The Details Are Not The Details

At my current employer, Moment Design in New York City, we regularly have what we call Practice Lunches. These are internal workshops by our Graphic Design or Experience Design group, usually led by two team members and focusing on a specific practice-related topic. (To keep things interesting, we also often select subjects from bordering or not directly related disciplines.)

The topic of one of these meetings was Storytelling. Specifically, telling a story about a self-chosen smartphone application with personal significance. Our goals included improved writing and storytelling, as well as investigation of our relationship with current digital tools.

I was barely able to join the workshop this time as I was heads-down in finalizing wireframes for a client project: evaluating tab behaviors, correcting button positions, fine-tuning text hierarchies, ensuring consistency across screens, and several other detailed adjustments.

But then during our Practice Lunch, while working through my story, I realized something quite surprising: I was actually unable to recall the exact appearance and flow of the app I had chosen to talk about. Neither did I remember the detailed screen contents, nor could I identify specific available buttons or their placement on different screens. I of course knew how to use this app, but I simply could not recall the details. And this was for an app that I was using daily!

With this directly following my detailed wireframe work earlier that day, an obvious question came to mind: Why do we spend an enormous amount of time on these small details that then are … mostly forgotten?

God And The Devil

Or course, one easy answer could simply have been that details are maybe not that important. Nobody remembers them, therefore they do not matter. But instead, the next thoughts in my head were quotes by an architect and a furniture designer (I assume my Industrial Design background had something to do with this).

The first quote was “God is in the details,” commonly attributed to German-born architect Mies van der Rohe. (A closely related idiom is “The devil is in the details”.) The second quote, which probably summarizes this dichotomy best, was Charles Eames’ “The details are not the details. They make the design”.

In other words, applied to this specific scenario: I was unable to recall the details not because they don’t matter, but because somebody spent time thinking about them and designed them. Rather than ‘sticking out’, the details had been resolved in a way for them to become an integral part of the product. The details became the product, the product the sum of its details.

Buttons and experiences

As Experience Designers, some say we are not designing buttons or text fields or application flows, but we are designing experiences. Well, we are doing both; however, only if we get the first part right can the second one be successful. Great details make for great experiences, great experiences consist of many great details.

And, somehow paradoxically, a measure of our success is the user’s (in)ability to recognize and recollect these details. We spend a lot of time on them in order to make them disappear, to ‘design them away’. And only once the details are forgotten, do we know that we have designed them successfully.

(This post was originally published at