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Design and the Rest of Us: How It Works

I’m of the opinion that if you need to drive a nail, the best tool is a hammer. You could certainly find any durable, heavy object and get the job done, but you’ll have a much better time using a hammer. Similarly, if you want something designed well, you should hire a designer. A plumber, software developer, painter, or your nephew who owns pirated Photoshop might get the job done, but it will often feel like driving a nail with an old frying pan.

This is the real world, though, and not some utopia where hammers grow on trees. Sometimes all you have is an old frying pan. We’re all occasionally called upon to do things we know virtually nothing about. That’s why I’ve started this series on design. I certainly can’t turn frying pans into hammers, but I might be able to make them a little more hammer-like. That’s the hope, anyway.

You might be a plumber, software developer, or law-breaking nephew, but hopefully at the end of this series, you’ll be better able to do things like set your type in a word document, create out a poster for your yard sale, layout your resume, and the rest of it.

Design Is How It Works

Steve Jobs once said that design is how a thing works, not just how a thing looks. This is true for any form of design, even if you might not think that whatever it is you’re designing is the sort of thing that “works.” You see, anything that you create is going to be interacted with at some level by a human. Even a poster for a yard sale. It needs to work for the people who see it.

When people see a poster, they need to notice it, be interested in it enough to read it, be able to read it, and have the information presented in an order that flows logically and makes sense to them. People will be confused if the largest, topmost text were the time the sale starts, followed by the sorts of things you’re selling, followed by small print that says “Yard Sale” and on what day the event is to occur. This is common sense, which quite frankly, is one of the most important parts of design.

Design involves some form of communication. In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald A. Norman uses the example of a kitchen faucet. Designers must find a way to communicate to you how to turn the water on, control the volume of water flowing, and control the temperature of the water. If all you saw were three levers, you’d likely have to spend several minutes figuring out what each did—and hopefully you wouldn’t burn yourself in the process.

Your goal when you design a thing is to put yourself in place of the user (or reader, but for the sake of this series, I’ll be using the word “user”). Assume that he knows nothing about whatever it is you’ve created. Now your job is to communicate to him only what he needs to know in order for your design to be successful. If you’re designing a software interface, don’t bombard him with options he’ll never care about. If you’re making a poster, don’t include details that he won’t care about.

Before we get into things like color theory, font choice, and other visual issues, we need to make sure we have the right goal in mind. It’s possible to make something that’s so visually stunning the user can’t read it. Apple’s Mobile Human Interface Guidelines put it this way, “As much as possible, avoid increasing the user’s cognitive burden.”

When you’re creating anything, it’s important to ask questions like:

  • What are the things I’m expecting the user to know, and can I be sure he knows all of them already?
  • What things am I expecting the user to do as a result of interacting with my design, and are all of them completely necessary?
  • What new information do I need to communicate to the user for my design to be a success?
  • Am I presenting the information my user needs in a logical, structured, and easy-to-understand way?

These questions can generally be asked whether you’re making a poster, resumé, or software user interface. They’re often left unanswered. The best typography in the world won’t help if you left the address off your yard sale poster, you made your phone number hard to find on your resumé, or your iPhone app is requiring an the user’s email address for functions that don’t actually need it.

Design is about being intentional in how your creation works. It’s about thinking about the user and making things as easy and enjoyable as you can for him. If you get this wrong, nothing else will matter. Always come back to the above questions at some form or another. It’s helpful at the beginning of your project to make sure you start out on the right foot, and it’s helpful at the end of the project to make sure you didn’t get lost along the way.

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This article was posted on 08/01/2014 . It relates to these topics:


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