If you’re tempted to break a rule, convention, default, or best practice (as we all are, from time to time), make sure you understand the spirit behind the rule first. There are often important motivations behind every rule, and you’ll need to take those into account when bending or breaking them.
A great example is the temptation to remove the default outline styles most web browsers apply to focused elements. These outlines are visually distinct, and you may not like the way they look. Removing them may seem like a harmless design decision, but those default styles are there for an important reason. If you don’t know the motivation behind those default style rules, and don’t take the consequences into account when you override them, your choices will have unforeseen consequences for people visiting your site.
There are times when breaking rules is the right decision, but a deep understanding of those rules is required to keep you from making things worse.
Perfection works very well as a guiding light, but you should never expect to arrive there. The desire to attain perfection can be overwhelming, but it’s vital that you keep that temptation in check. As you get closer to perfection, the effort and time required to make meaningful progress rises exponentially. If you’re getting close to perfection, take it as a warning that you’re wasting time. The same resources required to bring a project from 90% to 95% can often bring a different project from 0% to 80%. Is that extra 5% really worth it?
It’s important to periodically take a step back from your work and ask yourself if what you’re working on is good enough. It can be painful to ship something that’s just good enough, especially when you know it has the potential to be better, but getting your work out the door is often the best course of action.
Keeping something to yourself while you futilely pursue perfection benefits no one. Releasing something that’s good enough helps the people you made it for, and it helps you. The reactions of others, once your work is set free, will give you clarity and perspective that you simply can’t get anywhere else.
Remember, good enough really is good enough.
One of the most difficult things about great design is recognizing it once you achieve it.
Something that is designed well will often appear simple and obvious, which can be counterintuitive when you’re the one doing the designing. You pour a huge amount of time and effort into creating something only to have it all culminate in something that other people would look at and say, “Oh, yeah, of course.” It can be demoralizing and distressing. Worst of all, it can make it seem like you’re not done yet.
One of the worst mistakes a designer can make is deciding that something seems too simple or too obvious, and then making it worse by trying to fix something that isn’t broken. The best design is often the design that people don’t notice.
If you find yourself working on something and you reach a point where it’s simple, functional, and intuitive you should probably stop right there. Great design isn’t about showcasing the work you put in, it’s about being the best solution to the problem you originally set out to solve.
For the first Design tip on this site I can think of nothing better than this quote:
“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,” says Steve Jobs, Apple’s C.E.O. “People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
That’s from a New York Times story, The Guts of a New Machine, which was published at the end of November in 2003. The article is about the iPod, which I didn’t remember until I researched the source of the quote. The article didn’t stick with me, but the quote did, especially that last bit: “Design is how it works.” I can’t count the number of times that quote has surfaced in my mind and kept me from making bad design decisions.
One of the most difficult challenges I had when making this Tips & Tricks site was coming up with an icon for the Design category. Most icons that attempt to represent design use a paint brush, or a pencil, or something like that. I could have created something similar, but this quote kept coming back to me. I didn’t want to reenforce the misconception that design is a coat of paint. Design really isn’t how it looks, it’s not about the veneer, it’s not superficial.
Until I realized this, until I believed this, I was not good at design.
I’ve used this belief as a core guiding principal for years, and it’s served me incredibly well. So, today’s tip is this: Remember that design is, indeed, how it works.