If you read design blogs, you’ll sometimes see designers do unsolicited redesigns of existing products. What you usually do not see, however, is the original designer answering, and explaining the rationale behind the original design. Tim Van Damme redesigned the iPad version of Instapaper. Now, Instapaper developer and designer Marco Arment has responded to the redesign, explaining why the original design looks the way it does, and why the redesign would cause more problems than it would solve.1
I’m ambivalent about unsolicited redesigns. I sometimes do them (here’s one I did for Skype 5, and here’s one of the Kindle home screen), but I always feel slightly uncomfortable about it.2 The original designers probably invested weeks or months into a design. They may have years of experience with the subject matter. At most, I’ll invest a few hours. They know a lot more about the requirements, about the constraints, about how the product is actually being used, about implementation details that could limit what features the design can offer, about the business situation, about results of usability tests, and a ton of other things I simply have no idea about.
Design is never as easy as it looks from the outside.
How can we solve this seemingly untenable problem. Simple — we stop pretending design is easy. It’s a labor that requires far more than just producing great deliverables. Really, it’s about strategy, process, communication, and designing more than just webpages. As professionals, we have to be equally concerned with our clients’ business strategy and their internal structure as we are with the design comps we pass them.
If you’re doing unsolicited redesigns, you really don’t have a clue about all of that other stuff that goes into creating a successful product. Joshua Blankenship puts it like this:
It’s easy to «design» when you’re unencumbered by things like metrics, creative direction, business acumen, sales experience, actual functionality, enterprise scale, or any thought about how a site with millions of page views and users has to function.
About a redesign of the Zappos site, Marco Arment himself wrote:
Does [designer of the Zappos redesign] Andrew Wilkinson not see how arrogant and insulting it is to publicly offer his unsolicited redesigns for popular sites?
Starting with Dustin Curtis’s redesign of the homepage of American Airlines’ website, then progressing to the redesign of the Zappos homepage by Metalab Design, and most recently a redesign of the Instagram iPhone app by Tapmates, the trend of publicly criticizing the design work of others seems to have taken a nasty turn. What these designers have done is taken the work of an organization and, completely ignoring the research, strategy, or thought that went into the original designs, maligned not only the design itself but the people behind each individual design.
On the other hand, Jared Spool writes:
While the world of professional graphic artists insists that «spec work» is an evil that refuses to compensate designers for the value of their efforts, these designers are donating their time to persuade multi-billion dollar companies on the benefits of good design.
So, is it okay to do unsolicited redesigns of other people’s work, or not? About his Instapaper redesign, Tim Van Damme notes:
This is not me criticizing the current interface for Instapaper. Marco did a terrific job with it, and it is hands down the best app on the iPad. This was just me being bored for an hour or two.
I think that’s fair. So perhaps doing unsolicited redesigns is okay after all. Just don’t be a dick about it,3 and keep in mind that you’re probably missing fundamental details and constraints that caused the original design to look the way it does.
Unsolicited redesigns are terrific and fun and useful, and I hope designers never stop doing them. But as they do so, I also hope they remember it helps no one — least of all the author of the redesign — to assume the worst about the original source and the people who work hard to maintain and improve it, even though those efforts may seem imperfect from the outside. If you have good ideas and the talent to execute them and argue for them, the world will still sit up and pay attention even if you take care in your language and show respect to those who don’t see things quite the way you do.
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