Sep 2, 2007

My Elements of Design

I learned design by picking up a thing or two here and there, reading tips in recommended books (like The Design of Everyday Things), and observing good designers and their work. I had no formal schooling, but in retrospect, a lot of what I've studied or done helped me in the design work I've done.

I will summarize what I've learned through years of work, trial and error, and
My Elements of Design:

  • Simplicity: design must be self-evident, with no extraneous stuff but not intrusive. As EB White often stressed in his Elements of Style -- "Omit unnecessary words!".
  • Form follows function: begin with function and then fit the form. If you work the other way around, you'll get your priorities muddled up.
  • Intuitivity: related to simplicity. Design must not need a users manual to figure out. A few minutes (even seconds) of training should suffice.
  • Balance: symmetric and assymetric.
  • Wow-factor: excellent design, like a good movie or book, should "wow" us. Paradoxically, although the design does not call attention to itself, we later realize that we have just encountered a good experience. And then we marvel at the good-ness of the design.
  • Lastly, the test of design is in, as the Eat Bulaga judges always emphasize, the "audience impact" -- how the customer interacts with the product or service and whether the design is pleasing, in general.
Let me explain the paradox caused by Simplicity and Wow-factor with an example. If you've been to one of those Friday's restaurants, you would have encountered the bubbly waiters and managers who squat when they talk to you in an attempt to look friendly and literally lowering their status so you could talk down to them.

They are all cheerful and alert, but don't you get this feeling that it is all contrived? That is an example of intrusive design. It calls attention to itself and the "audience impact" is that it lacks sincerity.

In contrast, I've been in taxis where the driver struck up a nice conversation that felt sincere. Or, if you own a Mac, you have this exhilarating feeling of having encountered a good product. The Mac seems to imbue you with good feelings but when people ask you why you like the Mac, you really can't explain it. Why? Because the little things that Apple built into the Mac (the great interface, stable machinery, visual design and good feel of the material, etc) all merge together in a synergy that produces a single impact: Wow!

Good design does not call attention to itself, but the user nevertheless still appreciates it, albeit sometimes failing to articulate it well.