The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest


How do you want to behave as a professional designer? How much does your attitude and conduct affect what you can do, and what others will let you do? Luke reacts to the ego shown by another interaction designer and examines how age-old, earnest, capital-D-for-design thinking is imperative for UX as a problem-solving skill-set.

earnest: adj. 1. showing sincere and serious feeling or intention: two girls were in earnest conversation. 2. with strength and solidity amidst a struggle or fight.

Early one morning last week I saw a video of Elliot Jay Stocks interviewing Erik Spiekermann, the well known designer and typographer. In the comments, right off the bat, an interaction designer took blunt issue with several of Erik’s points, including his prediction that “In two years time we won’t have a distinction between web design and print design… that we will design for the issue at hand, not the medium.”

Web design vs Visual design

“Web designers are not visual designers,” said John the interaction designer.“We are interactive [sic] designers… while paper doesn’t talk back, websites do.”

At first I agreed. There is a lot of complexity to designing for a cross-platform, deeply interactive medium. But then I started realising that I’d fallen into John’s view that this debate was between graphic designers and web designers – as if they were two very different breeds. But this view is getting very old. It was a problem fifteen or more years ago when graphic design and programming worked together to build the visual web, but I don’t think it’s such a problem anymore, and it certainly wasn’t what Erik was talking about.

It’s not about the medium

Erik’s key point was that good design is not just about the tools and deliverables, it is applied problem solving that is unrestrained by a single context. Erik described it in the video thus:

“the way to design is the same – you give content form. To solve it you think about the users – you think about the issue at hand: how much information, how do they read, when do they read, why do they read, do they have to read? Can they read?”

Although the video was posted a year after it was shot, Erik found his way to the comments and promptly replied to John:

“I often sense a certain arrogance with interaction designers, like they [think they] are inventing a totally new way of designing”.

This was ironically reinforced by John’s next comment, and was when I stopped taking his arguments seriously.


It was also unfortunate that right after John claimed that that Erik Spiekermann has no idea about digital design, someone pointed to  John’s latest web project which seems to be described with large, static images to display text content, and claimed it is a layout ripped from the .Mail website.  If this is true, it’s not exactly what you’d expect from an expert in interaction design working with some of the world’s biggest brands.

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Thinking about all this has made me examine my own behaviour. Our tenacity and unwillingness to swallow senior opinions at face value may help us defend the things we believe in, but does this cause confusion and cost us design integrity when exploring a problem space? And how does it affect the people we work with?

Being professional

Being earnest is not wrinkling our brow as we ask a condescending question or force a personal opinion. It involves an open mind, due diligence to a task and practising what we preach.  I think conducting ourselves with earnestness, in our work and discussions, is an essential trait for user experience designers and interaction designers alike. It allows us to:

  1. Listen – When listening we engage in empathy and understanding.
  2. Be honest – Essential if we’re going to (tactfully) call research findings like they are, and without bias.
  3. Lose the ego – So we can work collaboratively with our colleagues, and listen to the users and design for what they need, not what we want.
  4. Learn and innovate – If we think we already have the answers, we’re less likely to experiment when a new solution is needed.
  5. Give the benefit of the doubt – Optimistically reserve judgement in the absence of full evidence, and instead use the opportunity to do more research and learning.
  6. Add delight – Engaging deeply with a design problem can also allow us to add those little bits of delight that make an experience fulfilling and sincere.
  7. Solve the real problem – and perhaps also several related or smaller ones.

Good and earnest design thinking is imperative for UX as a set of problem-solving practices. As noted in our newsletter tip last week “If we’re willing to make mistakes (and allow others to do so too), and can take the time to identify and acknowledge these mistakes, we can then use what we learn to make a better product.”

Thank you John for helping me see the bigger picture of who I do, and don’t, want to be as a professional designer.

What are you thinking? Please do let me know in the comments!

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Written by
Luke Chambers
Join the discussion

  • Who is John? I thought the two main participants were Elliot and Erik? Is John another interaction designer that was not really introduced into the article, but became the dominant participant?
    Otherwise – very interesting and point about design from both sides of the fence.

  • came back after checking out the link to his site
    That is quite a project that he’s contemplating( meaning the John Onolan from your article): Ghost – a more robust CMS building off of WordPress. As an FYI, I think that page is simply composed of example screen shots of what he’s looking to make happen.
    I find it fascinating as I use Concrete5 because of all the editing flexibility, but I like WordPress for how quickly it loads.

  • Thanks – I think John did have some good points before he got a bit too argumentative. John is the person who said “Web designers are not visual designers” in the comments under the video I watched. Sorry, I may not have made that clear enough in my post.

    You may be right – in his latest blog post, John states that he released a “concept page” and had used Photoshop as a tool to write down his idea with text and images. However, the main thing I took from his comments was his attitude – which is what prompted me to write the above post.

  • It would be wonderful, of course, if you had researched the content of your post properly before writing it. As opposed to insulting and misquoting me in the body of the content before admitting in a passing comment that the assumptions upon which the premise of your argument degrading my work and knowledge were, in fact, misplaced.

    I don’t agree with your 7-steps-to-blending-in-with-all-the-other-sheep. But that’s the beauty of the web, we don’t have to agree.

    My “style” – if you want to call it that – is certainly not diplomatic. That’s who I am, and I don’t apologise for it. I speak my mind, and while some don’t like it, it’s been the basis of a pretty decent career on my part – and gained me clients, not lost them. I think perhaps you underestimate the value of non-conformity.

    As someone with an interest in user experience, you should consider the possibility that my way of doing things is a designed experience within itself, which you have effectively participated in.

  • Thanks John.

    You use the words “not diplomatic” to describe yourself, and my point is that being diplomatic and being able to relax your ego is important for developing empathy, a useful skill for user experience designers.

    Behaving like a troll and using non-conformity as an excuse for being abrasive also doesn’t win you any points from me, sorry. I personally don’t put my career above how I relate to other people.

    My apologies if you feel that what I wrote was insulting. That wasn’t my intention.

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