The Power of Art in User Experience
Apr 8, 2014
There’s something about art that moves people. It can cause emotional and even physical responses in viewers (extreme, in some cases). Sometimes these feelings are happy, other times sad or angry or stressful, other times completely still and reflective. No matter the response, the fact that we generally feel compelled to respond to a piece of art, even subconsciously, is fascinating.
For a few thousand years we’ve known a little bit about perception and human behavior; it’s part of what helps us design effectively. Modern human ancestors started using tools to solve problems about 2.5 million years ago but we still don’t understand the majority of what goes on in our own heads. Yet in spite of how limited the world’s scientific knowledge of individual reality is, a good artist can move it and affect it in so many different and powerful ways.
I believe that experience designers should use the power of art to make digital experiences more compelling. You might think, “well, that’s great but I’m not an artist. I can’t draw or perform music or dance or act. How am I supposed to use art in my designs?” To be completely honest, I don’t know exactly, because everyone is different. Everyone will have a different process — or perhaps no process at all — for creating a sense of artistic expression in digital content, whether it be through visual, auditory, interactive or narrative devices. What I have come up with, though, are three points to help you discover your own approach.
Develop a thorough understanding of empathy.
Seung Chan Lim (aka “Slim”) is a computer scientist turned designer and the author of Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making. In a recent article he wrote at uxbooth.com, Slim recounts the story of his introduction to the world of art. At first, he believed — as many people do — that art is egocentric. That somehow the artist is posturing and there isn’t really anything to take away from it. It wasn’t until his very first art class, titled “Drawing from Observation,” that he realized art is just the opposite of self-indulgence. His assignment: draw the nude model in the room.
As you might’ve guessed, given Slim is a computer scientist, his first few attempts failed miserably. When he asked the teacher for guidance all she told him was, “you’re not drawing what you’re seeing.” Which seems like kind of a snide remark, until you realize, as Slim did toward the end of the semester, that art is about letting go of your predefined understanding of the way things are. It wasn’t until he stopped trying to draw what he thought an arm was supposed to look like and instead simply drew what he saw that he found success.
In this way, art is the epitome of empathy. It’s about experiencing the subject, whether it be a physical being or an object or just an idea, on a deeply empathic level. Let go of what you think art is supposed to be and focus on developing a pure and sincere understanding of whatever it is that you want to communicate through your design.
Trust your instincts.
I’ve been fascinated by the existence of art for as long as I can remember. Why is it that tales of fiction and incredible displays of dexterity and conceptual paintings captivate human beings? There are a few distinctly human traits that separate us from animals. Logic and reason are the most popular ones that come to mind, but what about imagination? Our ability to wonder is perhaps our most advanced trait. It’s what allows us to make plans and to discover new things. It is the most fundamental element of creativity and is therefore imperative to art.
There are some, myself included, who believe that art is instinctual. The late Dennis Dutton, who was a professor of art philosophy in New Zealand, wrote a controversial book called The Art Instinct. In it, he explains that art is the result of a combination of darwinian adaptations. Dutton claims that the ability to tell compelling stories 1.6 million years ago gave our ancestors a competitive edge in both natural and sexual selection. For survival, the ability to carry out “what if” scenarios through stories would’ve helped teach others survival tips. Becoming a really good storyteller would therefore be indicative of one’s intelligence and ability to survive, which to this day are admirable traits in a potential mate. If art is an evolved instinct, then it must follow that everyone on earth has the ability to create it. Even you.
Exercise your ability to create.
While I do believe that every experience designer is naturally capable of assimilating art into their designs, I do not believe that anyone will be good at it without practice. Malcolm Gladwell, author of the book Outliers, developed a research-backed theory that it takes about ten thousand hours of dedication and practice to master a skill.
Personally I think the key to practicing for 10,000 hours is not to be afraid of failure. Embrace failure, learn from it and keep going. You can practice art pretty much anywhere. Start doodling on the bus or humming your own made-up tune in the shower. Push your boundaries and try to sincerely experience art that you might’ve thought was outrageous before. And when you’re actually designing something, try as many different ideas as you can. Don’t just go with your first or second thought, and try to break away from preconceptions that may not directly resonate with your users. Really try to think of artistic ability as a muscle that requires exercise, but also keep in mind that as an experience designer you don’t necessarily have to build a mastery of executing artistic concepts in Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator. Your target skill is the synthesis of research and experience into designs that utilize artistic concepts wherever they can be justified. You can (and should) collaborate with a visual designer during that process, and continue to do so further along in the project to make sure your vision is realized.
The one point that I want to close with is that my suggestion here is not that UX designers should take away visual designers’ creative freedom. Artistic concepts recommended by the experience designer might just be starting points to iterate on as the design comes to life. Other times the initial recommendation might resonate with the project team and the client and effortlessly find its way into the final product. In either case, I believe that experience designers stand to gain a significant amount of user affinity to their designs by adding artistic skill to their repertoire.