If you follow me on Twitter, you might’ve noticed that I’ve been kinda grumpy about a number of the design articles that have been going around in the past few months. It made me wonder what exactly I’m hoping to get out of my design reading. I realized in the shower today that I’m mostly looking at design writing across three spectra: consistency, fidelity, and determinacy.
The first is fairly straightforward: consistency of thought. Does a consistent thesis or set of theses emerge? This seems basic, but it’s amazing how often design writing fails this test. Very often, design writing will contradict itself just a few sentences later. I think some designers think of themselves more as artists than inventors, and shy away from any notions that box design in. (Related: I think this has led to a bloating of what comprises the domain of design. Not everything is a design problem. If it were, then design would cease to be a useful term.)
The second is the fidelity of the idea. Maxims like “good design is unobtrusive” might be true in nearly all cases, but a statement so broad is bound to have exceptions. A counter-example here is a stop sign, where obtrusion is the whole point. A higher fidelity restatement of the maxim could include a principle defining such exceptions. I’m not suggesting that’s what Rams should have said — it wouldn’t be nearly as catchy. And that’s the important thing: there is no intrinsic quality associated with an idea’s level of fidelity. It’d just be a substantially different maxim if it were phrased like, “Good design is unobtrusive, every single time, seriously every time, SERIOUSLY NO EXCEPTIONS.”
Finally, the determinacy of the idea. Is the idea useful? Does it convert to practice and how well? “Good design is unobtrusive” is true in, say, 99% of all cases. But how about “Good design is as little design as possible”? I’d say this is true much less often. Consider software meant for working professionals, where edge cases can really matter. That said, an idea that bears fruit 70% of the time can still be useful.
Generally, you can increase the determinacy of an idea by increasing the fidelity — but that’s not always true. You can think of fidelity and determinacy as dampeners: they won’t make an idea better, but they determine how and when the idea can be deployed in practice.
I didn’t write this to call anyone out. Rather, I wanted to sort out what I look for so that I may be sharper with my own writing.