Why Designers Should Venture Outside Their Industry for Inspirationby@hacker1749004
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Why Designers Should Venture Outside Their Industry for Inspiration

by Andrew SakharovApril 4th, 2023
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In my opinion, it's important to understand the main principle: approach your work with an open mind, be curious, and find new sources of inspiration. Who knows, maybe one day we'll see more articles about how one industry inspired another to create something totally new and cool.
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Design is a broad concept that comprises various disciplines: UX/UI design, graphic design, interior design, and game design, to name but a few. As a rule, we think of them as totally separate domains; all these specializations have their own professional communities, experts, and best practices. This is a rather limiting view of design.

In this article, I’ll explain why it is important to sometimes step outside your specialization and what different design specialists can learn from each other.

The Specialism Trap

By pushing designers to specialize, the industry solves its own problems. In the corporate world, a person is simply a function — the role of a specialist is to perform very specific tasks in their area of expertise.

With narrow specialization, designers are trained to do only a default scope of standard work. As a result, we get design professionals who know how to create features but are not capable of creating experiences. This happens in all areas of design: an interior designer can make a home look attractive on paper, but uncomfortable to live in. That’s what happens when a designer doesn’t think about the experience, being focused too much on the task.

And what if the client requested just that — a beautiful design for their home? The designer did what they were asked, so what’s wrong with that? Well, you have to consider that it may be hard to formulate a correct design request. A client may only have a vague idea of what they want to achieve.

It is a designer’s job to get to the bottom of things and identify the true needs of a client or user. Of course, there is a risk of overcomplicating things, but this skill takes practice to master. In the meantime, we can speed things up a bit by looking closely at what our colleagues do in other areas of design.

/What can we learn from them, you ask?

As someone who’s into video games, I’ll use game design to illustrate my point. Let me tell you straight off: I think designing games is a lot more complex than designing interfaces. Also, I might not be fully familiar with all the ins and outs of game design, so my analogy could be somewhat superficial. Yet, being a gaming enthusiast, I’ll stick with it.

Designing Experience

Before we dive in, let me say this: anyone whose job is to tell stories and design experiences is a designer, no matter what their job title is.

The role of a game designer is to design the gaming experience. They not only create the overall concept and structure of the game but also decide which emotions the player will experience at each stage. In this sense, a video game designer is very much like a director of a film.

Or a product designer.

Experience design is what these two types of designers ultimately have in common. A game designer works on scenarios in which the player finds themselves, just as a product designer develops user scenarios.

Next time you play a video game, pay closer attention to the character behavior and the storylines. And if you're not that much into video games, you can check out Noclip, a YouTube channel where the creators break down how some of the most popular games are made and how they work. We'll explore the connection between product and game design using the example of Hitman, which is reviewed in this episode: How the Simulation of a Hitman Level Works.

  1. If you are familiar with the Hitman game series, you know it's a stealth action game with an assassin as the main character. Yet, the creators themselves have also defined its genre as a puzzle. For instance, say, you, as a character, have a gun. Does it mean you absolutely have to use it? Not necessarily. Using it could be too straightforward or even crude. There probably is a more elegant and less obvious way to solve the task at hand. This solution is also a lot more rewarding for the player, making them feel smart and accomplished when they figure it out. Similarly, this is what product designers can do for their users.

The first takeaway is to look deeper into the mechanics of user behavior in the interface.

  1. Hitman is also like a sandbox game where the player has a set of goals and tools to achieve them. Sound familiar? This is how interfaces work as well. In the video I mentioned earlier, the game creators let slip one of Hitman's secrets — the game environment itself is designed to help the player solve tasks and complete missions. In each episode, it gives the player hints, and pushes them toward certain decisions so that all the puzzle pieces fall into place. I'm not saying e-commerce platform interfaces are exactly like puzzles, but at times they are very similar.

How can this help us, product designers? Well, we need to create an "environment" in the interface that nudges users toward certain actions, making it clear how different elements fit together. And, of course, we mustn't forget about the emotions that simple interaction with the product can bring.

  1. Finally, let's talk about story design in Hitman. Basically, the game is designed to guide the player toward their objectives using short, well-crafted stories. There is no user onboarding or tutorial provided — the player doesn't get explicit instructions. Instead, they have the opportunity to interact with the game world themselves, through the stories.

This example best illustrates my main point. We should let people solve problems through stories and scenarios, allow them to make mistakes, and provide guidance instead of setting limitations.

Designing Emotions

The second important thing to consider is emotions. From this perspective, video games have come a long way, considering that modern games are designed to evoke emotions in players. Nowadays, games are just as complex a form of entertainment as movies or books and can include educational, entertaining, and emotional components.

When it comes to interface design, though, the last thing that comes to mind is emotions. Pressing buttons in a hypothetical CRM or Excel is nobody’s idea of fun. So how do we compare games and interfaces?

Let's start by examining game mechanics and diving into a subject that may seem subjective at first glance: how video game interaction impacts the player. Take, for instance, the simple act of jumping in classic platform games like Mario. Did you know that the sound of the jump changes from low to high frequencies, cleverly conveying the sensation of rapid upward movement? Or when you successfully jump on the flagpole at the end of the level, the frequency rises, indicating that you've completed the level. Fascinating, isn't it? If you're interested in learning more about this, check out Koji Kondo's “Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack”.

So what am I trying to say? Perhaps a game could do without all that. You can see the character jump, so what's the point of all these fancy sound effects? Yet, without this skilled sound design, the game experience would definitely feel incomplete.

This is precisely what makes the emotional design stand out from the ordinary design. In combination, these small details fundamentally change the perception of the game or product. Interface designers must take into account this emotional component, even when designing a seemingly mundane product like a CRM. Creating responsive interface elements and enhancing them with animation and sound effects can make a big difference. Some may argue that there's no real value for the user, but let's not forget that back in the day the entire interface was just a command line. Why did we need to enhance that?

Games as a Source of Inspiration

In conclusion, I could offer you tips on how to notice and work with the subtle design elements I've described. Or perhaps suggest alternative sources of inspiration for those who are not much into games and have little experience playing them. But I don't have any of that for you.

In my opinion, it's important to understand the main principle: approach your work with an open mind, be curious, and find new sources of inspiration. Who knows, maybe one day we'll see more articles about how one industry inspired another to create something totally new and cool.

Lately, I’ve stopped looking for inspiration only in interface design. I also get inspired by related industries instead—video games, architecture, music, or sound design. They all have one thing in common; they tell stories to people and shape experiences. That’s why one should challenge the boundaries of their specialization. It's important to broaden your perspective on design, to notice and use new techniques so that the stories we tell evoke emotions and form meaningful user experiences.