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A few years into my career, I started to notice designers self-identifying themselves by a specialty. As we started to better define UX, we realized that no one designer can own the entire process. So, we categorized ourselves as visual designers, UX researchers, or in my case, I labeled myself as an interaction designer.

Over time I became more involved with the hiring process, and I started reviewing portfolios. I observed reviewers scoring a portfolio positively or negatively based off of the applicant’s understanding and ability to effectively use visual aesthetics. This was regardless of the applicant’s background or desired position.

Should all designers have some ability to apply appropriate visual aesthetics to their work? What are the reasons for honing this skill, and how can a non-visual designers learn to improve in this area?

Puppies and kittens require a lot of attention. Why would we want to invest the time and energy to take care of them if it were not for their cuteness?

Understanding visual aesthetics and emotion

For a moment, let us put the world of product design aside. There are reasons based in human behavior as to why we may connect with a thing. Puppies and kittens require a lot of attention. Why would we want to invest the time and energy to take care of them if it were not for their cuteness? There is a science to cuteness. It occurs naturally to connect parents to children and pet owners to their furry children.

Designing for emotion

For generations, toy companies have been leveraging this knowledge to sell manufactured versions of babies and pets to children. Even in the digital space, product companies are crafting brands that attempt to foster connection with their customers through adorable illustrations and animations.

visual aesthetics ux design stuffed turtle toys

I still have my favorite stuffed animals that remain mostly hidden from the public.

visual aesthetics ux design taco from trello img credit:

This guy is adorable. You can see how the playfulness of the character affects the mood of Trello’s branding.

Avoiding negative emotion and perception

Just as you can find an emotional connection with something cute, you can reject things that do not meet those standards. Of course there are more reasons you would either connect or reject an object or product. We tend to have conscious and unconscious reasons for why we might choose a restaurant, movie, mechanic, or digital product. Some of those reasons can be based in size, color, smell, location, or trends.

visual aesthetics ux design chinese knockoffs img credit:

Chinese knockoffs. Get your kids the latest “Changable Robot”

visual aesthetics ux design img credit: width=

The Pontiac Aztec was quickly dubbed the ugliest car ever made.

visual aesthetics ux design clippy img credit:

Clippy. The reason we are debating the future impact of chatbots

Improving your sense of visual aesthetics

When I bring up the topic of training your eye for identifying good visual aesthetic, the question of natural born talent also becomes a part of the conversation. Are people born with these ability? It is possible, but It is more likely designers had to work at developing these skills.

Once you make this a habit, you will now stop and critique everything you see

Training your eye

Jonathan White wrote in a piece about how one can set up a simple plan to “develop an eye for design.” Start by regularly looking at sites like Dribbble and Behance. I also suggest to for new designers too check out Muzli. The goal is to see what other designers are doing. When I started out, I would collect screenshots and put them in an inspiration folder. While reviewing work, note the purpose of the design and how the designs affect your emotions. Jonathan also asks a critical question about how the design affects the intent. This includes your emotional response. Do all of these things work together, or do they clash?

visual aesthetics ux design dribbble

Dribbble is a popular spot to start. It’s a great way to get a feel for visual aesthetic trends.

Congratulations! Once you make this a habit, you will now stop and critique everything you see. That is a good thing. While we may have specialities, we are all bound to fundamental principles of design. Here are some things that I have captured in this awful place.

visual aesthetics ux design ramp to nowhere

A former employer thought it was a good idea to provide a ramp to nowhere

visual aesthetics ux design IBM products repurpose

Not its intended use, but still serves a purpose.

Creating a feedback loop

It is one thing to talk about design. To get any credibility, you have to start doing it. Take a cue from Austin Kleon’s book, “Steal Like an Artist,” and start copying. I do side visual design projects once a quarter where I essentially design something simple. It does not have to be revolutionary. The point is to practice, I try an area that I do not normally work in (i.e. mobile), and solicit feedback.

visual aesthetics ux design framer

With this project I tried a few things such as playing with mobile patterns. trying framer and interactions, and learning a little coffeescript

Want to know more about prototyping in Framer? Check out this post.

Final thoughts

Just as visual designers are required to consider interaction and user intent, UX researchers and interaction designers must have some level of understanding and competency on how visual aesthetics affect their work. While you may have some natural tendencies to lean towards one specialization or another, avoid isolating yourself. Find opportunities to grow your abilities.

Matt Eng

Matt Eng

DesignOps Manager. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.