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CEOs Really Should Champion UX Design … But from Afar

Krish Mandal

This morning I was alerted to Yahoo!’s new corporate logo, and have read a number of blogs discussing the validity of the design process, the strength of the logo, and the leadership of Yahoo!’s CEO Marissa Mayer in the construction of this new logo. I’m going to use this as a springboard to talk about championing design for UX, because lately, there’s been a lot of talk about how UX is now recognized by most companies to be the differentiating factor in creating better products, and CEOs for the large part are taking the reins in the management thereof.

Yahoo Gets a FaceLift

First off, if you haven’t seen it, take a look at Yahoo!’s new logo to see what all the hubhub is about.

I would call it uninspired. But I’m not here to talk about the logo itself.

What matters is that the CEO has interjected herself into the design conversation, without taking the time to understand her company’s design process, or about how her design choices fit into the notion of brand management, and – at least from an outsider’s perspective – this is clearly a demonstration of strong-arming and devaluing said design process.

I’m not taking bets yet, but I get the feeling they’ll be revisiting their logo in a year’s time. When you’re a company as large as Yahoo! and trying to refresh your logo in tune with a new organizational outlook, that logo deserves more time and resources than a few people (plus an intern) over the span of one weekend. And in that sense, Ms. Mayer is being careless with the User Experience Design for Yahoo!’s brand.

It’s Not About A Logo

It’s about how CEOs fit as champions of design when design matters for their company; and you know what I’m going to say next: Design always matters, especially if it’s going to be public facing. Clearly Ms. Mayer wanted to be involved, she’s a real go-getter. Clearly, according to the criticisms doused upon her, she is not a fantastic Art Director. And, quite possibly, she took inspiration from Steve Jobs and decided that she must touch every publicly exposed branding opportunity to make it her own. Lastly, her design team likely didn’t have enough stamina to withstand counter-criticisms to their input, and guide her through a better design process, and a better logo.

I shudder to think how Ms. Mayer gets involved in the design processes for Yahoo!’s product lines.

But if that’s not the way to champion design, then what?

Restraint Is the Answer

It’s widely believed that good CEOs get involved in the details, not by designing things themselves, but by providing a larger vision; and choosing a well-rounded team to put that vision together. They sit in on meetings, hear about the direction, and see what changes have come about since their last meeting, and offer boundaries or new direction based on their own [changing] vision. I subscribe to the Paul Rand school of design that says in order for design to be Design (Big-D, meaning effective, holistic design) you must have boundaries to design against. Otherwise, it’s just art. The design process is maybe easier, but less effective, when designers get “blue sky, no limits” assignments. Design of anything should have a clear purpose and a plan for its lifespan. It’s obvious that the new Yahoo! logo does not meet that standard. That is why it’s blah, and makes no apologies for it.

No, UX Design is not about logo design. Or brand management. Or even artifacts and design processes. It’s all of these things [together], and none of these things [separately]. It’s like taking all the colors of a Play-Doh set and mushing them together. UX Design – with a Big ‘D’ – is about a holistic vision for the products that your company creates, and the various other places in the company that that product will eventually branch into.

As such, it may certainly touch upon all those things I just said Design isn’t about. The field is so vast that it’s often hard to pin down what it entails. The goal, however, is unchanging: create a product that impacts the company in a positive way because it strives to connect people to itself through emotional response. Good designs strive for this; the best designs achieve it.

I’m not saying CEOs should not get involved in UX. Quite the opposite. Every CEO needs to be a champion of design in their own companies, because they have the emotional connection required to do it. But they also need to know how to be an effective champion, and stay out of the way at times. If CEOs get involved with UX Design the same way Ms. Mayer did with the logo, we’re dooming the UX field to the same path that we’ve relegated Typography, Web Design, Logo Design, and everything else digital since 1995.

Sure, anyone can do it, if they have a piece of paper, a pencil, and a PC. The problem is anyone can do it.

We’ll just have to accept poorly designed products as the norm, that’s all.

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1 Comment. Leave new

Great post Krish ! It engenders new questions for me:

1 – to what degree are great designers born or made ?

2 – regarding your positioning of design without constraints as “art”, I know exactly what you mean – but it’s interesting to consider this from the other direction – meaning, according to my limited education in the subject, “art” is frequently characterized as innovating, coming up with something original, exactly *because* it was executed within (often strict) constraints, as opposed to none. I’m thinking of composers in the Western classical tradition – Bach, Beethoven – who composed many (though not all, especially the latter) of their masterworks within the constraints of rather rigid conventional forms. I’m less familiar with equivalent cases in the graphic arts but am sure they exist.

Good stuff !

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