The Dribbblisation of Design

Only one of these weather apps is attempting to solve the real problem.

There are divergent things happening in the product and interaction design community. On one hand, we have some amazing pieces of writing from the likes of Ryan Singer and Julie Zhuo, moving our craft forward. On the other hand, we have a growing number of people posting and discussing their work on Dribbble, the aggregated results of which are moving our craft backwards. This post is not about Dribbble itself, it’s about what the community on Dribbble value.


Too many designers are designing to impress their peers rather than address real business problems. This has long been a problem in creative advertising (where creative work is often more aligned with winning awards than with primary client business objectives) and its becoming more prominent in product and interaction design.

Much of the product design work from job applicants I’ve seen recently has been superficial, created with one eye towards Dribbble. Things that look great but don’t work well. Perfect pixel executions of flat design, but work that doesn’t address real business goals, solve real problems people have every day, or take a full business ecosystem into consideration. Dribbble itself shapes the conversation to some extent, the medium shaping the message, with highlighting of colour palettes and other superficial details prominent in the UI. People look and people emulate. A huge majority of the product design work on Dribbble looks the same. Whether it’s social software, accounting software, a marketing site, a weather app, the same styles are applied. Blur your eyes and try and tell the difference.


In contrast, the best job applicants I’ve seen sent in their thought process. Sketches. Diagrams. Pros and cons. Real problems. Tradeoffs and solutions. Prototypes that illustrate interaction and animation. Things that move, change and animate. Things that use real data.

The worst applicants sent in flat PNGs. PDFs full of wireframes. No articulation of the problem being solved, nor the business and technical constraints. No context. These pixel perfect, retina ready PNGs might look great on Dribbble, but they will have decreasing value as a primary design tool in a real product building environment.

This is why redesigns of other people’s work is pure folly e.g. the new Yahoo logo, iOS7, changes to Facebook, the New New Twitter, the American Airlines rebrand. People have no context for the decision making process involved in these projects, no knowledge of the requirements, constraints, organisational politics.

If product design is about solving problems for people within the constraints of a specific business, then it simply feels that many people calling themselves product/UX designers are actually practicing digital art. They are Artists. They are Stylists. Executing beautiful looking things, certainly an important skill, but not practising product design.


Design is a multi layered process. There is an optimal order to how you move through the layers. The simplest version of this is to think about four layers:

Designer after designer focus on the fourth layer without really considering the others. Working from the bottom up rather than the top down. The grid, font, colour, and aesthetic style are irrelevant if the other three layers haven’t been resolved first. Many designers say they do this, but don’t walk the walk, because sometimes it’s just more fun to draw nice pictures and bury oneself in pixels than deal with complicated business decisions and people with different opinions. That’s fine, stay in the fourth layer, but that’s art not design. You’re a digital artist, not a designer.


The invention of the web will lead to the biggest changes to society since the Industrial Revolution. The web is permeating everything. It’s in our homes, in our workplaces, by our bed when we’re asleep, and in our pockets everywhere we go. By 2020, if not before, all businesses will be web businesses. As Charles Eames once said, “Eventually everything connects“. Designing static, linked web pages is a dying profession. The incredible rise of mobile technologies, APIs, SDKs, and open partnerships between platforms and products paints a crystal clear picture of a future where we will all design systems. PDFs full of wireframes are a dying deliverable, Photoshop is a dying product design tool. Designers moving our craft forward are moving between sketches, whiteboards and prototyping tools (Quartz Composer, After Effects, Keynote, CSS/HTML).

This is one reason people say designers should code. Whether you agree with that or not, designers certainly need to define the problem and solution not in pixels, but in terms of describing what happens between components in a system. Then build prototypes, start coding, and fine tune the details as real data inevitably shows things that were overlooked and couldn’t have been predicted. Working interactions with real data give you a better sense of how something feels.


Clay Christensen’s Jobs framework for product design is a must. Every design problem in a Job must be frames, focusing on the triggering event or situation, the motivation and goal, and the intended outcome:

When _____ , I want to _____ , so I can _____ .

For example: When an important new customer signs up, I want to be notified, so I canstart a conversation with them.

This gives us clarity. We can map this Job to the mission and prioritise it appropriately. It ensures that we are constantly thinking about all four layers of design. We can see what components in our system are part of this Job and the necessary relationships and interactions required to facilitate it. We can design from the top down, moving through outcome, system, interactions, before getting to visual design.

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