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January 30, 2004

i am a designer.

today i, along with many other geeky people in the area, went to a seminar given by edward tufte. his field is the presentation of information.

i've always shied away from calling myself a designer. to me it has long meant, mainly, "artist and decorator". one who makes things look attractive, who develops a harmonious color scheme and picks just the right font to communicate an appropriate style.

but in fact, designer means finding design solutions to challenging presentation problems. (one hopes they're challenging, anyway.) and i've been doing that for a very long time. i have a knack for it. no formal training outside of seminars and conferences; most of what i know was learned on the job, in a couple of college art classes, or grasped intuitively.

there's a paper form that was used a great deal in my work when i first started working at sas. i was in the IT division; it was our request tracking form. the first iteration of this form was done on a mainframe, or possibly on a typewriter. shortly after i arrived, we got a mac in our lab, and i taught myself pagemaker. i'm not sure how it came about, but i wound up re-designing the form in pagemaker. my re-designed version became the standard that was used for many years, until the whole process went on-line.

i ran across a copy of that form recently. i'm still proud of it. the level of information crammed onto a letter-sized page is quite astounding. i could do it over better now-- i have access to much better fonts now, for one thing-- but even without making excuses like, "it was my first try", i'm still pleased with it.

during the tufte seminar, i started thinking about a couple of the projects i'm currently working on, and how to apply what i was learning. i thought a lot about one of his main points-- that high density (or "resolution" as he calls it) of information is desireable. when i've had my designer hat on in the past, i've always thought of this information density as a problem-- undesireable. but in fact, he's right-- if the information is all necessary, then the problem isn't that there's too much information, but that you simply have a challenging design problem in presenting it.

and i realized that, a lot of times, at work, it's up to me to come up with that solution. i do sometimes work with someone down the hall whose official title is "designer", but only on the really big projects. there's so much day-to-day stuff-- user interfaces for all the applications our group develops, mainly-- that comes only to me, not an official designer, and i "make it pretty" (as my co-workers have always called it).

i think i've long underrated my value to the group, but we've recently merged with a much larger group, and now i have the opportunity to work on UI's that will appear on the company's external web (until now, i've worked exclusively on the intranet). and what has become clear is that no one-- not one single person in my department-- can do what i do. other people have pieces of the puzzle-- programming skills, a knowlege of CSS, or the ability to cook up the way the UI should look, using a tool like powerpoint (oddly). but i seem to be the only one who can design the UI, put it in its correct context, ensure all the menus on the page are correctly weighted, that the links are properly labelled, that the style of the UI fits the style of the site it's being inserted into, create the CSS to accomplish this, ensure the XHTML is semantic, and, if i'm the programmer on the project, do the database design and write the back-end code for the application.

i've focused so much on those last two things over the years, and how i'm not as accomplished in that area as others are, that i've ignored the value of all the rest of it. now that i'm working with external web people, the importance of my design skills is thrown into sharp relief. and the nice thing is-- it's what i love doing.

anyway, if you're a web designer, you really have to check out tufte's stuff. he's the leader in his field. he's got three books, and aside from the seminar, they're probably the best way to get to know his work. the web site unfortunately doesn't serve as an introduction-- it's more a sales tool for the things you can buy from him.

i plan to recommend that every person in my department, as well as the folks who produce our internal company news, be sent to a tufte seminar at the next obvious opportunity. they sent a huge boatload of people to jared spool's seminar in RTP last summer, so i don't think its out of the realm of possibility.

Posted by lisa at January 30, 2004 06:26 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Hey, Lisa -- thanks for the excellent blog. I enjoyed the Tufte info (I'm a fan), the self-discovery, and the corporate insights.

Posted by: Phil on January 31, 2004 02:58 PM

you're welcome. and thank YOU!

Posted by: lisa on January 31, 2004 09:05 PM

it's really wonderful to hear you talk about how good you are at your job! so many people would KILL to be able to say that.

Posted by: christa on February 1, 2004 01:38 AM

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ok, so a) your comment won't post right away because i have to approve it first and b) you might get a server error but your comment probably posted anyway and c) previewing doesn't work so i've removed the preview button.

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