Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, writes about “career-limiting phrases” that “jeopardize one’s professional image and potential for promotion.” Price goes further to say that employees who use certain phrases “will likely be replaced with those who convey a more positive attitude, collaborative spirit, proactive behavior and professional demeanor.”
As Design Leader, Principal, and a DesignOps consultant, I hear from dozens of people per week. I’ve seen a gamut of toxic behaviors that antagonize and push away competent and dedicated designers (myself included). However, nothing comes close to the negative impact on the morale and effectiveness of your designers than this one word:
Here are four reasons why you should ban the word “prettify” from your office:
1) “Prettify” is dismissive and pejorative when applied to design
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “pretty” both as “typically a pleasing but unnecessary accessory” and “attractive… without being truly beautiful or handsome.” In other words, something ultimately unnecessary and of low value.
Although designers are often asked “prettify” a bad situation by painting some lipstick on it, this is not the primary function of design.
Design is a whole slew of practices aimed at helping the team achieve business goals with maximum efficiency, bring innovative technologies to market while reducing risk and avoiding wasting resources, and generally improve the competitiveness of your enterprise. The impact of Product and Service Design on the business outcomes is thoroughly documented: it generates billions in ROI annually in a huge variety of industries, transforms lives, and impacts societies on a global scale. Two of my favorite projects to bring up when discussing Product Design are the US Highway System (“designed to enable a driver to go from coast to coast without stopping”) and the electric light bulb and socket system designed to bring safe, reliable and cheap light to every home and workplace in a world.
The same goes for Visual Design and Branding, which is arguably even more valuable and certainly more nuanced. Leading brands like Coke, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Under Armour – to name but a few – cite billions of dollars in brand equity. Brand equity painstakingly created using millions of pieces of collateral, deliberate touchpoints, and key experiences – stored in collective memory as the sophisticated emotional and factual relationship people have with your company.
Is design having a valuable impact on your organization? No? Could it be because you are inadvertently using vague and imprecise words like “prettify”?
2. “Prettify” is vague and imprecise
Design works best as a way to achieve specific business goals for a particular audience, at a precise moment in time. Good design assignments are actionable – they strive to precisely define what you are trying to achieve and for whom. In contrast, “prettify” is vague and imprecise.
For example, the designers of the US Highway System were given a specific, actionable vision: “drive a car coast to coast without stopping.” Imagine if instead these designers were told to “prettify” some roads? Would we have ended up with billions of dollars of flower urns adorning every intersection, with no relief of congestion in sight?
Alternatively, let’s take the famous “thousand songs in your pocket” example of the Apple iPod and iTunes combo. Imagine what would have happened, if instead of a “bold and magnificent idea” followed by a “surgically precise opinion”, Steve Jobs would have just asked Jony Ive to “prettify” a Sony Walkman instead?
The same goes for visual design: exact phrasing helps focus the design on the needs of a specific audience. “Make it colorful, edgy and modern, something that Billie Eilish would use” would result in a very different design from “make it trustworthy, safe, familiar, and un-intimidating, such that older people with weak eyesight could use it without glasses.” A precise statement such as: “make it usable by oil and gas workers wearing gloves and protective equipment, in bright, direct sunlight on a small screen of the Toughbook Pro. The UI has to be unambiguous, color-blindness friendly, and high-contrast” has the right amount of information a visual designer would use to make the product work well for the desired audience. The word “prettify” has none of those things, and neither does it indicate what would make the design successful.
3. “Prettify” has no measurable success condition
Another issue with the word “prettify” is that it has no measurable success condition. If a designer is “prettifying” something, how does she know when to stop? When is the design “pretty” enough? Who decides the right level of “prettiness”? Chances are the business leader who assigns the job to a designer is the only one who is also qualified to measure the right level of “prettiness,” as the word has no qualifying success condition, which means nearly endless iterations of intensive, demanding (and costly) high-fidelity design work.
Early in my career, I have been tasked, creating 47 iterations of the same design over a period of 3 months. None of my designs have been judged “pretty” enough, so the work continued, creating a complete waste of time, effort, and resources and achieving no business objective whatsoever.
As a leader who assigns work to designers, it’s up to you to communicate three things: 1) your actionable vision and 2) the target audience, and 3) the desired measurable success condition the design is meant to achieve. Not sure what these are? Designers can help! In fact, that’s part of our job description. Through techniques like user research, personas, user journeys, and vision storyboarding, we stand ready to help you define the problem, sharpen your vision, and determine the criteria for success. However, these activities take time, including planning and collaboration with other teams – which brings us to DesignOps, yet another thing that the word “prettify” ignores.
4. “Prettify” ignores collaboration and operational constraints
The word “prettify” implies that the magical design unicorns can be called to come in last-minute and sprinkle magic fairy dust over your project to make it a brilliant success. Design simply does not work this way.
The best way to achieve a repeatable successful outcome for your company is for Business, Development, and Design to work together from the beginning. This is sometimes called three-in-a-box approach – the method routinely practiced by leading tech companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Citrix, Salesforce, and many others. Instead of asking design to “prettify” something after it’s built, for your next project, try inviting designers into the room for a joint discussion to help with problem definition. You may be surprised at the outcome.
Now I’m not saying every single little button or field needs design feedback or review. That is neither possible nor desirable. Robust, well-built Design Systems are a foundation of DesignOps and have a fantastic way of empowering development teams to make confident, independent decisions. However, to function appropriately, Design Systems must be created and maintained by the ongoing collaboration between Design and Development teams, the concept that the word “prettify” completely ignores.
How to fix the “prettify” problem
Whenever you are tempted to ask someone to “prettify” something, substitute a more precise statement that reflects the goals of your project and the way the specific customer would feel about the project when it’s completed. Add a success condition, which must be satisfied to count the project a win. If you are not sure, ask a designer for help in defining the problem, the audience, and criteria for success.
If you are building something reasonably routine, your developers can safely rely on a sound Design System. However, if you find the scope growing, or if something isn’t 100% clear, or feel entirely right, that is the time to call the Designers, not after the whole thing is developed. Engaging Design early in the process will avoid hurt, disappointment and burnout from your designers and will help your product shine, usually with less development time spent taking wrong turns that you will have to fix later at a much great expense.
So whether you say “prettify” in as an ongoing practice, or happen to say it only rarely, it’s critical for your continuing success as a business leader that you recognize when you’re making this faux pas, and shift to more productive mode. Remove this toxic word from your vocabulary and ban it from your office.
Want to learn more about the ways of the winning Product teams? Need more resourceful practices for your Business, Design, and Development to work together more harmoniously and productively? I teach in-depth custom workshops, keynotes, and consult industry leaders on an individual basis, and would be happy to discuss how I can help you bring the DesignOps best practices to your organization. (Just don’t ask me to “prettify” something! ☺)