Design topics that interest me

These are topics I think about often. They’re ordered by when I became interested.

Generalisation and specialisation

Some people dabble in everything and some try to focus on something. There are advantages to both. Scott Berkun says that ”if there is a fight between generalists and specialists, the generalists usually win”. David Epstein’s book Range argues in favour of generalists. Note that Cedric Chin doesn’t think the book is worth your time.

Simplicity

The designer Per Mollerup says that “simplicity is the ultimate design factor”. Everyone likes simplicity. I like it enough to write a book about it. Kenya Hara suggests that simplicity is more popular now because people don’t need to prove themselves to others with ornamentation.

Systems

A design is systematic if it strictly follows its own rules. Swiss design is often a good example of this. It often results in beautiful but functional design. Systematic design is rational, consistent, coherent. As Massimo Vignelli says, “the consistency of a design is provided by the appropriate relationship of the various syntactical elements of the project”.

Constraints

A constraint is a limit on your design work. For example, you only use one colour. Constraints encourage creative solutions and make good visual design easier, to name two advantages.

The studio Experimental Jetset says that if you only use one typeface it “demands a certain discipline, a skillful precision, a focus on the finer details.” The designer Colin Forbes notes that “one of the reasons [a 17th century book] looks so elegant is because of the restrictions: there was only one typeface … all you could do was play with sizes, italics, and so forth.”

Details

Massimo Vignelli says that “every detail is important because the end result is the sum of all the details involved in the creative process”. All people seem to appreciate attention to detail. Julie Zhuo says that attention to detail makes people feel “like the folks who built this cared about them”.

Relevant knowledge outside UX design

What can architecture, graphic design, industrial design, and other related fields teach UX designers?

What is a good designer?

Every time I ask designers to define what a “good designer” is, they won’t do it. I can’t resist that sort of mystery. I found some definitions and put them on my blog.

Mapping design

It should be possible to map out every topic in a given field of design. I’ve tried to do this with my visual design syllabus.

Novelty

Novelty attracts attention. This concept is especially important in advertising. You might have heard that you should “zig while others zag”. It also applies to visual design. Some designers stand out because they make something novel. Often this starts a trend. Then it becomes normal. This is closely related to fashion. It is the opposite of timelessness. It is said that “nothing dulls faster than the cutting edge”.

Variety

One of the major causes of “boring” is a lack of variety. This is closely related to novelty. This is important in visual design: one way to make something look interesting is to add visual variety. Our eyes enjoy visual variety. Variety makes our memories more interesting.

Tacit and explicit knowledge

Some knowledge is tacit. This means that it is hard for one person to pass it on to another person. It’s difficult to write down. Read this series on Common Cog if you want to learn more. Big chunks of visual design knowledge is tacit. New designers can find it hard to learn.

Noticing

A good designer must notice things. The design studio iA wrote an essay about this and called it “learning to see”. They say that “by observing great examples of design with your own eyes, attempting to duplicate them with your own hand, you will feel, see, and eventually understand the invisible lines behind a great product at a deeper and deeper level”.

Craftspersonship

Some things are designed in a way that makes people use the word ”craft”. What is it that separates these objects from others which don’t get that label?

Quality

Most topics I explore seem to link back to quality. It’s an abstract concept, which interests me even more.

Proof of quality

How can a designer prove that they’re a good designer, to everyone?

Can big software be well-designed?

I have a theory that it’s impossible to maintain good design as software gets bigger. This means that quality is only possible in the long term if we keep our software small.