Tag Archives: design

Courtesy Of Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd wright, fallingwater, mill run, pennsylvania, 1936-9

Frank Lloyd wright, fallingwater, mill run, pennsylvania, 1936-9

How two weeks at Fallingwater changed my perspective on Nature.

Back in 2010, I had the pleasure of spending two weeks studying at Fallingwater through the High School Residency Program. It was my first, real immersion in the world of architecture, and looking back, it may have well been the best thing for me as a designer. I came to the program a clean slate, knowing nothing about design in general, and I came out of it purely under the influence of Wright’s work. Even today I find myself severely influenced by the philosophies Fallingwater holds.

Fallingwater is the man-made, physical embodiment of what Wright liked to call, “the ultimate religion: Nature with a capital N.” Being the epitome of harmony between man and Nature, Fallingwater upholds the strongest belief in organic architecture. By being built on a waterfall, the house does not just exist in space — it cooperates with it.

Wright defied critics during his decision to place the house on the waterfall rather than simply near it — thus allowing his work to be directly affected by Nature.

The program changed my perspective on Nature completely. Surprisingly enough, I’m beginning to find my designs increasingly Wright-esque and organically inclined. As an architect, especially one studying in Phoenix, where sustainability is one of the biggest concerns, I try to be as inspired by Nature as possible.

However, it is not only the sustainability aspect we should be striving for — it is how our designs fit within our Natural space. Fallingwater is an excellent example of just how delicate architecture can be with Nature. From the exterior, locally quarried stone walls and cantilevered terraces bear a resemblance to, but do not entirely copy, the neighboring rock foundations. This, along with the sounds of the waterfall, create a soothing, natural rhythm within the house.

The interior.

From the interior, the broad expanses of the windows essentially frame the surrounding art that Nature provides. The wax on the stone flooring creates a wet look, while the pure stone walls create a sense of dry rock — thus producing the effect of being in a creek.

Fallingwater is a direct reflection of the philosophies held by Frank. His most inspirational force, above everything else, was Nature. By strictly focusing on Nature, he believed he could reveal the truth behind it, and somehow blend it into his designs. In fact, he told the Kaufmanns, his clients, that he wanted them to live within the waterfall. Frank had an idea for them to make the falls part of their home — and essentially part of their lives.

Fallingwater is one of the strongest examples of how architecture can benefit Nature, architects, interior designers, and artists in general, and I am beginning to appreciate the relationship between man and Nature, courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature — it will never fail you.” — Frank Lloyd Wright

Further Reading

What is Fallingwater?

 — Fallingwater is the name of a very special house that is built over a waterfall. Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most famous architect, des…

Arts Curriculum

 — “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.” Wright’s love and appreciation of nature began early in his life while working summers on his…

Written by

Writer at heart, amateur at best. defunk@asu.edu


Recommended Graphic Design / Branding Books

A list of the best 7 graphic design / branding books that I read last year.

This article was originally published on my blog.

Over the last year I’ve read 17 books about graphic design, marketing and branding (I also read books on drawing, comic books and some fictions but maybe they shouldn’t be included in this post). That is quite an achievement to me considering the minimal free time I had.

Looking back, I’ve found these seven books very worth reading. Some of them are short, fast reads such as It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be or Steal like an artist, while some are thick and require re-reading, like Brand Gap or Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. But when it comes to books, size doesn’t really matter. What matters most is how much I’ve learned and actually implement it.

In no particular order, here are the seven recommended graphic design / branding books along with notable quotes:

It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be

  • How good do you want to be: quite good, good, very good, the best in your field, or the best in the world? It’s not how good you are. It’s how good you want to be.
  • We all want to be good, but do you want to be the best in your field or the best in the world? Talent helps, but it won’t take you as far as ambition. Everybody wants to be good, but not many are prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to be great. Be great!
  • Don’t look for the next opportunity. The one you have in hand is the opportunity.
  • If you get stuck, draw with a different pen.

The Brand Gap

  • A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product service or organization. It’s not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is. Marketing today is about creating tribes. Using a brand identifies who you are.
  • Framework for better-branding: Differenciation, Collaboration, Innovation, Validation & Cultivation (The reason the Beatles were wildly successful is because “They never did same thing once.”).
  • The Swap test is a proof for trademarks. The Hand test is a proof for a distinctive voice.
  • Seven criteria of a good name: Distinctiveness, Brevity, Appropriateness, Easy spelling and pronunciation, Likability, Extendibility and Protectability.

Popular Lies About Graphic Design

  • “Apple has a good graphic design.”
  • “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” (If the designer has done their job, you should absolutely be able to do this.)
  • “Don’t have a style / You need a style.”
  • “Helvetica is neutral. Comic Sans is the worst typeface ever created.”
  • “It’s an urgent brief.”

Logo Design Love

  • The art of being a successful designer is to be four years ahead of the general public.
  • Becoming a good designer is directly related to one’s curiosity and willingness to work. If you keep asking questions and deliberately practicing your craft, you get better. It’s that simple.
  • The real challenge of graphic design: finding common ground between you and your client in order to solve a visual problem.

How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul

  • One attribute needed by the modern designer: Cultural Awareness. In order to connect to anyone, to make anything relevant to anyone else, you need to know what’s going on in the world around you.
  • Creativity equation:
    risk + discomfort + sweat (+/- inspiration) = creativity
  • The moment we think—hey, I’m good, is the moment we get hit by the ricocheting bullet of ordinariness. Ouch.

Steal Like an Artist

  • You are the sum of your influences. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.
  • Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
  • The secret: do good work and share it with people.
  • Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing.
  • Collect books. Nothing is more important than an unread library.

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits

  • A brand is a promise of what you can expect if you use the product or service. It’s a form of affiliation, or a form of identification—a form of status. If a brand is making a promise that you’re going to feel better about yourself if you buy it, they’re making a false promise.
  • Branding is the process of attaching an idea to some object, or to a service or organization.
  • If you are going to create something that is truly a breakthrough, you have to rely on your intuition and your judgment. Trying to get people to tell you what will work tomorrow is useless.

Note: A Designer’s Art by Paul Rand is also one of my favorites, but I didn’t include it in this list. I’m saving the book for another post as the amount of knowledge that I gain from that book is enormous.

What graphic design / branding books do you recommend? Do you have a yearly reading goal?

Written by

Keira is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. She loves books, ice cream and perfection.


Best Designs of 2013 – In My Opinion

Every day designers are creating and coming up with ideas and it can be overwhelming to witness it all. I have chosen not only the best designs, but the most inspirational in my work as a designer.

Best Album Art Cover

Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady

There is an enormous amount of talent in album covers this year. It was ultimately hard to choose one that felt unique and timeless. The Electric Lady illustrated by Sam Spratt showcases the cyborg elements that connects well with the overall sci-fi music vibe. What is most remarkable is the attention to detail to the lighting and shadow effects that make it photorealistic considering the references were photos of different angles of her.

Best Product Design

Nest Protect

I find Nest to be an underrated company when it comes to product design. With corporate giants like Apple’s Mac Pro and Sony’s Playstation 4, there is little room of finding a niche design in an unappreciated market. The nest protect is exactly what every home needs and built into a elegant and simple design that does what it needs to — save your life.

Best Video Game Art Cover

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

This year in video game art covers disappointing to say the least. This probably due to the next generation consoles came out just a few months ago. Ubisoft’s Far Cry series struck gold with Fry Cry 3 last December which expanded to Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. There is a “It’s so bad it’s good” approach. The use of neon purple-ish pink and Tron art style fits the outrages story of the title. None-the-less, The dinosaur makes it badass.

Best App Design


Apple’s app of the year is also my best design of the year. Not only is it free and features no ads, it is hands down, the best language learning tool. The simple UI as it guides you down their branches, it is very simple to learn the correct word of the language. Doesn’t hurt that I love their logo of the green owl that brings character as he guides you through the experience.

Best Web Design


Another day, another amazing website has been developed. RedRain created by Rain is a beautiful crafted online portfolio and I will admit that I am a sucker for the trendy parallax designs. What seperates from the rest is wonderful color palette that creates a memorable experience. The subtle animations in Rain’s portfolio gives it another depth that brings the imagery to life and is certainly inspirational.

Best Message in Advertising Design

Stop Texting and Driving

Often I feel the marketing direction of messages fail miserably when it comes to preventing accidents, but not this ad. The surprisingly easy readability on a billboard sign speaks volumes on why texting while driving is harmful and hopefully has saved life in the process.

Best Magazine Cover Design

Bloomberg Businessweek

Say what you want about the healthcare website, but the incorporation of combining digital UI with print works extremely well since print is often described as “dying medium”. The Designer Richard Turley features simplistic designs gets the message across effortlessly.

Best Logo

Mall of America

I am disappointed in this years new logos. Nothing felt like it was raising the bar or innovating. But, what I did like was Mall of America logo designed by Duffy & Partners. The assortment of colors is beautiful and intelligently placed together and a solid typeface as well.

Best Redesign

iOS 7

Whether you love it or hate it, the design of iOS7 took the design industry by storm. Out with the skephorism in with flat design. I could go on about why flat design is perfect for iOS, and know it’s been done before, But I will also acknowledge that it is not perfect. The inconsistency of UI and content is often confusing as well as certain gestures are left for the user to figure out on their own. It’s bold, it’s colorful, (Even though why Jony Ive allows the ugly grey color in spots) and it will only improve in the future.

Best Movie Poster


Not revolutionary by any means, could it be better? Of course, but it captures the essence of what Gravity is about.

Written by

A passionate Graphic Design student at Pacific Lutheran University. @NickMichaelMann


10 Ways to Create Better Things

How many times have you seen a killer piece of art, a fresh design or a video that breaks all the rules (and still works) and found yourself jealous for not creating it yourself? If there’s one universal among creatives it’s this: We all have an insatiable desire to create better things. We want to push ourselves beyond our current boundaries in skill and talent to become stronger designers.

With that in mind, here are ten ways to challenge yourself as a creative to design better things or, in the words of Neil Gaiman, “Make good art.”

1. Be Your Best (or Worst) Critic. Evaluate your work. Be willing to throw away good design to pursue the best. Don’t settle for done. Also, don’t worry about the time you feel you’ve wasted in an unsuccessful project. That time is valuable. Which leads me to me next point.

2. Fail Better. Samuel Beckett once said, “Fail. Fail again. Fail Better.” If you don’t make mistakes how will you ever make anything of value? Want to create better things? Get cozy with failure. Make him/her your friend.

3. Always tell a story. Stephen Brewster says, “Really good creative pieces are sticky, tell stories, and carry the conversation beyond the reach of the creator.” If your design doesn’t move those who view it, chances are it’s not telling a compelling–or sticky–story. You have an amazing story to tell; do your best to make it just as compelling (from whatever angle) in your artwork.

4. Find What Moves You. Be careful not to distance your designs from real life. In a recent article for Entrepreneur magazine, Bruce Mau says, “The difference between great design and design that misses the mark is empathy–the ability to make the human connection.” Find out what moves you and embed that emotion into your design. Make the human connection one of your design filters and you will grow as a creative.

5. Be Disciplined. Don’t fall for the myth of inspiration. Creativity is hard work. Anything worth it’s salt in design will probably have a long trail of pain, frustration, passion and pursuit. But the journey is worth it.
6. Break the Right Rules. It’s good to remind yourself that sometimes the rules of design are meant to be broken. If you find yourself at a creative roadblock try painting outside the lines. Get out of your creative comfort zone, stop using your go-to tricks and do the unexpected.

7. Challenge Yourself with New Mediums. Paul Arden once said, “If you get stuck, draw with a different pen.” If you want to grow as a creative, the need to expand your skills on new platforms is essential. This takes time and can be extremely challenging and complex but creating on a new medium will make you a better artist.

8. Study the Best. As a creative Ernest Hemingway studied the best writers and tried to defeat them at their strengths. He was cocky at times, but his goal was to beat every writer, living or dead, at their craft. Seek to be the best at what you do. Be competitive. Don’t be a wimp. (Don’t be a jerk either, but you get the idea.)

9. Make art that creates a conversation. Joel Lunenfeld, VP of Global Brand Strategy at Twitter, has often said, “The conversation is the canvas.” This is true for Twitter, but it’s also a solid concept to keep in mind when creating good art. Good art should provide space to extend the conversation, not end it.

10. Join the Community. Break the stereotype for creatives that says we like to work alone. Joining a community of creatives like will give you an outlet to share your work, view what others are doing and engage in the conversation. Commit yourself to a creative community. Be vulnerable. Share your work. Grow.

Written by

Magazine and web editor. On mission to discover the best stories, trends and voices to inspire you— @mbrianorme


“You Would Make a Good Product Manager!”

Being a PM doesn’t mean you get to do everything.

I was at the Grace Hopper conference a few weeks ago, sitting at a table with some students who were looking for advice for post-graduation careers. One of the girls got really excited after I said I was a product manager at a startup. Her friend didn’t know what being a product manager meant, but mentioned that she was studying computer science, but really loved user experience design. The first girl popped up and said, “you would make a good product manager!”

I hear this often, whenever someone has a computer science background but also has strong interests in design or business. There are 2 sides to this sentence.

First, the positive: It’s only recently that the term “product manager” has filtered down into colleges as a career path. I had never heard of a product manager while I was in college (class of ‘11), and neither had a lot of my friends. It was one of those careers that you found out about only after you’d already signed an offer and joined the tech workforce. For it to be surfacing in college now to this degree is great and shows how popular the career has become. It’s great for people with computer science backgrounds but who want more influence, more problem solving at a business level, and to manage the creation of a product from beginning to end.

Now, the caveat: People tend to confuse their own uncertainty about a future career with the actual desire to wear many hats and work cross-functionally. Product management is an easy career to prescribe to people because it is so nebulous and varies so greatly across companies. One of the biggest misconceptions around the profession is that you will do work in multiple departments (engineering, UX/UI, marketing, business strategy). That’s not true for most cases. You’ll be communicating and negotiating with each of these departments within a company, but you won’t be doing the real work that these people have trained hard to do. You probably won’t be designing the UI of a product unless it’s a fledgling startup, in beta, or design just isn’t a company priority. You probably won’t be writing code or press releases unless there is an emergency (or, you’re at a tiny startup).

Your job is to essentially organize people around an idea and persuade them that they want to work on it. Then you coordinate everyone’s work to ensure the right product gets built, helping out wherever you can along the way. You’re a conductor — you need to know how music is made, but you don’t get to play any of the instruments. The true nature of your work is a hub function, and by definition that means you are one degree away from the actual work being done.

When the job is laid out in that perspective, not everyone runs towards it. I’ve heard a lot of people get pulled in by the visions of power, influence, leadership, scope of work… and are turned off by the core fact that you do not directly own any of the work being done. Do your research and make sure it’s what you want to do — don’t mistake your own confusion or desire to do multiple things with an aspiration for product management. That said, being a PM is awesome and I highly recommend it, if you know what you’re getting into. ;)

Edit: A lot of people have asked me what the difference is between a project manager and a product manager. At the risk of overgeneralizing, a project manager is responsible for process, a product manager is responsible for results. There’s also a lot of indirect work a product manager does, including customer feedback, competitive analysis, measuring impact post-launch, turning their vision into a roadmap… the list goes on. What I described in the post above is more of the day-to-day interactions you go through.

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Work :( – Work :) balance

Time will make you money, but no amount of money can buy you time.

A month ago I got home from work in the early hours of the morning, another night where an idea for a pitch snowballed only to be stopped by a lack of coffee and the realisation that we needed to return to the studio in a few hours. Walking through the door drained of what it took to produce meaningful design I had another few hours of work ahead of me, work I took on in good faith, work I was reluctant to do (and this was before the nonsensical amends), work that seemed to drain me of any passion after the day I thought I’d left behind at the studio.

I then sent an impulsive, tired tweet – something I normally try to avoid but this time it felt justified.

New rule: Take on no work unless I would be willing to do it for free 

This didn’t mean I was going to start working for free, but everything I chose to take on outside the studio, outside the work I had limited control of, I would only give my time to projects that excited me, that I’d be desperate to contribute to.

I didn’t take myself seriously in the slightest when I first wrote this, I put it down to frustration and tiredness. Then the emails came in, more than any normal day as if it were a test. I found it surprisingly easy to consistently turn down work, it was refreshing – surprisingly refreshing – I’d been awake for only a few hours and it felt like a huge weight had been lifted.

Moving forward two weeks, I fully regained my passion for design. I didn’t have any freelance work on at all – before this would bother me but now I had time, I’d get home from work and read Offscreen from cover to cover, I redesigned my own site, I started learning code to build it myself and I finally stared writing – all things I put off doing for an eternity.

Most importantly I actually started designing again instead of just getting things done. I worked on personal projects, I helped people out on products I actually believed in with well thought out user centred design. I was finally designing for the person again, not for the persons money. I have nothing against marketing but there’s a gulf in making someone want to buy something and making them love using something.

And now, a month of having this new rule change a lot of how I live my life, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to people I’ve always admired in design, the requests for freelance work have turned into job opportunities around the world. The most surprising change of all was how it’s refreshed my work in the studio. Where I was once drained and couldn’t see any benefit in the work I was creating, I now seem to be able to pull the benefits out of everything, creating effective solutions and learning from what used to paralyse my design thinking.

This isn’t a tale of how everything in my life has suddenly fallen into place, I’m no expert on work-life balance and I can admittedly fall into the trap working too hard, too often. Following this process has made design a lot more addictive and walking away for the evening is extremely tough when you care. Throughout this process I’ve been lucky that I have a solid job and been surrounded by amazing people. The circumstances may be that most aren’t in a situation where they can implement this idea, but if you feel like I did, like your career had turned into a job and you want that career back, that love you once had, the passion, the determination to be better. Start working hard on the things you want to work hard on and the rest will come.

Written by

Pixel Whisperer @BannisterChris

Updated June 2, 2013


Creating unfriendly interfaces

Recently I worked on a project that included a personal profile as part of the UI on a certain view. Essential to this profile was, among other things, a headshot of the person profiled. The customer directed me to generally aim for an iOS 7-like interface to replace the existing non-mobile-friendly early and very outdated — almost default IE styling — user interface.

This seemed pretty straightforward. I styled things in a fashion similar to iOS 7, albeit with the aim to specifically avoid being too tied to that design, as the project was a Web app that would be used by people of all technological persuasions. When it came time to do the profile photo, I went along with the now ubiquitous circle design that nicely suited the flat (sic) design aesthetic that had been devised.

Overall, the app looked beautiful. I certainly expected some critical feedback during the first demo to the business owners and was prepared to both defend some decisions made as well as accept others, as is usual. However, I was more than a bit surprised by what the business owners almost unanimously felt was the primary problem with the design. It was not the colors, the white space, the flat aesthetic, or even the behaviors. And it was not the labels and other text that all too often clients get bogged down in when reviewing a design. No, their number one concern, one which they made clear had to be changed, was the circular profile photo.

It made the person in the photo appear too nice.

Yup, that’s right. The customer did not want people using this application to feel good about the person in the photo. On the contrary, they wanted a very neutral reaction from users, and were even willing to go with a negative reaction rather than one that in any way felt positive.

Why? Simple. The application was a tool to be used by federal officers and managers to search for and find out information about people who had been released from federal prison post-conviction and were still under some form of federal supervision because of the nature of their crimes.

Even though the business owners spoke of these ex-cons as “clients” in the course of their work, in truth the public is their client and these former offenders are viewed by the business owners and the application users as a possible threat to public safety. Consequently, they want their officers and others to always remember the threat these people pose. To that end, they have no desire for the application to in any way conflict with this by presenting the ex-cons in a positive light.

From where I sat, I hadn’t considered this. I was thinking about iOS 7-like design trends and making the whole thing look beautiful, as was my charge. I entirely forgot that this design aesthetic was created intentionally to elicit positive feelings generally. The use of its style on the ex-con photos did just that, which only goes to show how well Apple did in achieving its purpose to create a friendly OS.

For a few moments I sought to challenge the opinions openly expressed during the business owner meeting. My gut reaction was that they simply didn’t get what I was trying to accomplish, but the truth is that I didn’t get what they were trying to accomplish.

In the end, I listened and created a less appealing, but far more non-positive-feeling square profile photo. This pleased my customer.

The lessons learned here are classic ones for UX designers. First, listen to your customers. Second, not every element of a design works in all cases. Third, just because your customer cannot or does not know exactly what they want at first does not mean they don’t know it when they see it. And finally, UX is powerful. It is very powerful.

I was not upset in the end. In fact, I know that had they not seen a more friendly profile photo none of us would have realized how important it was to ensure that the photo did not impart a positive reaction in the users of the app.

I created a prototype. They reacted. I understood and responded. The client was happy. That’s how it should be.

Written by

UX Designer + Director. Sometimes I write stuff.

Is design a part of mainstream startup culture now? Absolutely.

GigaOm’s Roadmap Conference opened yesterday with a clear message from Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom  — “some of the biggest services in the world started off with really simple problems.” The day’s themes were around focussing your product, going deep on user experience, empowering meaningful, high-quality content, and embracing design as a way of running your startup. It was an inspired roster of speakers and a promising outlook for the role of design in startups.

Focus Your Product + Go Deep on User Experience

Kickstarter’s Perry Chen talked to their team’s desire to stay small and focussed saying, “We want to do great things, but we want to stay small. To stay committed to the one thing that we do well. To shape the experience around this one thing that we’re committed to.” Similarly, Evan Williams shared that the goal of Medium, a product aimed at re-inventing publishing, “isn’t to reach the entire world; it’s to create depth of value.” And the strict focus and product experience was echoed even further by Systrom. “Once products become really popular,” he said, “there’s a tendency to expand into additional verticals. But I decided really early that what we were going to do instead is take what we have and go really deep on the user experience. What can we do to make this experience superlative? What can we do to shave off load time? We believe that user experience is what makes people come back to the product again and again.”

The startup community has matured. “You’re going to have the smartest people in the world working as hard as they can, competing at every corner of the industry,” Williams said. So stay focused on your core mission and go deep.

Empower creators of high quality content.

Malik spoke to one of the major pain points of the internet — there’s simply too much information out there and not enough context. Twitter’s main API, for example, is called “The Firehose” — and it’s exactly that, a stream of new content with very little context and parsing.

But over the last few years, the shift has been towards the creator. For Instagram, it’s not about consumption, but about participation. During the past week’s hurricane, over 800K photos were tagged #Sandy  — compared to the Super Bowl’s 85K. “You weren’t far away,” Systrom said, “You weren’t watching it on TV. You were participating in real time.” For Kickstarter, their bets are on creators. Chen said that “2% of the population is creators. 60K people have created projects on Kickstarter. And 3,000,000 people have backed a project.” For Medium, they’re betting on the fact that all creators are not created equal. “One of the things we’re trying to go contrary on at Medium is that it’s not always about new,” Williams said. Medium aims to improve quality on the web by empowering those influences who have better stories to tell and better insights to share.

Embrace design as a way of running your startup.

Design’s role in startups has long been misunderstood. AirBnB’s co-founder Joe Gebbia shared that when AirBnB launched in 2008 their founding team of 2 designers and 1 engineer were introduced to 20 investors. And of that group, 10 replied, 3 met them for coffee, and zero invested. “We broke the mold of the traditional founding model for a startup,” Gebbia said. “People had a hard time understanding how a designer from art school could run a successful internet business.”

Zooming out even further, Systrom questioned the very role of design in a startup, asking if designers were even necessary in every company? “No,” he answered, referencing commodity businesses where simply shipping a product at a low cost might be all you need. “But,” he added, “if you decide that user experience is core to your company and if you believe that it can push the way forward, everything from the slides you put up at board meetings to the way you interview people matters.”

AirBnb baked design in from day one — taking the time to design the entire user experience from the maps to the review forms. Warby Parker? Same thing. CEO and co-founder Dave Gilboa thoughtfully discussed that they spent a year and a half designing a beautiful site, thick card stock printed elements in their packaging, and a really polished product. And Medium? They’re competing for designers because, as Williams stated, “they’re no longer a nice-to-have.”

If yesterday’s Roadmap conference is any indication of where the world’s most talented entrepreneurs are betting, it’s on design’s role as an essential element within the startup to create positive impact in the world. More design-savvy companies means more holistic, richer products. More high-quality content means a higher bar for the internet as a whole. And more understanding around the role of design in a startup means that design is no longer something you slap on at the end, but rather, as Williams said, “a part of everything that you do.”

Written by

Designer, Artist and Storyteller. http://elleluna.com


Can Your Users Win?

Designing a product that keeps people engaged requires thinking about how users win and lose

We all like to win. If we lose we might try a few more times but after a while we’ll usually give up. More products should be designed with this in mind.

For me winning is learning and sharing. When I grow up I want to be a professor but in the meantime Quora promised to fill that gap. And it solved a real problem too. Instead of having to come up with a blog post I could share knowledge to a self-selected audience that was literally spelling out what they want to learn. So I set out answering questions. And nothing happened. I got a few upvotes here or there and while I recently became aware of the Views tab (thanks Octav) it wasn’t a rewarding experience. There are people who are winning at Quora but I couldn’t figure it out, so I gave up.

Enter Medium. The promise of delivering your learnings to an audience that cares about quality and design. Sounds like my kinda crowd. I hashed out my first post on a topic that I care about, Communication Design — it felt like an overnight success. Now maybe I got lucky with Medium, or maybe I had more incentive to share the article in all it’s typographical splendour, but I instantly started getting emails saying people had recommended my post. When I logged into my stats I could see people were not just viewing but actually reading my post. It felt good. I felt like I was winning.

Here’s what I learned about these two experiences which you can use to design more engaging products:

  1. Define what “winning” is to your users
    Medium clearly defines winning on it’s stats page with views, reads, and recommendations. These are also things I inherently care about as they align with my own internal definition of “winning” which in this case is teaching.
  2. Design flows that help users get to a point where they “win”
    Medium helps you through constraint, the only features that exist are designed to help you win. They make it easy to create a beautiful post. They help you get feedback by inviting collaborators, who also get to “win” through being recognized. And they make it easy for people to recommend your post.
  3. Give users feedback so they can get better at “winning”
    The stats in Medium promise to help you understand which posts worked and which ones didn’t. Meanwhile, their help documents suggest that the most popular posts are 400 words in length. In the future I hope we’ll see even more guidance on crafting winning content.

Of course this all assumes you know what “winning” means for your customer. If you’re hunting for the answer, try looking at the intersection of your business objective and your user’s needs.

Do you design products? Say hi on Twitter @nikDOTca.
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What Does It Mean to Have a Design Style?

Beyond the buzzwords: what is design style, and what is its purpose in the design process?

The internet is saturated with information on how to follow different design styles and trends. But missing from most of this discussion is a more rigorous definition of design style, its uses and limitations throughout the design process, and how to approach consistency or variability in style for different design work and contexts. (I’ll primarily be focusing on communication design, with a slant towards technology and software interfaces.)

What is design style?

In a historical context, we often mean a visual style localized to a time, place, and purpose—Russian constructivism in the 1920′s, grunge in the 90′s. Many styles take the name of the time period (Victorian), aesthetic movement (Art Deco), or design philosophy (Swiss/International style) that spawned them. A style might also be associated with a certain subculture (e.g. urban street art’s spontaneous, constructed letterforms and frequent pop-culture references).

Posters by designer Armin Hofmann in the Swiss/International style. Images from Flyer Goodness.
Art Deco–style posters by Steve Thomas. The style of the type and the gentle colour gradients are typical of this style.

In a colloquial context, when we talk about a “design style” it’s usually through buzzwords. Grunge. Swiss. Minimalist. Skeuomorphic. Flat. These words are used to describe a whole set of visual conventions and commonalities. Grunge typography can be overlapping, chaotic,exuberant, and use 10 different typefaces on a single poster. This is in opposition to Swiss typography, which is legible, ordered, reserved, and stark in typography.

What does a design style encompass?

Superficially speaking, what we recognize as a “design style” is a set of particular colour harmonies, typefaces, compositional styles…But on a higher level, design styles usually carry with them certain principles of what the goals of design are, and techniques for how to accomplish those goals.

Some of these associations are borne out of clichés; others represent a very real part of the philosophy of that style. Skeuomorphism uses gradients and textures because employing physical metaphors is thought to make things clearer and more usable. Flat design is partly a reaction to skeuomorphic design, and employs flat planes of colour to clear away visual confusion and promote clarity.

Designers often characterize themselves by a fondness for certain styles and a repulsion to others; their work may clearly show a point of view through a consistent set of patterns and tropes.

Products may characterize themselves by having a consistent visual language—Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines for iOS, for example, establish patterns for how menus should look and work, how buttons should be styled, and so on.

The purpose of style

So what’s the purpose of organizing ideas and patterns into distinct visual styles? This is by no means a comprehensive discussion, but I’ll present some reasons below:

Similar principles

When you borrow from certain design styles, it might be because the principles of that style agree with the principles of what you’re designing or how you design. For example—the Swiss International style prioritizes objectivity and readability, so the clean, neutral type might be appropriate for an international, corporate behemoth. Since the style grew out of similar design concerns or issues, the ways in which that style manifests may be the most effective for the situation.

Cultural references

You might also want to use a style to reference a certain time period and philosophy. Advertising that’s intended to produce nostalgia will often borrow design patterns from past decades. Doing this borrows from our collective culture and aesthetic literacy—whether consciously or subconsciously, we recognize certain visual devices as modern or old-fashioned. Political advertising will attempt to convey authority and reliability through a nationalistic colour scheme or certain icons and symbols; anarchist publications might will tap into a sense of rebellion with haphazard, grungy typesetting. Cosmetics companies that want to tout their eco-friendly, organic products will veer towards allusions to nature—in colour and type and imagery.

Political posters for Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign. Using the American flag and White House evokes national imagery and ties Reagan’s image to American icons of power and patriotism; the type is solid and authoritative. Image from a report by Andrew van Alstyne.

Specific styles may also be co-opted as a critique or parody of a particular message—themes from WWII-era propaganda posters being used in contemporary design criticizing current military actions or advocating for peace.

Uniformity of expression

Using a design style to guide the creation of a particular product can help preserve consistency and clarity. Certain visual motifs are often associated with others (certain typefaces may be considered playful, and are expected in conjunction with a youthful and vibrant colour scheme), and knowing what expected conventions exist might help in designing something that has a consistent voice and character.

When designing within a system—one book cover in a series, an app for Android or iOS—a design style which dictates common motifs for the system at large helps to show cohesion and interconnectedness. Having consistent design principles and some measure of consistent visual design between all iOS apps, for example, leverages the existing familiarity and trust users have in the entire iOS interface and app ecosystem, and makes each individual application a little friendlier and accessible.

So that’s style. But it’s worth taking a look at not just what a design style is and what it is for, but what it is not—and where a discussion centered around design style may fall short in the design process.

Style in the design process

Designers tend to self-identify as practitioners of particular style, or take great pains to develop an identifiable signature in the work they do. Having some kind of calling card and distinct look isn’t a bad thing—famous designers are often characterized by how they employ type, grids, and colour in highly individualistic ways—but personal style should only go so far in dictating design decisions.

The limitations of a personal design style

Designer and blogger David Airey recently published an interview with Eric Karjaluoto, the writer of the book The Design Method. When asked, “You say the voice of the designer is irrelevant — what do you mean?”, Karjaluoto responds:

I’m speaking specifically about individual personality and style. Design is often considered a close cousin to art, and this misunderstanding clouds what our industry is about. New designers, in particular, want to imbue their work with their own sensibilities, but this desire isn’t actually that important.

Clients…need design that is built around their needs and amplifies their organization’s values and aspirations. Designers need to gear themselves to think about their clients’ needs first.

Although this specifically references client work, it’s easy to extend this rhetoric to any design work that is intended to reach and communicate with more people than just yourself. A rigid adherence to one “design style” could be a very real threat to the work you produce—whether for yourself or for a client—if you allow your personal preferences and habits to overshadow the needs of the project you’re working on and the message you need to communicate.

Making aesthetic decisions without context can result in design solutions which are inappropriate for the medium, inappropriate for the voice of the content and speaker, and inappropriate for the information being presented.

Style without context

When we talk about design, it’s convenient and easy to talk about design styles to express what a design is or what it strives to be. “I want this to be really minimal” might be your way of expressing “I want the content to be front and center, and I don’t want unnecessary visual details to detract from it.” Usually—hopefully—people are translating the names you use to the principles they symbolize.

But a verbal shortcut can quickly become a cognitive shortcut, and it’s all too easy to start equating a design style with what it looks like, not what it does. We start treating a design style not as a set of problem-solving techniques, but a coat of paint. Minimal means whitespace, monochrome, sparse visual details. The principles behind minimalism—although critical in determining how appropriate and effective a minimalist style might be—are left behind.

When we see style as visual conventions for how things should look, instead of visual solutions, we trivialize design. We have to remember that design is a process, not just an end result—then we can think of different design styles as different means to an end, not recipe books for how we create. Design styles are sets of techniques we can employ, not ideologies that require absolute commitment or loyalty.

A great example of the pitfalls of design-style-as-ideology can be found in the skeuomorphic vs. flat design debate. The advent of the chromatically bold and visually adventurous Windows Metro design style, as well as the iOS interface redesign that dispensed with certain skeuomorphic vagaries for a more consistent, “flattened” design, have sparked considerable discussion on the decline of skeuomorphism and the rise of a flat trend. But it’s also a particularly instructive example of the limitations in how we talk about design style and its use.

Skeuomorphism yesterday, flat today

Skeuomorphism here refers to the practice of imitating real-life effects and metaphors and a 3D-ish look in digital interface design. It was largely popularized by Apple software interfaces which had ebook reading apps take a very literal approach to the reading interface—you had to literally “flip” digital blocks of text and watch a page animation bring you new content—and calendar apps which mimicked the pebbled-leather bindings of physical desk calendars.

Apple’s heavily-criticized skeuomorphic iCal interface has: a pebbled texture for the application chrome, simulated stitching, and a page tear effect to mimic a real-life calendar. Image from the Apple support site.

The strengths of skeuomorphic design were in employing real-world metaphors to aid usability and familiarity. Buttons that feel 3D clearly state, You can interact with me. I’ll do something. I’ll respond.But the weaknesses of skeuomorphic designs were in introducing those metaphors without a clear intent and purpose. What about a navigational device where you have to “flip” pages of text like a book? Does mimicking a book have a use here? Are the pixels-pretending-to-be-pages more effective than just using forward-back arrows? Does that physical metaphor have a place?

Flat design has come into vogue largely as a reaction to the excesses and weaknesses of skeuomorphism. It eschews physical metaphors for digital design patterns. So we’ve moved from leather-and-wood-textured surfaces to flat, bright colours; inset text to dimensionless, straightforward text; physical metaphors to purely digital paradigms. And in the conversation around the large-scale abandonment of skeuomorphism and the adoption of flat design in many, many interfaces, it’s too easy to focus on the what instead of the why.

An example of the Windows 8 flat design style, with large iconography on flat colour. Image from an MSDN blog written by Doug Holland.

The what—what your buttons should look like, what your menu bars should look like, what your colour palette should look like. These things are straightforward questions with straightforward answers. But the whys complicate things. Why were the skeuomorphic-style buttons ineffective? Why are these flat design paradigms more usable? Why are we dispensing with things that mimic corkboards and notepads for unabashedly digital interfaces? What have we gained in the capabilities of our designed objects? What have we lost?

It’s really easy to read design blogs and tech press now and get the sense that skeuomorphism has been entirely disavowed as the old and inefficient way of designing things. But it’s too absolutist to characterize this trend as entirely abandoning one style for another.

As software product design drifts away from heavy skeuomorphic metaphors to the visual style and principles of flat design, the core requirements for a well-designed application still hold. A Smashing Magazine article called “Flat And Thin Are In” champions the rise of the “flat trend”, but its discussion on the best practices behind flat design end up being best practices for design in general. Focus on content, use grids for order and hierarchy, pay attention to colour and typography. Sound familiar?

And even if the visual style of the redesigned iOS 7 interface might signal a departure from skeuomorphism, the principles of employing physical metaphors and effects is still there—in a subtler form. Technology blogger Rene Ritchie has an excellent writeup on the richer interactions and effects in iOS 7, and emphasizes how the physics of small interactions and movements has been beefed up. These are skeuomorphic ideas applied to a different aspect of the interface.

The app switcher screen for iOS 7. From the iMore writeup.

Skeuomorphism had—and still has—a purpose. Flat design will also have its strengths and weaknesses as a design style, and figuring out how far to lean in either direction—or which elements to borrow from one or both styles—requires an understanding of design beyond the what. Figure out the requirements for a designed object, and employ a visual style which can most elegantly meet those requirements.

Design style is an immensely helpful framework throughout the design process. But the use of style should go beyond hardcoded rules and regulations. Taking a larger view of design style, one that emphasizes pragmatic problem-solving over trend-driven ideology, leads to a more thoughtful design process—and, hopefully, the creation of more nuanced and effective design.

Moving beyond design style

In exploring a style, remember that it is one way of seeing the world and the possible design solutions that exist, and not the only way. Be thoughtful, and consider a style not just in terms of how it looks but what it does. Combine motifs from different styles as appropriate. Consider the relative merits of different styles. What purposes can one style serve better than another? What associations does one style promote more clearly?

The most compact explanation I’ve seen on the limits of relying on a particular style comes from designer, writer, and educator Frank Chimero. In his response to “What advice would you give a graphic design student?”, he says—

Aesthetics are fleeting, the only things with longevity are ideas…Be wary of minimalism as an aesthetic decision without cause.

Design is communication. In choosing a visual style, be able to articulate—if only to yourself—why you chose it.

Expect your style to evolve and adapt—for the purpose, for shifts in trends and preferences, for different periods of your career and life. As designer and webcomic writer Rosscott advises design students,

Having a style is another way of saying you’re predictable.

Be inventive. Surprise yourself. Surprise others. Let your design be adaptive and reactive to the situation, and your design work address the purpose of the product and the context it inhabits. Investigate different design styles, adopt them, appreciate them, employ them—but in ways which enhance the expressivity and effectiveness of your work.

Written by

Studying computer science & communication design at CMU. I subsist off bubble tea, good books, and Markdown.