Changes in the Wind, Part 2: Design Advice

Note: This is the second post in a three-part series. Part 1 discusses advice for leaders and Part 3 is for developers.

Continuing along in my story as I transition away from my role as “Implementation Team Leader” for Delta Defense, I have for you today some maxims for better design. If you’re already a designer or interested in becoming one these will help you refine your craft as you move along. If you’re not a designer these will help you better understand the design world. No matter who you are, I think this will be of value to you in some way. That said, let’s get started!

1. Your job is not to make things look pretty.

Your job is to take complex ideas and directions and distill them into the simplest, clearest easy-to-understand form. It is rarely an easy task, and it is almost always one that will require multiple iterations to accomplish successfully. Before you begin a design you should determine the most important aspects of what you’re trying to communicate. Then, see if there is anything that does NOT need to be communicated in the place you’ve been asked to show it. Once you’ve established what is most important and what is least important you will be able to devote correct levels of emphasis to them in your design.

2. It’s always the difference that makes the difference.

The little details matter the most, so you should go to great lengths in order to make sure they’re perfect. Expect the final 10% of any design to take just as much time as the first 90%. In the end, being mindful of the smallest details will make all of the larger pieces look and work better, creating a better experience for the end-user.

It’s important to pay just as close attention to the details of a project request as you do to project’s design, too. Follow each instruction carefully and always question your assumptions, asking the requester about their intentions before plowing forward. This will help prevent several errors and will almost certainly save you from extra work long-term.

3. Less is not more, Less is better.

A design is not finished when you have nothing left to add, but when you have nothing left to take away. The less you put in your communications, the more important each individual element in that communication becomes. Because of this, things that are communicated with less also communicate most effectively. It’s easier to take-in what they have to say, and it’s easier to follow their hierarchy and emphasis. Less is always better.

4. Beware the paradox of choice!

We, as humans, desire to flex our fundamental right to choose. We enjoy having choices. We want to have choices. Never is this more true than in the realm of design. You’ve already experienced this, and you’ll never cease requests for, “Please show us X to Y options so we can decide.”

I encourage you to always push back against that. Always tell the requester that they don’t need 5 options to decide, they only need one. The only reason you should make more than one design is (i) because you are dissatisfied with the looks of your first creation or (ii) the project warrants multiple variants for testing. Invest more of yourself into making one thing that is really good instead of five things that are mediocre. Always use that as your argument. If they don’t like the first draft, revisit it and make more based on feedback. Whenever you can avoid it, though, never start with more than one option.

The truth is that choice creates for decision paralysis. We no longer see something as “this is what it should be” and instead start wondering, “How many other things can it be? Are any of those other options better than the one I’ve chosen?”. In fact, here’s a great video on the paradox of choice

5. Never underestimate the importance of whitespace.

This last tip serves as a general reminder that it’s easier to communicate a level of importance for various elements by giving them the most space. It also underscores that less is better. Any time you’re asked to add a circle, or arrow, or highlight, or anything else to draw attention to what should be the most important piece of a design… first ask yourself: what can I remove or reposition in order to make it more clear that this is the most important part? Arrows, circles, highlights, etc are all great ways to further emphasize something, but the best way is to eliminate other things that are in the way.

What have we learned?

I cannot emphasize enough that design’s purpose is NOT to make things pretty. The purpose of design is to make things usable. A happy side-effect of useful design is that things generally look prettier than before they’re designed. If you remember nothing else, I hope you can remember that. If you start with what’s most important, subtract all the things that aren’t, and push forward from there you’ll be ahead of most people who start the other way around.

Do you have any advice?

I’d love to hear it! Share it with me and other readers in the comments below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *