The importance of Art, the importance of Design

Alastair Somerville
3 min readAug 15, 2017

I’m getting ready to do a new workshop at UX Week on design for Transcendent User Experiences with Elizabeth Buie.

Something that has been playing on my mind is that we’re not really going to present solid tools and specific processes to the participants and this may seem odd.

However, I think we need to have the workshop centered around new research (Elizabeth has just successfully finished her Phd in this area), playful activities and creating art and artefacts together.

The diagram at the top of this post is something I made today while thinking about why Art matters to Design and how Design is so important to business.

We live in a utilitarian time. Human life is measured in terms of work and employment, human creativity in terms of sales and data.

This has had a couple of consequences:

  • Art and play are too often viewed as useless activities
  • Design must justify itself in business terms

Doing useless things

There is an absolute necessity to doing useless things. It is in these activities that we find new ideas and sometimes both ways to describe and make them.

It is in the walking, playing, sketching, dancing and singing that we trip over novelty.

It is the doodling and storytelling that we find ways of making new ideas comprehensible to other people.

Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail.

That’s fine. It’s play. We can just try again.

But we need time to play and we need to be clear that play and art matter. They are not useless activites, they are the swirling mass of human excitement that are forge new ideas and create new artefacts.

Blue sky research

I’ve put research into this area as it is, for better or worse, viewed as only semi-useful. Both academic research and professional anthropological research are too often dismissed as unimportant to corporate goals.

Yet it is in research that problems and ideas are laid out and examined. Play and art create artefacts and stories, research creates papers and posters. They make solid what can be imagined. Research, in both the sciences and the arts, matters. We live in a world of powerful words, both as code and as content. Research, like art, finds truths and then tells them to people.

Design as a bridge

There are now so many ways in which play, art and research are shared and there needs to be so way of sorting out what may have value as products for sale by corporations.

Companies need designers who are not merely individually capable but also grounded as the whirlwind of new ideas swirls around them.

Design acts as the bridge for what ideas are pass from the useless (to corporate eyes) activities to the useful processes of making, prototyping and iterating into products and service for sale.

If a company wants to create products and services for future profits, it needs designers. Not merely to help form and reform the products that already exist but also to comfortably explore what happens next.

Processes like Design Thinking and Design Sprints need fuel.

Play, art and research are that fuel and designers need to collect it, keep it and use it when needed.

Creating fuel

So the UX Week workshop is not about teaching specific methods and processes, it’s about creating fuel for the future.

We’ll make art and poems and stories and more. We’ll share it.

Some of it will be meaningless, some of it will be meaningful.

Designers can explore it and find out later.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX