Five Principles to Design By

Five high-level principles that guide my design.

1. Technology Serves Humans.

Too often people blame themselves for the shortcomings of technology. When their computer crashes, they say “I must have done something dumb”. If a web site is poorly designed, they say “I must be stupid. I can’t find it”. They might even turn to a book for Dummies to get it right.

This is horrible! People should never feel like a failure when using technology. Like the customer, the user is always right. If software crashes, it is the software designer’s fault. If someone can’t find something on a web site, it is the web designer’s fault. This doesn’t mean that the designer has to hang their head in shame…they should see this as a learning opportunity! The big difference between good and bad designers is how they handle people struggling with their design.

Technology serves humans. Humans do not serve technology.

2. Design is not Art.

Art is about personal expression. It is about the life, the emotions, the thoughts and ideas of the artist. It matters very little what observers do, their activity is not required, only their appreciation. The practice of Art doesn’t require them. It is a necessary activity for the artist, and the artist alone.

Design, on the other hand, is about use. The designer needs someone to use (not only appreciate) what they create. Design doesn’t serve its purpose without people to use it. Design helps solve human problems. The highest accolade we can bestow on a design is not that it is beautiful, as we do in Art, but that it is well-used.

Unlike Art, Design is always contextual. It matters when a design was created because of the context of its use: what problem is it supposed to solve? And for whom? At what point in time? This is why design is so related to technology, because technology changes so quickly, so must our designs. A design that worked ten years ago might not even be worth considering today. History is littered with wonderful designs that are no longer necessary.

Great Art, on the other hand, is always in style. We appreciate Michelangelo’s David even though we could recreate a million of them because it was the toil and expression of a single man. That will never fade. Great Design is dependent upon the age in which it is made and the problem which it is meant to solve. But not Art. Art is timeless.

The litmus test. When people enjoy Art, they say “I like that”. When people enjoy Design, they say “That works well”. This is not by accident. Good Design is something that works well.

3. The Experience Belongs to the User.

Designers do not create experiences, they create artifacts to experience. This subtle distinction makes all the difference, as it places the designer at the service of the user, and not the other way around. This doesn’t rule out innovation, it doesn’t prevent a designer to leap beyond what is accepted as state-of-the-art. It just means that the experience of a design doesn’t happen simply because the designer says it does, it happens when a user actually reports it.

The ultimate experience is something that happens in the user, and it is theirs. They own it.

4. Great Design is Invisible.

An interesting property of great design is that it is taken for granted. It works so well that we forget that creative effort was involved to bring it about. Sometimes, like with the lowly spoon, the object is so simplistic that it seems obvious, and we disregard that at one point in history it wasn’t. Other times, like with the automobile, the object is so sophisticated yet easy-to-use that we’re blinded to the fact that millions and millions of human-hours went into getting it to this point. That’s a shame…every great design has a rich history. And every design has behind it a designer or designers who tried to make the world a better place by solving some problem or another.

Bad design is obvious because it hurts to use. It is awkward, difficult, and complex. In a great irony of the world, bad design is much easier to see than good design. It raps us on the head like a bully. Because of its success, great design is often invisible.

5. Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication.

As Saint Exupery said, “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when
there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” Simplicity is treading a line: knowing what to keep and what to throw away…it comes across as magic when it works, because none of the complexity is transferred to users…only simplicity. That is the highest achievement for a designer.

Published: March 5th, 2007