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.


Robby Villabona said...

Remember those Mercedes Benzes in the 70's and 80's which appeared to have broken tail lights (one side always appeared dimmer than the other)?

I learned from my car enthusiast friend why this was so. Apparently when the car was braking, both lights became brighter and even in intensity. This was the Mercedes Benz way to distinguish between a braking and a moving car (before the introduction of the now-common, third brake light). Anyway, I thought that was neat. It's something that you're not conscious of, but somehow it works. There's a lot of great design details on them Benzes.

ben c. said...

Robby, thanks sa comment. Maraming pwedeng i-apply sa framework na ito. When watching a really good movie, there's a point where you realize that underneath the simple execution was a well-thought design.

And then you appreciate the detailed care that went into it, while at the same time enjoying the total effect.

Robby Villabona said...

Speaking of form follows function -- Apple generally makes great designs, but I think the iMac is a counter-example.

There's a fundamental ergonomic function you cannot do on an iMac -- and that is to raise or lower the height of the monitor (sorry, but tilting is not nearly enough, especially on a big monitor). My brother's actually selling his 24" iMac now because it's giving him neck aches. Also, he can't use DVDs with home-made paper labels stuck on them (because the drive slot's too thin). He'll be replacing it with a proper monitor attached to a MacBook Pro.

It's an example of form inhibiting function, for the sake of style.

ben c. said...

@robby v. -- which iMac version yan? I checked out the latest and they do have tilting.

Robby Villabona said...

All the current iMacs after the "E.T." version. They have tilting (as I mentioned) but no height adjustment. Very important especially in large monitors.