Pushing Design To Its Limits

How do you know when your design idea is too out there, too conservative or just right?

Finding the right balance of progressive and conventional thinking is central to the question of what makes for good design. Improving our lives — whether through efficiency, effectiveness, or excitement is a constant quest. The criteria for success in all these areas is a subjective one so it can be difficult to evaluate. Yet, a little uneasiness when experiencing something for the first time can be a good thing. The anxiety elevates our awareness and heightens our engagement. Because we are pattern matching machines, breaking the pattern is a good way to get attention. If you’re looking through the rack of flyers for tourist activities certain ones will likely jump out at you. They are different. The same theory holds true for websites, buildings, and can openers — different is better at attracting attention.

The important thing to understand is what happens next. We like to engage in our daily lives, but we also don’t like to feel stress. If something is too different that it is difficult to get accustomed to it creates stress. Think about the first time you saw an iPod. It was weird and confusing looking. But then you touched it and fiddled with the crazy scroll-wheel and understood how it worked. Mission accomplished.

If you think about it, you can probably come up with a lot of examples of things like this in your own life. For me, the Namiki Vanishing Point Pen looked a bit absurd when I first saw it. But after one time using one, I fell in love. The same goes for about every redesign of a major website. Remember when Facebook redesigned? People were livid. But given a short amount of time users were won over.

Our allegiance to a piece of design work will bend, but it will also break.

If an artifact of design doesn’t stop you in your tracks the first time you come into contact with it, the designer didn’t take the work far enough. It’s not to say that you can’t over-do it here. Our allegiance to a piece of design work will bend, but it will also break. Industry is littered with the remains of design work that went too far outside of it’s intended audience to be understandable. So how do you avoid that fate? In my view, the key has to do with how much one has to learn or understand before they can interact with a piece of design.

Familiarity buys you room to push design. Affinity buys you room to blow it and try again.

The formula for this is not a consistent one unfortunately. For many things we see and use it’s a second or two. Imagine a billboard seen while driving down the freeway, or the cover of a magazine on the rack at the newsstand. But if your audience has a history with the product or brand you have some more wiggle room. If your magazine is brand new you have much less room to push the boundaries. If it’s Time, you have a lot more flexibility. This is, of course, how Facebook could go about redesigning the entire site experience and not die from user attrition. Familiarity buys you room to push design. Affinity buys you room to blow it and try again.

The takeaway here is to make sure you’ve done all you can to reduce the learning curve — the amount of time and energy it takes to get from “what the…?” to “wow…” to “I don’t even have to think about it…” Covering this crucial period of time will allow you to push the impact of the design further.