I’ve been thinking quite a bit about design lately. In fact, I would be tempted to say it’s taken up a majority of my mindshare as of late. It’s not that I’m abandoning the super-geek world of tags and RSS, it’s just that my interests are evolving and I see design as a natural place to go next. I like to follow things and see where they take me and design seems to be a missing piece in my other interests.
Design is that which mediates nearly all our experiences. It’s one of the things that makes tags so appealing and it’s one of the things keeping RSS from going mainstream. It can be seen in the beauty of the iPod or the simplicity of the Google homepage. The interesting thing, though, was that I never really thought about it until I got into advertising. Up to recently I had ignored an entire world that I saw and touched every day. I took it for granted, thinking things like I’d never buy an iPod because I didn’t want to be one of those people who bought things just because they looked cool (for the record, I still don’t own one, but for other reasons).
Things have changed. I’ve begun to realize that design isn’t just about looks, it’s about functionality. In fact, I’d argue in many cases it’s more about functionality than anything else. The iPod, I believe, would never have seen the popularity it has without the brilliant interface that finally made browsing huge libraries of music simple. The fact that the thing looked beautiful only added to that interface, you can’t have one without the other. Design is all about communicating something. You’re doing your best to help the user understand what you’re trying to say (in the case of print design) or how to use the device (in the case of personal electronics). It’s all about paying attention to everything, all the way down to the smallest detail. John Maeda explains it like this:
Design is, to some extent, about prioritizing the foreground experience, but providing a low-energy means of gently shifting focus to the background whenever the greater context of an activity might matter more than the activity itself. Once you have properly situated yourself, you’re free to get lost in the foreground experience again.
Or, put more simply, “The key is to provide the hiker, the user, or the viewer with enough — but not too much — information.”
I was thinking about design in relation to fashion the other day. The well-dressed person looks naturally well-dressed; it doesn’t look like it’s taking a great deal of effort. It’s those people that try to hard that tend to stand out. (I, by the way, make no claims to be a fashion expert . . . on the contrary, I am mostly a fashion mistake.) The goal of design, in my mind, is the same: to communicate a message without people noticing you’re communicating it.
Boy, for a closing line about trying to hard . . .