We are all design poets

Thanks to Pantea for our discussion that lead to this post

Design is a language

language noun /ˈlæŋ.ɡwɪdʒ/
the system of communication used by people in a particular country or type of work

Languages are something I really love. Language is the window to a culture. Language is the only proof-point to understand how people understand the world.

As my Communication teacher used to say:

As long as people cannot master the brain-to-brain communication, language is the only way to convey a message

And in the end that’s what design is, a language, with words, phrases, paragraphs and books. Design is a proof-point of what a brand has to say and of what a company is expressing. Design is the language designers have to convey ideas. Think about the structure of a language:

  • Words are individual units of meaning
  • Phrases are connected words conveying a message
  • Paragraphs are there to convey a complex idea
  • Books are the expression of what a person thinks or believes

Brad Frost coined the term atomic design to describe how web sites can be composed by dissecting HTML components into atoms (the smallest components such as buttons), molecules (small groups of atoms, like a search engine), organisms (such as a header) and pages.

Though the word design is part of Brad’s term, it refers to the technical design of the components. When talking about Design, as in the conception of things, I prefer thinking of it as a language, more linked to expressions and ideas rather than the physics of arranging atoms.

Just as a language Design is the proof-point of a shared group of ideas and feelings.

We’re all poets

poem noun /ˈpəʊ.ɪm/
a piece of writing in which the words […] are chosen for their sound and for the images and ideas they suggest*

Poets, as no other writer, are known for their skill in choosing the right word to convey the right meaning at the right moment. They master a vast vocabulary of synonyms and antonyms.

As designers our vocabulary is made of components. A button, a dropdown, a list. We are supposed to choose the right component at the right moment. But we also have synonyms and antonyms. A dropdown list and a radio button group are synonyms, as they both allow users to pick an item among a group of items. And just as words, radio buttons and dropdowns allow to convey a different meaning (easier or complex, more visual or more technical, etc.).

Just as poets our job is to build a rhythm with the words at hand. Our job is to tell a story not only functional but also in the most beautiful and elegant possible way.

Be a design poet

Poets, contrary to prose writers play with ideas, with sound, with images. As designers, we’re not supposed to think about the component but about the idea, the sound or the image that specific conveys.

Want to become a design poet?

  • Differentiate ideas from components: when choosing a component, think what that component does best, what are its flaws?
  • Know your synonyms, when choosing a component always think twice: is there another component that allows for the same?
  • Find a rhythm: Use components that are similar in a same dimension (simplicity, power, ease-to-use) and keep to that dimension to give your UI a voice.