User Experience Designer vs. Creative Director

September 8th, 2009
Published on
September 8th, 2009

Professionals within our industry are completely awash with opportunities by which they can tweak and cajole better user experiences from their projects. The difficult part is maintaining quality across the channels. Because of how multifaceted a user’s experience can be, designers can begin to take on a more directorial position within a project/company, which I see as analogous to that of a creative director.

Creative Directors “oversee all aspects of product design” (so sayeth wikipedia.org). Historically, this means that creative directors focus on matters of branding, vision and, of course, direction. In traditional mediums, such as print or television, this meant strategic use of color, typography, music, imagery, etc. – content. This a full–time job; mass–market creative campaigns aren’t small endeavors. Initiatives require a “man behind the curtain,” (or a very closely-nit team) controlling the madness, ensuring quality and consistency.

The formula for a successful brand is simple enough: consumers trust companies that are unique, holistic, consistent, and strategic in their approach; companies that leave nothing to chance. Everything from product design and packaging design to branding and customer service builds a relationship with a consumer. By creating brands that are beautifully consistent and consistently beautiful, a creative director sends positive messages to consumers, building the trust that successful brands live by.

A contemporary analog

Today, the the prominence of UX designers has increased as many products and services occupy the online landscape. While User Experience certainly is nothing “new,” its modern practices reference many aspects of professions that were heretofore only related tangentially. For example: System Architecture, Product Design, and Human–computer Interaction.

It’s not surprising, then, that the artifacts of UX design are many and varied: sketches, sitemaps, user–flow diagrams, mental models, user research, website analytics, etc. (None of which adds perceived value to a client. Clients want to know when their website will be done and why it hasn’t been done faster.) These UX artifacts, in turn, expedite future processes and, hopefully, direct the project in its (often forgotten) effort for quality and consistency. Sound familiar?

What makes the role of the UX Designer even more challenging is that there exists a sort of “brand preemption” online—users begin to hold a number of expectations for products and services they use online. This means that not only does a UX Designer have to ensure a consistent and quality experience, they also have to appeal to their users’ sensibilities. In sum, there is plenty of responsibility to go around when it comes to UX direction on a project.

The state of things

Today, project roles are loosely defined because many project teams are small in scale. It doesn’t take too many distinct roles to create an online identity: generally one designer and one or two developers. Cap this off with a CEO or a project manager, add in a nice budget, and in a couple of months you’ll have a shippable product.

Especially with the economy the way it is, it seems that this model has become the norm. How do CEOs and investors hedge their bets? They hire a project manager. Projects managers have traditionally been good at making teams deliver a functional application on time and within budget; but as a UX designer, I know that isn’t all that matters.

To begin with, “functional” requirements only determine if an application can do something, not how one goes about making an application do something. The evolution of the application landscape says that the latter has quickly become a key differentiator. Therefore, the importance of the role of someone who understands users rises.

I would like to suggest the necessity of championing the UX Designers role on projects. Indeed, if modern brands are built entirely online, their role may supersede (or cannibalize) the role of the Creative Director. If the modern User Experience director/designer doesn’t replace the creative director within an organization, she must certainly work hand-in-hand with her colleague, as each of these roles promotes the other one.

If nothing else, that’s the one thing we can be assured of: as long as there are products (online or off) the field of user experience will always have a market.