Design and Literature
Great works of literature are powerful for their ability to touch people’s lives. We often go ‘Aha!’ at the ability of great authors to precisely portray experiences that we can relate to, as though they had known our lives well. We find that in their stories they have used just the right words, used just the right metaphor to capture something we had experienced but had no words for. And in some cases they invent whole new idioms or metaphors, or new ways of seeing our old experiences. Besides, they have a wide appeal: the same great works of literature are read and appreciated around the world, across cultures.
I would like to think of great designs this way. They are those that make us go ‘Aha! Now here is an experience I can grasp, that I can relate to, and use — as though it knows me well.’ They would be understood and used by people around the world. Moreover, they would have carefully considered details, some of which would surprise us again and again, like the wry lines of a brilliant author.
Alan Moore, the author of genre-changing graphic novels such as V for Vendetta and Watchmen, talks about good writing as luring readers into alleys and then giving them a sound thrashing — a strong, memorable experience that leaves a mark on them. Putting it less violently, one might say that works of literature (and therefore art) draw people towards them by means of words and experiences they are familiar with, and thereafter into new experiences (or new ways of looking at old experiences) by which they feel enriched, and learn something new in the process.
Experiencing great designs make us feel the same way. There are some things about such products and interfaces that you intuitively grasp, and it is as if they intuitively grasp your intended course of action. Part of a new device or experience draws on symbols and actions you are familiar with, and thereafter a part delivers a whole new way of using and experiencing it.
Jony Ive, Apple’s design chief is known to think about his designs in terms of metaphors that users could relate to from their lives. He designed the lid of the old Apple MessagePadwith a top-flip (rather than a sliding or sideways hinge that raised a left-side versus right-side problem depending on cultural norms) so that it was a more universal metaphor –of the stenographer’s notepad. The latchless lid of the PowerBook G4 was a delightful touch, the design equivalent of an insight fully witty phrase.
Now, one could think of Ive’s work as user-centric design. Yes, but he has strongly been opposed to focus groups and such. He considers it the work of a team of designers to think through the process – about advanced material, technology and about user’s needs and desires, use-environment, all that — and come up with a great solution. Others have also come to recognize that a mere quasi-scientific type of user-centrism cannot drive design forward. See Cennydd Bowles’ comments on UI design in Looking Beyond User-centered Design and Jared M. Spool in 5 Design Decision Styles.
The creative spirit of design then is best captured by a combination of design decision-making styles. Additionally, it might be good to remember that great works of literature have given us memorable experiences by a combination of acute observation, empathy and imagination. Not by relying on social-science surveys. Likewise, then, great design?
The Spirit of Design is in Daring
One of the many interesting comments following the Bowles piece we referred to in the previous post (Design/ Metaphor/ Literature) was on the rationale for systematic, almost scientific User-Centric Design. Steve G. writes that UCD is linked historically to human factors engineering that arose out of aviation psychology during the second World War. He argues:
‘In the field of human factors engineering, genius and self design are often not options as people’s lives can be at stake. Research is necessary. We may be able to create an iphone/android app that thousands … will download and enjoy. If they don’t find everything we want them to find or make some mistakes we’ll just fix that in the next release after they give a bad rating.’
Given that genius or self-design does require research, let us assume that the author is using the term to mean empirical, scientific studies with sample populations, laboratory testing, etc. The implication is that since it is a life and death question, it is ultimately the scientific approach that can be relied upon for design. This apparently guards against the uncertainty that the other approaches risk.
Probably the same risk-aversion leads businesses to demand ‘hard data,’ subjecting design questions to far more repetitive, long-drawn and quantitative (‘scientific’) research than designers may like. Douglas Bowman, who was Google’s first visual designer, refers to an illustrative incident: A designer’s choice of blue for a toolbar was contested by a product manager on the grounds that statistically more users were likely to prefer another shade of blue. And eventually they were testing 41 shades of blue for a toolbar. The NY times reasoned that since toolbar clicks translated into revenue streams, this probably made sense.
Bowman, who describes himself as a ‘classically trained designer,’ encountered more problems there. He found the reliance on just data, the elimination of subjectivity, and risk-avoidance quite limiting. He writes in a post ‘Goodbye, Google’:
‘I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that.’
Bowman left in 2009 to become the creative director at Twitter, which was then a brave new start up. More on that here.
Now, Steve G.’s point was about life and death. But surely, in the case of established companies facing only a question of risking some loss of profit, this reliance on hard data over a designer’s instinct and feeling can kill the spirit of art that informs design.
In contrast, consider an example from automobile design: Mazda’s design language ‘Kodo – the soul of motion,’ led by Ikuo Maeda. Instead of benchmarking the competition to develop the shape of the vehicle, as is the usual practice, Meada’s team tried to first capture the shape of a specific moment: getting clay modellers to abstractly sculpt ‘speed,’ ‘tension’ and being ‘alluring’. It was only when this physical shape was developed — with feeling — that the designers took to their sketchbooks, and further on to computer-modelling and manufacture.
One might say that the spirit of design is in daring. And too much emphasis on hard data might just kill it.