Earlier this year, I had the privilege of working on the redesign of the Vaccine Makers Project at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I’m thrilled to have learned and now share that it won the PR News’ 2018 Digital PR Award for Redesign/Relaunch of Site. Hats off to my friend and former colleague Jen Rovner for partnering with me on this fun, important project.
Bad habits are hard to break and pesky to abandon. I’ve been trying to address mine directly over the past year and I think I’ve made decent strides. One in particular is that my design used to be a little scattered. Every element was custom-made, exceptional, and particular for the context in which I created it. I repeated some of them, but lax about introducing variations. “This button looks great with a drop shadow on this screen, but not that one.” “Can you make the header font slightly bigger on that page only?” I assumed that was my creative freedom: “Look at all these ideas I have! Look at what I can do! Look at all this expression.”
That meant that whenever I was presenting a design to anybody, I had a lot of explaining to do. Not ideal. A strong design will include visual elements that convey a clear, consistent message without the need for supplemental context. Even if my friends, colleagues, and stakeholders accepted the further explanation, it’s not like I would have had the same opportunity to clarify design decisions to a larger and final audience.
These days, I’m more interested in how a design scales. Sure, you can pull off a few button styles on a small website with only a handful of pages (though I’d likely advise against it). As I’ve worked on more complex projects, I’ve internalized that freeform isn’t scalable. And when people are talking about scalability, they’re talking about sustainability. Does this design hold up to different demands and directions that could arise?
The way a designer approaches a project is essential when it comes to advancing scalability. For me, my approach was what had to change. The shift in my mindset went something like, “What if that small website then grows to a larger one with complex architecture consisting of different page hierarchies, each with particular content needs? And when that website is part of a larger network of affiliated sites? What if there’s software involved? Mobile designs?” There are so many directions that a product can take. The number of freeform designs then grows exponentially, violating established heuristics of recognition and consistency. What most likely started as well-intentioned creativity and skill then turns into fragments. It spells a complete mess for developers, too.
Speaking of developers, my growth in this direction was partially due to my team’s interest in Atomic Design principles. We didn’t apply them to our work with rigid enforcement but considered them guides during production. Atomic Design showed us ways in which we could use design systems to incorporate structure into our work. By working within those structures, we could find flexibility and ease.
Learning to communicate effectively with developers to determine components has been incredibly educational. Understanding how each piece is built and used allows me to design more efficiently. It’s been an obvious improvement and has helped me be more habitually strategic throughout the entire process. Breaking that initial habit has let me see my projects take shape and grow in ways that weren’t possible before.