Watch Your Language: The Importance of Crafting a Common Design Vocabulary
He invoked a sense of dread every Monday and Wednesday from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. At the age of 18, color theory wasn’t something I necessarily “got.” Yet the facts were unavoidable. The class was mandatory. All design majors had to take it and endure it.
And almost all of us were clueless in the art of discussing design. We were at the mercy of the scariest design professor this side of the Bauhaus, Keith Newhouse.
Critiques were cold sweat-inducing stress marathons. Didn’t have a strong reason why that purple was paired with that specific shade of orange? A furrowed brow and squinty stare was your reward. Wouldn’t divulge the driving impulse behind your Pollock-esque composition? Expect an audible “tsk, tsk, tsk” combined with a deliberate, slow shaking of his head. Couldn’t articulate the process of how you arrived at this particular solution? Expect the worst. Class then transformed into a whirlwind of loud and angry chastising that often resulted in the ejection of some poor soul’s blood, sweat and tears out the window. (Yes, this did happen.)
The fear of humiliation in front of peers can be a strong motivator. In retrospect, Mr. Newhouse’s teaching tactics were incredibly valuable. The importance of being able to talk about finished work and eloquently defend design decisions was forever ingrained in my mind. Mr. Newhouse understood the significance of being able to justify your choices and expose what went on behind the curtain, even if it wasn’t the correct path.
That’s why I cringe upon hearing about web design trends described in such catch-all, light-beer words as “Clean,” “Minimalist” or “Modern.” Words of this calibre never expose the quality of a solution, regardless of how perfect the final design might be.
If you don’t know yet, design is causality. Every decision that goes into a properly researched design should have an intended effect. Need to break out of using pre-canned adjectives to describe design? Become comfortable in sharing the process of birthing a design. How did you make decisions about the visual relationships and content hierarchy on the page? Are the font pairings evoking the right mix of historical relevance and on-screen readability? Share the details that go beyond the obvious. Break down the visual characteristics to their origin in your process. Provide insight into the history and purpose of the design elements being employed. And don’t forget the most important part; how do these collective decisions come together and solve a problem? Designers are problem solvers, not style propagators. Attributing the success of a design solely to its cleanliness is like attributing my wife’s greatness solely to her “brunette-ness.”
Consequently, our industry needs to promote the idea of constructive criticism regarding visual design. Done correctly, it would go beyond just lumping work together by general-purpose attributes. We can openly regard what is cliché, what is convention and who is doing the really great work out there. No more lists of the best clean, minimal and simple websites necessary.
Sure, Mr. Newhouse wanted us to create great (color theory) work. Yet, finding the value in communicating design process ended up being the true lesson.
Originally published on Happy Cog’s blog Cognition on February 10th, 2011