is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
When I worked at The New York Times, I used to have friendly arguments with a colleague about the role of information architects on a digital design team. The debate was over the things that an information architect does — evaluating goals, planning features, constructing wireframes — were things that should be the purview of visual designers instead. We would go back and forth over the usefulness of dividing these responsibilities, segregating the nitty gritty planning from the visual execution. Put another way, the question was whether the information architect was even necessary?
I invariably argued in favor of information architects because I’ve always felt that there is a significant population of talented designers and thinkers who can envision, plan and manage a user experience design solution even in spite of their inability to render the user interface itself in Photoshop, Illustrator, HTML etc. What’s more, there are lots of visual designers of the ‘heads down’ type, who are superb craftspeople but are not very adept at the holistic thinking necessary to plan out the entirety of a user experience, or capable of the articulation necessary to convince others of a particular UX strategy.
Things seem to be changing. For one, the term “information architect” seems to have gone out of style. What I hear a lot more these days is “user experience designer.” Now, I dislike few things as much as debating the semantics of these particular job titles, but it does strike me that part of the shift to this nomenclature has to do with the fact that, more and more, what employers want is a single person who can do both the feature planning and the visual execution.
Digital Design Grows Up
A pretty healthy number of employers — both startups and established companies — ask me for referrals to talented people. Even with other sectors of the economy still struggling back to their feet, there seems to be a lot of really interesting work out there if you are an experienced digital designer. But in almost every case, these companies are looking to hire someone who is both information architect and visual designer (and they most often refer to this role as ‘user experience designer’). I’ve tried to recommend information architects to many of them, but they almost aways prefer someone with visual design skills as well.
I think what we’re seeing is maturation in the industry. That’s kind of counter-intuitive to say, because you would think that the more natural progression would be from generalists to specialists, but what I’m describing here is the reverse: a move away from specialists and toward generalists.
Actually, I believe it’s a move back to generalists. The very early days of the Web were the domain of folks who could do everything. But in the late 1990s the ecosystem assumed new complexity with such rapidity that it necessitated a workforce of specialists just to cope with the newness of all its myriad components.
Now, things have swung around the other way. The technology remains complex, of course, but it’s been successfully abstracted enough that it’s once again possible for a single person to create a very robust product, and for just a small handful of people to create a very robust company. And accordingly this has also become what the market expects; big company budgets are shrinking, and startup investors are expecting more out of smaller teams. That makes specialists look more expensive than they have in the past.
There will of course always be some room for specialists, especially in large enterprises, so I’m certainly not predicting a desolate future for those whose skills are highly focused. Extremely talented people will always find a way forward, so long as they remain flexible. But it does seem evident to me that, more and more, if you call yourself a digital designer, it behooves you to be a visual designer as much as anything else. What’s more, there are so few of these fully versatile designers out there that if you are indeed one of these people, you’re more or less free to write your own ticket.+