Three Levers of Design

In Frank Chimero’s excellent book, The Shape of Design, he posits that there are three common traits to all design work:

The Message: The message of the design work represents the objectives of the work.

The Tone: The tone is the arrangement the message takes and expresses sentiment.

The Format: The format is the form in which the message is being produced on.

For a more in-depth and clear explanation, do yourself a favor and read through the entire book linked above, it really is worth your time.

As a web designer, I’ve been thinking more and more about how to incorporate these three levers of design into my personal work. Obviously, in the world of web design, we don’t have any physical formats to work with. We are inherently constrained to the virtual world as our medium of expression. Which is an amazing thing.

  1. Message

The message of any work will neither be constrained nor expanded due to our medium. We should be deciding the message regardless of the tone or style, or even medium that we choose. The message is our underlying reason for producing the piece of design work. Without a clear purpose, it may be worth it to ask ourselves whether it’s even necessary to produce.

2. Tone

As web designers, we have more or less limitless options as to how we establish the tone of the message due to the unrestricted nature of our medium. Especially with the advent of Google Fonts, UIGradients, Coloors color palette generator, we have at our disposal an unprecedented amount of tools that help us style the message however we see fit. When we include fast prototyping techniques, we can instantly test thousands of different combinations of fonts, colors, and styles to find the best fit. The tonality of any design work is ultimately established by typography, layout, and color palette choice. All of which we can control with a few simple keystrokes or mouseclicks. This is a great example of the vast amount of choices we have in typography pairings that can affect the tone of our message. It is our duty as designers to make sure that whichever combination we use benefits the work’s message.

3. Format

The format of a design work is the medium in which it is produced. In traditional print, this means paper size, paper type, magazine, flyers, posters, etc. In the world of web design, we are really only limited by what we can envision (and code). This is easily the most exciting part of new web technologies that are introduced within the last couple months. For instance, we have Three.JS which allows truly interactive 3D environments to be quickly and easily built within the web. A great example of this can be seen in Under Armour Women’s Gisele web app that incorporates real time social media updates that displays as you move around the environment. This level of interactivity was restricted in the past and in print due to the static nature of print, but these boundaries have already been broken with the web, and are constantly being pushed with new technologies. We have the ability to incorporate interactive videos, web games, and 3D environments into our websites for the entire world to experience. As emerging technologies take root into our day-to-day web browsing, we will begin to see more creative and more innovative ways to engage the user.

As you can see, we are all in the middle of a rushing current of innovation right now in the web industry. Being designers, we have to be flexible and constantly innovating to keep up with the different formats that we are able to use. But we must also keep in mind that these technologies and formats are all just tools that we have at our disposal. We should never lose sight that our primary purpose as designers is to communicate a clear and powerful message, and thus incorporating these Three Levers of Design is beneficial for any project.

Read Frank Chimero’s Shape of Design here.

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