In the Pursuit of Elegance – Functional Design

In the Pursuit of Elegance – Functional Design
Michael Robson

Michael Robson

Jul 17, 2018

Meet Mike Monteiro


Mule Design co-founder Mike Monteiro is the anti-designer. While super talented and well-educated, he breaks the stereotype of the delicate artist. He’s not trying to be hip or trendy; in fact, he sometimes comes off as a throwback and a grouch. I prefer to think of him as honest. He runs his digital agency like a business, not a church. You can imagine why Mule Design clients love him.


A few years back Monteiro wrote a pair of books (here and here) on the subject of facilitating good working relationships between clients and web/app development teams. Being a designer, he focused on the design side – but really, his writings apply to the entire dev team (front/back end coders and designers). I’m going to talk about the second book, You’re My Favorite Client, which is aimed at clients and highlights a few key insights that should bridge the client/dev divide.


Design Isn’t Art


Mike starts by asking if design is an art or a craft. Because some designers see themselves as artists (and have won lots of awards), it’s tempting to say that design is not art but great design is art. Just because the iPod had an intuitive interface doesn’t make it art (I know, I know, this is pretty controversial – that’s okay). Lavishing praise on something that is both visually appealing and functionally effective still doesn’t make it art. Art is about personal expression; design is something quite different.

Design is very practical: solving a problem (or a set of problems) within constraints.


It sounds so bland, but that’s the point; seeing design in these terms really helps us separate good and bad design.


  • Was it completed within budget and on time?
  • Did it solve the problem?
  • Does the solution reach your intended market?
  • Does the communication style and content match the brand?


That’s pretty much it: run down these questions on your last project and see what you get. You’ll notice that a lot of the things that clients (and designers, secretly) hate just goes right out the window. You don’t need to chase trends. You don’t need to compete with a Bay Area billion dollar empire. You don’t need to recapture your youth to appeal to tweens. Just focus on solving the problems (by priority, of course) on time and within budget.


This is what makes evaluating design so tough. It’s tempting to fall back to “I like this website” or “I love this logo”, but really, if you don’t know what the project goals were – or who the target market is – you’re in no position to evaluate the design. Again, designers fall into this trap all the time; something looks cool, and we don’t bother asking wait, who is this appealing to? Do those people understand this interface, or use this medium?


Evaluating design based on feelings is too subjective; it’s almost impossible to agree on what looks ‘cool’. Just go back to those 4 questions. If you are the client in this scenario you should have no problem with that. Let’s leave artistic interpretation for another day.



We know what good design is – we’ve defined it – but what are the risks of hiring an inexperienced design team or a front-end designer/developer who will do anything you ask for $500? Well, bad design (not paying attention to details) can hurt you big time by upsetting your users/visitors/shoppers. Although a groovy landing page can’t save your terrible business model, good design can definitely increase the likelihood of success. This is a healthy way to think about what design (along with the designers you’re paying) is worth.


It’s the Content, Stupid


Services like WordPress and Medium are so incredibly easy to use – allowing content to be uploaded in no time at all – that it’s easy to take them for granted. Please don’t let that be your excuse for not having any content.


You’ve got an online shop but no products yet? You’re doing an online magazine or cultural publication but you don’t have any articles yet? Please understand that the design is merely there to prop up your great content. Yes, the designer and developer are there to make you look great, but, without any content, they have little chance of doing that.


As Monteiro points out forcefully in his book, no one (other than design geeks seeking inspiration) goes to a website because the design is cool: people go to your site/app for the content. Designing without any content to design around is completely backwards.


What do you get when the content is the last thing considered? Bland stock websites and apps that are deliberately designed to suit any content. There’s nothing worse than hearing is this a template? after you’ve paid 5 figures for a website.


Giving Feedback


I’m going to wrap up with one of the hardest parts of the job: talking about the work with designers and developers. Giving feedback can be difficult because no one wants to be a jerk. Designers are famously sensitive about criticism because we love what we do, and the best of us pour our hearts and souls into it. It’s not pixie dust – it’s ego.


The late Steve Jobs once chided his superstar product designer Jony Ive (of iMac, iPod and iPhone fame) for being too nice to his team. Let’s hear Jony talk about it.

Yup. It’s tough tell someone something that might hurt them. No one wants to be the bad guy. Clients can do it without personal attack by staying focused on the project goals. Designers, for their part, should be able to take any criticism, but not take it personally. Designing to make someone happy instead of rich is a terrible crime (and downright unprofessional).


Designers need to be able to explain their decisions. Because I like it is not a valid answer. Neither is it appropriate for designers to ask the client which version they like best. There should be logical reasons for choosing one option – not sentiment. This is where quantitative design comes in. As long as we’re happy with two choices, let’s see which one gets better conversion through A/B testing. Let’s discuss which logo is going to appeal to our target market. Let’s debate which interface is going to make sense for a given demographic. At the end of the day, we can all be friends, but let’s be professional and honest too.


As Monteiro says, don’t hire anyone you can’t argue with or can’t argue with you. You want confidence and you want belief in your design team. They’re the experts. If it means introducing a new constraint (sorry guys, I just hate purple, I should have told you!), so be it. It’s still design, and it’s not personal.


Wrap Up


As I said, these are just some of the insights in this book. Please check it out yourself before your next project; I think it will make your life as a client much easier. We’re always excited to work with new clients, so if you have a big idea you’d like to bring to market, please get in touch.