!) short.

What do you think?


  1. Marshall says:

    I think it sounds like apples and oranges. When the project is more about the application of a thing, it’s better to focus on function rather than the artistic merit of the design. When the project is more about wowing the viewer or presenting information, then the design is what’s driving the site and not the application. A good designer can accommodate both kinds of sites and be happy working on either. Unfortunately, most of the ones I’ve met tend to only want to work on the later kind of site, not that I’ve met many.

  2. Amy says:

    Marshall, there’s no question that function should always take the front seat. I certainly agree with that. But what is function, exactly?

    But the developers I run into who say "I have created this thing, I need a designer to make it pretty" have uniformly awful interaction design which — as David points out in the 37Signals’ reply — doesn’t have to have a "pretty" element to it at all. User interaction and user experience go far deeper than a candy-coated exterior.

    This fellow, again, is saying, "I know the tools therefore I know how to make user interfaces because all that matters is the tool." Knowing how to use a hammer doesn’t grant you the knowledge necessary to build a solid house, just as knowing HTML and CSS does not mean you can bring into being — call it "design", "formulate", "build", "create" or "plan" — a real user interface.

    That’s the point.

  3. Neil Wilson says:


    There is also a further dimension to this, which is the tendency to equate graphical prowess with the ability to design a human interface.

    That doesn’t necessarily apply either.

  4. One of the best 37 Signals posts ever. The idea of designers hopping in to make stuff pretty after the real work is done would never give you the iPod. I ran into that idea so many times that I lost all interest in graphic design as a field to work in.

  5. buzz says:

    I totally agree with Amy about exterior design in: "User interaction and user experience go far deeper than a candy-coated exterior."

    I strongly feel that simple and straightforward design is much more usable than fancy one full of images, corners and colored backgrounds…

    Google approach is enough, they have incredibly simple pages and they are very usable.


  6. Too true. Its truly rare to find someone that can code and design or design and do information architecture.

    Its sad that so many people can’t be content being awesome at what they are actually good at

  7. Joan says:

    Gah, I’m one of the people who needed this kick in the ass. Point well taken.

  8. Rex says:

    Fear….Excuses itself by equating mastery of a tool with mastery of the domain.

    Laziness….Excuses itself by assuming nobody else works harder than it itself does,and so devalues other people’s efforts as much as it devalues its own.

    Absolutely agree with Amy.Thanks

  9. Amy says:

    @Jack Danger and @Joan: the highest compliment you can ever pay me is to tell me what you just told me. I’m so glad to have been able to help! Keep (or start) rockin’. 🙂

    @Neil, I’m with you there, too. I think web designers of every stripe should spend much more time learning at least the basics of usability.

    @Giles, no kidding. And neither will incremental improvements ever give you an iPod (much less an iPhone) either, but nobody else seems to get that. (Hello, Verizon? iPhone killer? hahaha.)

  10. Anyone who uses words like "stylish interface" or "CSS-freakz" is obviously getting lost in the application development process.

    I think having a clear vision and a starting point for a site is the central issue. Rails agility should allow for later refinement.

    "The Stylish Interface" should coalesce with the desired site outcome.

    Sounds to me like ‘-Edwin on Ask 37Signals’ should ask himself what he really wants, then find the right designer to partner with.

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  12. Mellie says:

    It’s always a relief when someone with obvious exsrteipe answers. Thanks!

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