Douglas Bowman, Google’s lead visual designer announced yesterday that he was leaving Google to join Twitter. At the root of it, Bowman’s decision to leave stems from a clash of cultures between the world of Interaction and Visual Design. The best way to understand this this clash of cultures is to listen to the ghost stories each field tells the young’uns.

In Interaction Design, around the campfires at night, it’s common to hear a variant of this chilling tale:

I heard, there was this company once, where they, like, got these totally great designers to build this user interface for them and they were all excited about it being the best thing since sliced toast until they tried to watch some people use it in the real world and it, like, totally sucked. The things everyone thought were easy to use were completely confusing. Luckily, they went through several iterations of redesign and testing the thing until it became something users loved.

Interaction designers are actively trained to filter out expert opinion as a justification for design decisions. The expert, no matter how qualified and trained they are, is ultimately, not the user and is ultimately, totally ineffectual and predicting what the user is like. The only way that design decisions can be justified is through feedback from actual users. Uttering the words “I prefer…” as justification for a design decision is the quickest way to move you from the potentially-an-ally category to dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized category in the eyes of an interaction designer.

Over in the Visual Designer camp, a different ghost story is being passed round the campfire:

I heard, there was this company once who hired this, like, genius visual designer who built them this totally bold and brilliant design. But then, in an attempt to please everyone, the design was buried under so many focus groups and QA evaluations that  integrity of the design was destroyed and what was ultimately put up, like, totally sucked and ended up pleasing no one. Luckily, a more design friendly management was put into place and the original design was restored which ended up creating the emotional bond with the users that saved the company.

Visual designers are trained to keep their artistic integrity in the face of pressure and to be the keepers of the secret knowledge against the tide of the aesthetically ignorant. Uttering the words “consensus seeking” as justification for a design decision is the quickest way for you to become a dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized in the eyes of a visual designer.

You can see both of these dynamics play out in the Google saga. Douglas Bowman’s characterization of the design process at Google:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

The debate on border pixels dragged on because Bowman became a dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized in the eyes of the interaction design team.

Similarly, on Marissa Mayer’s attempt to reach out towards the visual designers:

A designer, Jamie Divine, had picked out a blue that everyone on his team liked. But a product manager tested a different color with users and found they were more likely to click on the toolbar if it was painted a greener shade.

As trivial as color choices might seem, clicks are a key part of Google’s revenue stream, and anything that enhances clicks means more money. Mr. Divine’s team resisted the greener hue, so Ms. Mayer split the difference by choosing a shade halfway between those of the two camps.

Is so, tin-earred it’s cringe inducing. Like rich yuppies trying to connect with the less affluent by speaking the language of the “street”, Marissa reads the culture of visual design so wrong and her attempt and consensus and compromise ends up doing more harm than good.

The sad thing is, both of these viewpoints are perfectly justified and are the result of a counter-intuitive lesson learned. Both of these ghost stories are repeated precisely so the newbies in the field don’t end up making the same mistakes the pros once made. Unfortunately this means for both sides, the views of the other side look like ignorance.

Look, I was like you once, and then I learned better. So I’m just going to sit hear and wait for the other shoe to drop for you Mmmkay? Do you want to hear a ghost story while we’re waiting?

So what you end up getting is a staring contest where each side is waiting for the other to finally blink. Unfortunately, in this case, Douglas Bowman blinked first and both Douglas and Google were both impoverished for this.

PS: In anticipation of the criticism that I have no business talking about visual design when the design of my own site sucks so much, I know, it’s being fixed, be patient.