What is Frontend Design?

8th April 2024
5 min read

Photo by Giu Vicente

Of course you may know of Frontend Development. The development of interfaces for web and apps that users interact with. The functional layer through which the user engages with the product.

Frontend Design isn't that.

Frontend Design is the design work that takes you from having a problem, to knowing how to solve it.

It isn't producing the solution. It is knowing what the solution needs to be. The synthesis of all the pain points, user needs, product requirements, business demands (and limitations), and manufacturing strategy into a plan of action.

It's the work within any design discipline that creates the most value.

Frontend design isn't a term I use, or really a term anyone uses. Though I heard James Melia of Blond talk on the Redacted podcast about how his role has transitioned into more 'frontend design'. I liked the sounds of that.

So I thought I would expand on it.

Frontend Design

There's lots of names that have sprouted up over the years for the various parts of the front end of design. Ideation, design thinking, co-design. When I was going through university none of those names existed.

It was just "the design process".

"Design process", however, effectively encompasses the entire development journey, from concept right through to implementation. Both the early high-value-but-low-volume design work, and the later high-volume-but-low-value design work. The design process is essentially just good design.

Frontend design, as the name should imply, encompasses only the front end of the design process:

  • Understanding the users and context.
  • Gathering needs and requirements.
  • Ideating.
  • Concept development.
  • Prototyping.

These are the areas of design that contribute the most to the success of the product, service, or brand. Here is where a connection is made with the user and is meeting their needs. It is where the innovation happens that sets a product apart from the competition. It is where the balance is made between costs (not just monetary) and quality to create a sustainable business. In these areas are where, if done right, will make the difference between a good product and a market leader.

Frontend Design doesn't include the heavy-lifting often associated with Industrial design:

  • Prototyping.
  • CAD modelling.
  • Product visualisation.
  • Design for manufacture.
  • Implementation.

You'll notice I listed prototyping twice.

There is definitely an overlap between the early stage problem solving, and the later stage building. Frontend Design can be especially reliant on Proof of Concept (POC) prototypes that are essential in informing product requirements and identifying unspoken user needs. Conversely, prototyping also extends long into the development of a product. Right up to tooling usually. But this kind of prototyping is less about discovery, and more to do with tuning and refinement. The objectives are very different.

As I described in my Industrial Design value stack, the value of each subsequent stage of the design process is based on the foundations of the stage laid before it. While it might save some time and money, the most beautiful CAD model in the world can't save an ill-conceived idea. And this is coming from someone who considers his Solidworks modelling methodology to be of a very high calibre.

Frontend Design is Cross-Disciplinary

I've long thought Industrial Design has an identity issue. And while that's most definitely a topic for another day, I also think that design in general could do more to communicate the value they offer clients, customers, and consumers.

Frontend Design could be part of how we do that.

While I talk about Frontend Design relative to Industrial Design, really, Frontend Design is cross-disciplinary. Every form of design follows the same process; understanding all the inputs required of a design, and converting that into a solution.

The types of inputs will be different for each discipline of course. The requirements for developing a brand identity will be much different to a knee implant system. Yet they're all inputs. The designer, any designer, must understand all of these elements and form a solution from them.

Likewise, the outputs will all be different. Each discipline will need knowledge of these mediums in order to create effective and elegant solutions to their particular problems. An expert in wayfinding design won't need to know how to apply the use of woven textiles, for example (probably).

Can Anybody Do Frontend Design?

Of course. But I think there is some caveats.

One thing I've noticed in all my years is that despite an abundance of design thinking and ideation frameworks, it takes a certain level of experience to make the strong connections necessary for great innovation to happen. It just takes time and exposure to build up the requisite mental library of experiences to draw from.

You'll note that in most design practices the high-value, early design work is performed by the most senior designers (as James Melia is), and the backend workload usually extends to mid and entry-level designers as decision-making becomes less critical and the hours spent become more so.

Backend Design

I'm not advocating that we start using the term Backend Design, by the way.

None of this is to say that the heavy-lifting design work we're all familiar with isn't important. It is in fact critical that the vision created by Frontend Design remains true through the entire design process. To do that requires skilled designers, each in their areas of expertise.

It may also make economical sense for both client and consultancy in this arrangement. While there's an argument that a skilled senior designer can produce a strong CAD model (for example) in half the time of a junior, both the hourly and missed opportunity costs are higher.

I also think the later-stage heavy-lifting design work will be first to be democratised and commodified. Any young person with enough passion and YouTube can produce eye-wateringly CAD models and product visualisations. They don't even need a design degree. With ready access to these kinds of tools and skilled people, it may end up making the most sense just to contract this work out once the Frontend Design has been done. The way content creators contract out their video editing.

Why It Matters

You're probably asking why it matters if Frontend Design is given a daft name that I just appropriated.

It's because it doesn't have a name, and I think it needs one.

Whether it's Frontend Design or something else is irrelevant. The purpose is to shift the focus of Industrial Design away from a superficiality of "creating nice boxes", towards true problem solving and value creation for clients.

Frontend Design is where good ideas become great products.

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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