Fundamental design truths (part 1)

Now don’t get too excited :-) This isn’t meant to be a roundup of all the grand universal “rules of good design”–whatever those are! No cookbooks or recipes for some “quick & easy” design fixes (like taking a pill in The Matrix). Instead, these are some of my collected insights into the major commonalities that comprise any design situation, whether for software, services, devices, environments, etc. If you abstract away the mundane details of daily work, certain themes and threads emerge, as described below.

For newbies to design (eg, fresh outta school or newly switched from another field) these pithy phrases may seem somewhat cynical in their terse wording, but that’s not the intent. Instead, take these with grains of salt and feel them out in your design gigs and projects. Test them and see what discoveries you make in your design career! I’m betting many of these will ring true later if not sooner…

• No design is perfect : Even the simple, ordinary paper clip can be iteratively improved–soften the sharp edges, add texture to the slippery curves, color code the loop, have different shapes, etc. Every design is subject to improvements at varying scales (whether great leaps or minor tweaks) as the use cases, contexts, materials & technologies adjust over time–or new discoveries made. And as new designers across the globe, armed with fresh perspectives, join our diverse community, different and hopefully better ideas will be introduced. That’s a good thing and must be expected. There is no perfect design; anything can be improved which is a healthy attitude in this field.

But of course, you still gotta get the design “good enough” for shipping to your customers, which is a separate issue altogether. As Steve Jobs famously said, “Real artists ship”. So you can’t wait til perfection. How do you know if something is just right? Something “minimally viable” but supports the goals of the product purpose and aspirations of intended audience is a start…

• Every design involves compromises, trade-offs, constraints : This is just a hard fact of design practice, period. You can’t get everything 100% due to the social and political complexities of…working with people :-) The pragmatics of any design problem require understanding of and wrestling with constraints (technical, commercial, social, etc.), negotiating various trade-offs (since no design is perfect, see above) which then forces critical debates about what is most important (prioritizing content, functionality, features, so forth) to the product & user & business. This debate is what should lead to a well-guided strategy adapted over time. The ability to artfully compromise to achieve goals for all stakeholders is at the heart of any design. This is echoed in Eames’ classic Venn diagram .

• The criteria for a “good design” depends : Per the UCD standard canon, the trifecta of qualities that determine a “good design” is bound by useful, usable, desirable (per Liz Sanders & Dick Buchanan). Other qualities include feasible, viable, findable, per Larry Keeley, Tom Kelley, Peter Morville, etc. So what really makes for a good design? It all depends upon the purpose and situation driving the design effort. Sure, it has  to enable a user’s goals, make money for your company, efficiently apply a technology, but how does the design resonate with the specific deeper values & goals underlying the audience, the business, the market, and the designer’s vision? How does it improve the human condition in a way that supports the market while helping the environment, enabling a social benefit too? It’s more about the debate over essentially contested meanings associated with your brand and strategy, in addressing human needs, then a rote checklist of criteria items. That internal stakeholder debate should help illuminate the right criteria for your product and market.

However, far from being relativistic or “anything goes for whatever moment”, there are some core qualities. As Marty Neumeier says in his book The Designful Company, good design, at its essence, connects to human virtues, embodying the exact qualities we wish to see in our fellow human beings: generosity, courage, diligence, honesty, clarity, curiosity, wit. In contrast, bad design exhibits vices like fear, deceit, pettiness, confusion, apathy, waste, laziness.

• Designing without principles endangers the integrity of a design : Inevitably, because of the many compromises needed to balance conflicting priorities and demands, there’s a risk of a “watered down design” that makes nobody happy but achieves all the “checklist tasks”–design by committee, for example. It’s vital to assert and defend the integrity of a design vision by having conviction and “principled compromise”. You need design principles at the outset, as it’s what drives what you (AND the product team/company) believe in and ensures everyone stays on path, towards product excellence…how ever that is defined for your organization. Whether it’s whimsical, heartfelt stories for Pixar or sturdy yet smartly hip furniture for Haworth, principles ensure the likelihood of a strong, cohesive design vision emerging from the tough compromises. It’s also what helps ensure the benchmarks for successful criteria and post-mortem evaluation after ship. And such principles provide the architectonic framework for feature evolution and upcoming iterations in a thoughtful, coordinated manner. Mike Kruzeniski’s clear articulation of the Windows Phone 7 design principles is an excellent reference for this point.

More truths coming soon…!

One Reply to “Fundamental design truths (part 1)”

  1. Great article Uday! Everyone seeks the perfect design. However, in that quest, no one realizes that there is a lot of compromise and trade-offs to meet the constraints.
    Very well thought out and on the spot!

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