Design: A Glossary of Terms, Methods, and Frameworks
September 7, 2021
Disclaimer: This blog post reflects subjective thoughts and opinions, highlighting the terms most relevant to our work here at A2J Tech.
What is design? Our team discusses this question often because there is no single definition of the term design. This gets particularly challenging when navigating our two distinct industries: legal and technology.
Design tends to be associated with images or illustrations, and occasionally physical objects like furniture or clothing. With the popularity of Design Thinking (more on that below), the term design has taken on an entirely different meaning, referring to a process of developing a solution to a problem, rather than creating a visual asset. The design process that developed out of design thinking is highly iterative, informed by the most important stakeholder: the user.
It’s not that visual design doesn’t consider its audience, certainly it does. But we use the term design to refer to developing products that are often more complicated than a single image. You can design a logo, a website, an application, a process, or even an entire system. What would it look like to redesign the entire legal system with users in mind…?
So what does all this mean? Design is a fluid term that can span the creation of images to the development of a solution to a problem. Below, we will explore design terms we use most often here at A2J Tech. As you’ll see, these terms have more similarities than differences.
Visual design includes things like images, icons, illustrations, color, layout, and font.
Graphic Design includes images, icons, or illustrations which communicate messages, though it can also include color selection, animation, and branding as well. For great examples of legal graphic design check out The Graphic Advocacy Project and Transcend’s Free Legal Icons.
Logo Design is the design of a small, simple image to represent a person, organization, or idea. In addition to being more specific than graphic design, logo design incorporates the organization’s mission.
Design Composition focuses on the layout of sections within a design. Composition often refers to the sizes, scale, placement, contrast, emphasis, proportion, balance, and negative space. For some great examples of Design Composition, read this blog post by Blue Sky Graphics.
Like Logo Design, brand design is determined by the goals of the organization when choosing the colors, shapes, and styles of the designs. Brand Design is broader than (and often includes) logos, but also incorporates typography, colors, fonts, size, spacing, and how and when to use images. Brand Design can also include written tone in web and print.
Unlike Visual Design, Product Design includes interaction. While Product Design can include non technical products, here at A2J Tech we primarily build digital products like websites, apps, tools, and widgets.
User Interface (UI) Design
User Interface Design involves the visual appearance of a digital product. It includes the styling of buttons, icons, spacing, typography, color schemes, and more. Good UI Design doesn’t distract from the product and focuses on ease-of-use.
User Experience (UX) Design
User Experience Design is the process of improving the interaction between a user and all aspects of a product. UX Design focuses on how a product feels, the structure, information layout, function, and flow. UX Design focuses on the users’ needs and motivations, what they need to accomplish, where they are getting stuck, and how this can be made easier. Read Strategies for User-Informed Legal Design by the Michigan Advocacy Program and the Graphic Advocacy Project for a great write up on how to conduct UX Legal Design.
User Research differs from other forms of research by taking an open ended approach to addressing the user’s problems, rather than focusing on validating a specific solution for the organization. User Research uncovers users’ needs and motivations, developing them into requirements that can be designed into a product. Read our blog post on starting user research in your agency.
Web Design can include many design methods within a single project, and is used when designing a website. A web design project might include all of the design types above as well as a few of the types below.
Design Research is like User Research, but broader. Design research uses interviews, system mapping, and observation, to develop a holistic understanding of the problem and available solutions. The final result may be a new product, a change in a process, or simply a shift in communication style.
Design Thinking is an iterative problem-solving approach focusing on understanding needs, challenging assumptions, and redefining problems. There is no clear solution at the beginning of the process. Design Thinking starts by asking a question: “how might we solve this particular problem”, and then moves on to include five distinct phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. A distinctive feature of Design Thinking is that it is on-going, encouraging a continuous process of testing, building, retesting, and adjusting. Check out Margaret Hagan’s book, Law by Design, on how to take a design-driven approach to legal innovation.
User-Centered Design (UCD)
User Experience Design, User-Centered Design, and Human-Centered Design are all variations upon the same idea: that the needs of the user are at the heart of the development process. User Experience Design focuses on the experience and interaction of the user and the end product, while User-Centered Design focuses mainly on the process.
Accessible Design focuses on designing a product that meets certain standards of accessibility. The ultimate goal of accessible design is a product in which the needs of people with disabilities are specifically considered.
Inclusive Design is a process of designing solutions for diverse users of the product. For example, adding subtitles to a video will help those who are hard of hearing, non-native speakers, children, and others. While accessibility is one outcome of inclusive design, it is not the only, or even the primary outcome. General usability, for users across the board, is the main advantage of Inclusive Design.
Universal Design is the design of products to be usable by all people, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. It takes into account personal attributes like age, gender, race and ethnicity, native language, and other diverse characteristics. While Inclusive Design may result in many solutions for multiple needs, Universal Design strives to develop a single solution for all needs. Read the American Bar Association’s blog post on how Universal Design can improve legal accessibility.
Equity (Centered) Design
Equity Design focuses on a community’s culture and needs to address historical oppression. It aims to dismantle systemic oppression, exploitative power dynamics, and create change in historically marginalized communities. Read New America’s report on incorporating equity into the tech development process.
Participatory Design Methods
Generally, designers’ work to pull out technical requirements from interactions with users. This often strengthens a power imbalance in industries with vulnerable populations of users. Participatory Design Methods seek to change this dynamic, including users and community members into the design process.
Participatory design includes users in the design and decision-making process. Participatory design is less extractive than traditional user research, streamlines the translation of needs to action, and in some cases shifts power imbalances between designers and vulnerable populations of users.
Like participatory design, co-design includes users as members of the design team, conducting research, designing, and prototyping solutions. Co-design differs from participatory design in that users and community members are equal members of the design team rather than just advisors.
Community-Led Design takes co-design one step further. In community-led design, users are community members and are the primary members of the design team. Community members lead the design every step of the way from planning and research, to the ultimate design and prototyping of the solution. Professional members of the design team are present to support the community in the design process. Other members of the design team, such as technologists who are traditionally the only members of the design team, are present to support and facilitate the community process. Check out The Escambia Project, an excellent example of community designed justice by A2J Tech’s Melissa Moss.
There are many different types of design and even more methods and frameworks. Simply speaking, design terms range from visual to process. In our work within the legal tech ecosystem, we use an array of design terms and approaches, designing logos, brands, websites, applications, and even entire systems. Within a single project, we might use all the terms from this glossary. Definitions of design terms aren’t rigid or mutually exclusive, but sharing a vocabulary for the work we do every day can help us do our job better. We can (and do!) use all of these terms to communicate what we are working on. The beauty is knowing when to use them and which is the right one.