The Importance of Invisible Design

I recently joined Tutum as the first designer on the team. People are very opinionated about design and it’s a hotly debated topic, but after working several years in this field I want to share my personal design philosophy and hopefully a preview of what you can expect from Tutum.

When people hear the word design they usually think of something that “looks good,” or is “simple,” “consistent,” “beautiful!” or another warm and fuzzy adjective. While designs may indeed be beautiful, being beautiful is only touching the surface of what design is really about. The best design usually lies unnoticed; invisible to the untrained eye.

From paper

Books are a great example of invisible design. When a writer hands off their manuscript to an editor, it arrives raw and unformatted as “just” words on paper. Have you ever thought about how this raw manuscript is transformed into a book?

Do you think the type size is selected on a whim? Nothing could be further from reality; every detail is carefully weighed and measured. The right kind of paper is chosen from alkaline paper, antique paper, art paper and more, the proper size, the typeface, line-height, margins, the way to print it, etc. All of these choices between materials and properties have been made to ensure the best possible reading experience.

It takes time, research, and expertise to figure out how all of these variables interact with one another, and to choose the proper ones for the right medium or context. You wouldn’t take the same choices used for a restaurant menu and apply them to a high school textbook, nor an autobiography of a comedian to a fantasy novel. You must always consider the medium and context for your design choices.

To screen

As for the book design, the same principles can be applied to digital products. You should focus on having a clear message and avoid useless ornamentation. In design, less is usually more. An all too common tragedy is coming across a beautiful application with absolutely no one using it; a possible sign that it was “over-designed” with the user’s needs falling to the lowest priority.

What it boils down to, is design should help solve a user’s problems, not create more for them. Design’s role is to help communicate the product features in a clear, simple, and direct way. Once all of these values have been fulfilled — this is beautiful design; now we can focus on the outward aesthetics.

You can have the most elegant typography, a perfect layout, the most delectable colors, and ride the cutting edge of design trends, but they should ultimately remain “invisible” to give users the most fluid experience possible. The best compliment a designer can receive is the absence of a compliment. This means you’ve done your job. You’ve remained invisible to the end user.

Github is one of the best examples of “invisible” design

How to reach the goal

The real challenge is to keep the core experience of the product the “main character” of the play. No one likes it when a side-character overstays their welcome (looking at you, Jar-Jar Binks). The same goes for your product. Don’t let a side feature dominate the product experience and distract the user.

I’ve put together these 10 guidelines for how we carry out design at Tutum and hope you find them useful:

  • We are often attracted by the idea of “leaving our mark” on the product. But we need to step back and remove our ego from the design process and to keep focus on the goals: communicate what the product is, how it works, and how our user’s lives will improve.
  • Do not let other product’s design seduce you. Understand what that particular design solution is solving for that particular product. Take some inspiration but avoid mixing design solutions from different products because you need to look at design holistically; how each piece will fit the greater puzzle. You can’t use super glue and duct tape to force together design patterns from six different products or you’ll end up with a monstrosity.
  • Work as a team to uncover the best solutions. Share your opinions. No one designer or developer has the “one best solution to rule them all.”
  • Give constructive feedback and try to include examples of what you are saying. Avoid superfluous debates armed with only personal opinions. Don’t let the team reach this point — it’s a black hole that goes nowhere.
  • Limit changes. Once the design is in progress, you have to forbid them. Implementing changes in the middle of the process can break the original idea; one small change can alter the entire design.
  • Don’t use complex solutions when a simple solution will suffice.
  • Iterate. You can’t make a great product if you’re trying to do everything at the same time. Do not rush. If you are in a hurry, it’s best to pause and make sure you’re working in line with your priorities.
  • Try to organize everything from the very beginning. Make a roadmap with ordered tasks with as many details as possible. Everyone should be on the same page.
  • Use wireframes and treat them as your Holy Bible when working to complete the final design.
  • Speak to your developers from the very beginning. Ask about the difficulty of developing your ideas and figure out together what a realistic deadline looks like.

Transitioning to a startup

It can be difficult to follow these guidelines for both big companies and startups. Each environment presents their own unique challenges. Larger companies usually have too many chefs in the kitchen, each trying to take the design in too many directions all at once. In a startup, time is of the essence and there may not be a well-defined structure in the organization, but this can be overcome as long as the team stays in sync. The nature of a startup lends itself to some tense and stressful situations at times, but these moments can ultimately strengthen the understanding and trust between team members if tackled together.

This post was originally published at Tutum’s blog. Thanks to Bryan Lee & Nicklas Gummesson to help me with the translation and to put all my thoughts in order.