I was lucky to be in command of complex product redesigns several times in my career. I was well-drilled with clients in my agency days to qualify for more sophisticated efforts with ActiveCollab and Semaphore CI. My contributions spread across all levels: Recreating everything from the structure, behavior, and interaction to the visual design. Up from high-level structural work down to details and finish.
Sometimes there were brand elements I could recycle, such as colors or typography. But more often than not, it was a grind from a blank slate. Decide what layout fits the content. Determine how to navigate between the pages. Design forms, errors, and notifications. Dozens of delicate typographic decisions. Rewrite the copy over and over. Compose a system of icons. Decide if this thing works better in a modal or an inline dialog. And this other in tabs or accordion. Is there enough contrast? How about inline editing? And so on. A gazillion decisions to make. Eternally zoom in and out, trying to spot patterns, inconsistencies, and new ways to group things in buckets that make sense. It’s tough.
Yet, when we do all this, we don’t invent an entirely new language. We rely on conventions. For example, nobody questions the meaning of the red color in software UIs, so we don’t sweat what works best for error and danger messages. People navigate the web in predictable patterns. When we design navigation, we choose from a limited range of solutions. There are only so many widely accepted navigation patterns. We take advantage of the common understanding of how people interact with computers. Most of these concepts come preinstalled in our consciousness, and we harness them almost mechanically. None of the building blocks is our original contribution. Only how we combine them has the potential for authenticity.
For the most part, our designs consist of typography. We combine and tweak fonts someone else designed. They look good on screen because someone skillfully scaled them to match the pixel grid of our displays. Type designer’s talent for shaping beautiful curves is what makes our designs pretty. Their technical skill and aesthetic sense sit on top of the centuries of typographic design progress. The text you’re reading right now is a perfect example. Part of the credit for the character of this page goes to the typeface designer. Part goes to me for choosing that specific typeface and fiddling with it. Yet, we designers get all the credit for our ability to combine components, and makers of these components rarely get a mention.
When a designer joins Google today, they don’t need to decide how select-box should look and feel. They don’t experiment with new typefaces and colors every time they start a new project. It’s all there in the book. While I imagine this can sometimes feel uncomfortably constrained, it still allows for creative output, only within a limited spectrum of acceptable solutions. Having such a well-built design system makes designers’ life a walk in the park. They contribute on top of the two-decades-long evolution and understanding of design at Google.
Let’s drag this logic even further. iPhone exists not only thanks to Apple but also owning to ancient thinkers’ efforts to understand electricity. Their discoveries paved the way for modern physicists. It exists thanks to researchers at universities, advancements in telecommunications, and hundreds of other industries. Each of its components is the innovative work of people you’ll never hear mentioned in the Keynotes.
Everything is built on top of something. Remarkable innovators are “just” excellent at combining other people’s work in surprising ways. Sufficient to make a creation distant enough from its building blocks, so it feels original and unique.
Finally, who owns your design? You and everyone else before you. Every person who contributed to the ingredients that made your work possible. Always give credit.