Once upon a time, there was a slim chance that the future wouldn’t be lived on computers and smartphones. But as personal tech finds more and more ways to integrate itself into daily life, that slim chance is just about nil. Many basic daily tasks rely on some form of digital capability. Whether we like it or not, life in a technologically advanced society requires interaction with digital spaces. From grocery shopping to government services, life is moving online.

Different companies and agencies taking part in digitization-of-everything have very different priorities, and often times, user-friendly design is not at the top of the list. Certain apps and sites are a breeze to use and don’t take up more of your time than they need to, while others require a half hour of searching just to find the ‘Unsubscribe’ button (I’m looking at you, Bank of America). Even more worrying is the increasingly frequent use of dark patterns to essentially trick users into sharing too much of their personal information.

But if all of these challenges are the mice ruining what would otherwise be a very nice house, then talented graphics designers are the exterminators who spend their time making sure that we, the users, never have to deal with them, or even see them.

And with this power comes responsibility, not just for us the users but for tech companies as well. As we spend more and more of our time on our phones and computers, design only becomes more important. For better or worse, interacting with a web page or an app can affect our mood for the entire day, which is all the more reason to try to make them fun and easy to use.  

This importance of design is just one of the reasons that Yunning Liu got into the biz in the first place. But back in college, she came very close to following a different path.

“I started out with a business background. But while studying for my bachelor’s, I took many design courses, and I realized that I was very passionate about it. I was shocked by the power of design, how it can move and connect people.”

Following her passion has proven to be great move for Liu, who has since assembled a formidable portfolio of design projects that focus on improving lives, including the LUX app, which offers smarthome controls, as well as UI development for Evidation Health, a healthcare company finding new ways to help people prevent major health problems before they arise with the help of a personalized app experience. Her work has earned her Best New App from the Apple Store as well as an Addy Award from the American Advertising Federation. (For any ‘Mad Men’ fans out there, the Addys are even more prestigious than the Clio Awards.)  

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Liu’s apps have been awarded by the App Store for their design and ease-of-use. (Photo Credit: Shutterstock)

Liu will serve as our guide to a very different design mentality, one that places a great deal of importance on the human element, and the real-world implications of user experience.

“I believe great design can bring joy and happiness into people’s lives. It is not only visually appealing but also simple, smart, and functional. It can help people gain confidence and reduce stress.”

But the road to actually achieving that goal is a long one, and it tends to be fraught with obstacles of all sizes, from discerning the needs of the client to carving out a distinct visual style that users will be more likely to remember. Liu shared with us some of the difficulties she’s encountered while working on projects, many of which come down to the issue of a muddled message.

“Some clients asked me to design marketing collateral for an event. When I asked about the ultimate goal of the materials, they said ‘Make it pretty and awesome,’ which is not a goal. From that point on I learned to work with the client and understand the goal they want to achieve before starting in on the work itself.”

But nailing down a company’s vision is only half the battle. The other end of the spectrum is what we discussed earlier: figuring out what works best for the user. Tackling that particular problem can be approached in many different ways, from simple empathetic exercises to inviting firsthand criticism.

“When I am designing, I always keep in mind that I want to solve design problems from a user-centric perspective. User feedback is essential to the product design. With Evidation, I am working on the consumer side of the product, called Achievement. It is one of the top health apps in the app store. I conduct lots of user research and surveys to help us make significant design decisions.”

When it comes to those discussions, Liu has some core principles she likes to present to the group. Ultimately, they reach much farther than just graphic design, providing some important tools for pursuing success in nearly any field.

“Trust your gut and ignore doubters. Great design bridge the gap between users and products. Don’t follow the design trend, define your own and making it last. Spend your lifetime working on it, and there are no shortcuts to do great work.”

As consumers we tend to focus on the functionality of our tech. We want it to be powerful and long-lasting. And of course those factors will always be important, but they draw so much attention that we risk losing sight of that little spark that makes us excited to interact with our technology. Fun is important, joy is important, and without them, our futuristic lifestyles, especially the leisure time, will just start to look like work. And so it makes sense that design has become central to avoiding that fate, that it feels more like a calling than a profession. In the smallest of ways, its goal is to make people’s lives better.