The Role of a Visual Interaction Designer at Filament
A number of months ago I received an email inquiry seeking advice on how to become a Visual Interaction Designer (otherwise referred to as a User Experience Designer, or UX for short) at Filament Games. This request came from Brandon Korth, who has since become a member of our very talented staff. At the time, I balked at giving an immediate response as I struggled to formulate a clear path to success in our field.
Of all the job descriptions at Filament, ours is probably the most vague and requires the widest range of disciplines and experience. At large developers and among the ranks of massive creative agencies, a UX Designer may be allowed the luxury of focusing on a narrow set of tasks and acting as a specialist on a proportionally large team. At Filament our teams are, relatively speaking, very small. The designer formulates the game, the engineer programs it to work, and the artist generates the assets. The Visual Interaction Designer sits in the middle and acts as the glue that connects the work of these three other devs together. And thus, formally, Filament uses the title “Visual Interaction Designer” rather than just “UX Designer,” for we encompass so much more than one small niche.
Working with Game Designers
When working with the designer, we interpret their intent and translate it into language that the engineer and artist can execute upon. But, based on our expertise, we may also influence the design of the game when we see potential visual, technical, or interaction complications that arise from the designers’ original schema. Together we collaborate to explore possible solutions that will ensure the initial concept develops into a high-quality final product.
Working with Illustrators
To the artists, we are mini art-directors. We provide lists and documentation for the assets they need to generate and make it our goal to clearly communicate any technical, size, or aesthetic requirements that are necessary to complete the game. When they provide us raw files, we process them into working assets which we then implement. Sometimes we also act as illustrators and generate internal conceptual sketches or even final art assets when our dedicated illustrators are overwhelmed with demand.
Working with Game Engineers
To the engineer, we prepare assets and visuals in the game engine so that they can hook their code in to specific working elements. Prior to the involvement of the Visual Interaction Designer, a game is often a wasteland of gray boxes and placeholder, MSPaint-quality “engineer art.” We do our best to avoid delaying or bottlenecking the engineering efforts, but we also provide direction to them as to how we want something to behave mechanically or respond to the player.
Independent of this three-way balancing act, we are graphic designers generating user-interfaces, animations, promotional visuals, and crucial wireframes to communicate the game flow and design into a visual language for the sake of clients and our own internal reference.
Tips for Success in UX at Filament Games
When first I came to Filament, Trevor Brown—the art director at the time—referred to us as his “unicorns.” For he realized just how difficult it is to find the right person who can fulfill all aspects of this position. To be a successful Visual Interaction Designer at Filament, the ideal candidate has:
A strong background in graphic design with a portfolio demonstrating outstanding professional work, especially in the web and interactive fields.
The ability to work in a number of visual styles to match the diverse aesthetics that occur across all our games. Along the same lines, UX needs to be able to make UI elements cohesive with the art assets generated by our illustrators.
Experience and understanding of UX considerations, especially pertaining to younger audiences and those that may have special learning needs or little-to-no literacy.
At this time at Filament, we are especially looking for those with the ability to work in the Unity game engine.
Strong verbal and written communication skills. Especially the ability to listen, comprehend, and express ideas with other disciplines and clientele.
Flexibility to work on multiple, simultaneous projects as well as to pivot on feedback regarding design or aesthetic.
The ability to problem solve, especially in regards to making visuals and design work within technical, time, or performance constraints.
In addition to these core abilities, each Visual Interaction Designer working at Filament has their own set of unique superpowers. Our management does its best to assign each of us to projects that suit our strengths, but we can’t always have perfect allocation. Learning new skills is a major part of this role. It seems that each new project presents us with some new technical challenge, hurdle, or special requirement to which we must adapt. When I think back to where I was when I began here three years ago compared to where I am today, I am amazed by the amount of skills I have accrued just by getting through the day-by-day requirements of the job (and I would say that I was already quite seasoned when I began)!
As bulleted above: a major qualification that Filament has been seeking is experience working in the Unity engine. In the past, we generated products in a variety of different technologies (when I began, most of our games were in Adobe Flash!) but these days our focus has been to shift all projects into Unity. We have seen many applications from great graphic designers that cannot work in game software and we have seen many great game developers that have poor graphic design skills. What we seek is a strong candidate who has skills in both areas.
Individually, I also believe that the ideal candidate has good UX sensibilities. With many years working in UX, I see many junior additions to the team offering outstanding visual and technical skills, but lacking the user experience sensibilities that come with, well… experience. Many independent game devs can get lost in making their own, specific vision according to their own, specific perspective. At Filament, our goal is to make learning games that reach and enrich the lives of many different types of people. It takes a good sense to predict where there may be problems that would confuse or cause frustration to learners of different ages, cultures, or physical and mental abilities.
A major bonus to any candidate is the ability to predict, plan, and successfully solve problems that may arise from meeting such challenges. Imagine making a reading game for children that are so young that they have only fledgling literacy. How would you make a matching game that might be put before someone who has color or total blindness? Is your game going to be for a global audience that might comprehend different colors, symbols, and icons differently within their cultural context? Our Visual Interaction Designers have to answer these questions every day. Sometimes there are standards and resources and precedents that we can rely on, but often we must get creative to meet internal and client-driven objectives to ensuring our products effective, fun, and enriching learning experiences.
To be a Visual Interaction Designer is to be a multi-faceted problem solver. We wear many, many hats when compared to some of our compatriots and live paradoxically as both generalists and specialists. Personally, I have tremendous regard for the ability of my peers and have high expectations of anyone aspiring to fill this challenging role. I also enjoy sharing my personal perspectives and years of experience with my colleagues, to see and encourage them to join us in growing and evolving our skills. If you are reading this as a prospective Visual Interaction Designer, it all may sound intimidating, but if you believe yourself to be a prized unicorn, please check our job listings for an opportunity to demonstrate those skills and perhaps join our remarkable team.