Design Decisions

(Cross-posted from

“Circular buttons are very friendly and approachable.” – Meng To,

I’m reading along in the iOS Human Interface guidelines, and they’re talking about embracing “borderless buttons”, and I think, “How is that different from a link?” and then remember that I didn’t realize I could click on those things when I first encountered them. I ponder the new Google Apps screens on which I couldn’t guess how to do anything without first searching for instructions… And handing my (i)phone to a new user last week, who couldn’t figure out how to make a call, and I think, “Perhaps this seems intuitive because you’ve trained us, and not because it is intrinsically so?”

Now, please don’t get me wrong; I love the gestures on my phone, and the touchpad on my MacBook. I love pushing things around the screen, and pinching things to zoom in and out. Super-powerful. I’m glad somebody figured that out, and I’m glad that there is some standardization… I’m glad they taught me to do that.

But there isn’t a right answer in design, and here is where I fall off the edge.

Math is kind. It stays the same, 30 years later. 300 years later, once proven. Contrast that with the fact that you often can tell what yeara particular palette was created, and you start to get a hint of my… perplexity. Good design is ever-shifting, because it has to relate to people’s current experience of the world. It must evoke, and it must evoke what you intend it to evoke, in the people in whom you intend to evoke it. It is a symphony to my scales, which sound like: Plunk, plunk, plunk… sour note. Plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk! (Possibly with my tongue stuck out in concentration.) I play with the colour wheel, never quite convinced of the palettes I produce. I read articles on the psychology of colour, treatises on typography and fonts, I even draw and paint, but there is no there, there. I know what I like, but I don’t know it until I see it. There’s no music in my head except that which I’ve already heard.

I know the difference because I write. I make my art from words. They build upon something I see, or feel, or experience. A sensation, an image, even a taste: the world shows itself to me in characters and narrative and theories on the nature of reality, but they come as so many words. I have something to communicate about the world, and I resort to these forms which are familiar. Language came to me easily and early, and drawing only late and with much agonizing.

(But I did start doing it, at least.)

Math was simple. Choosing my clothing (Or my binders. Or haircuts. Or bicycles…) was fraught. “You shall be judged and found wanting.” Why should I invest my energy in this instead of something I could actually get right? And so I didn’t bother.

Yet, now that I think about it, how is it so different from writing? There I have practiced, and I have confidence in my ability to communicate, to sing things into existence that live only inside my mind, however imperfectly. The main difference is that I’m coming to this four decades late, and after assuming I couldn’t do it for most of that time.

This is some serious unlearning to do.