In the gaming world, we often deconstruct design into a set of data and AB tests to create products and features that will resonate with players. Design is sometimes even considered a bad word, implying that we are not data driven. Yet, companies like Apple (who I wrote about a few of weeks ago), have shown that valuing design highly can lead to billions in revenue. Additionally, I have seen many data driven companies where Product Managers create compelling beautiful PowerPoint presentations while share prices drop because customers do not flock to their products.
At the heart of the contempt of design is a feeling that it is based on taste and that taste is entirely subjective. Thus, the logic goes that there is no way to design for taste. A great blog post by Paul Graham, Taste for Makers, however, not only points out this thinking is false but also how designers can create beautiful products. To drive home that taste is not a subjective exercise, Graham mentions that, “[m]athematicians call good work ‘beautiful,’ and so, either now or in the past, have scientists, engineers, musicians, architects, designers, writers, and painters. Is it just a coincidence that they used the same word, or is there some overlap in what they meant? If there is an overlap, can we use one field’s discoveries about beauty to help us in another?”
Graham then breaks down the elements designers need to focus on to create something beautiful, something will be truly tasteful. If taste were entirely subjective a van Gogh would have no more value than a van Lloyd. Graham writes, “[s]aying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it’s not true. You feel this when you start to design things….[I]f your job is to design things, and there is no such thing as beauty, then there is no way to get better at your job. If taste is just personal preference, then everyone’s is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that’s it.”
By looking into what is, and is not, appealing to people’s tastes, how design has evolved and what designs have failed, there are thirteen concept from Graham that can help guide good design. By following these principles, you are most likely to design a beautiful product.
Good design is simple
The first key to good design is the same as the one that led to Apple’s success, a simple design is better than a complex one. Again, using mathematics to show that good design is not a subjective exercise, Graham points out that shorter math proofs are generally better.
While it seems like it would be easy to create a simple design, it is actually more difficult. It feels like extra work to create something ornate, to add features to a product or even to paint more objects in a picture. In practice, though, it is easier to create more mindlessly or not make difficult decisions on what people truly value than taking the time to understand what people want and eliminating what will be superfluous. Graham writes, “when you’re forced to be simple, you’re forced to face the real problem. When you can’t deliver ornament, you have to deliver substance.”
Good design is timeless
If you focus on designing a product that is “timeless,” by definition you are trying to create the best product design, not one that will be surpassed. Again, if you look at mathematics, a proof is timeless unless it includes a mistake.
Focusing on timelessness avoids falling for trends that are currently popular but short lived. Trends change over time and as Graham writes, “if you can make something that will still look good far into the future, then its appeal must derive more from merit and less from [trends].”
Good design solves the right problem
To create a beautiful design, you have to first understand what user problem it solves. Prior to finding an eloquent solution, you should ensure you are solving the right or underlying problem. As Graham writes, “[i]n software, an intractable problem can usually be replaced by an equivalent one that’s easy to solve. Physics progressed faster as the problem became predicting observable behavior, instead of reconciling it with scripture.”
If you look at bad design, it is often the result of solving the wrong problem. Why did Stadia fail, not because of its UI or UX but because it solved a problem that very few customers experienced (access to virtually unlimited content).
Graham uses the example of the stove top to illustrate the importance of solving the problem rather than designing in a vacuum. According to Graham, “the typical stove has four burners arranged in a square, and a dial to control each. How do you arrange the dials? The simplest answer is to put them in a row. But this is a simple answer to the wrong question. The dials are for humans to use, and if you put them in a row, the unlucky human will have to stop and think each time about which dial matches which burner. Better to arrange the dials in a square like the burners.”
Good design is suggestive
Rather than proscribing every step a customer takes, a great design will help customers envision how to use the product. Going back to mathematics, a proof that becomes the basis for new work is more beautiful than one that does not lead to future discoveries. Graham highlights several other examples, “In architecture and design, this principle means that a building or object should let you use it how you want: a good building, for example, will serve as a backdrop for whatever life people want to lead in it, instead of making them live as if they were executing a program written by the architect. In software, it means you should give users a few basic elements that they can combine as they wish.”
If you look at the most successful design driven company of all time, Apple, you see this principle in practice. The iPhone was not great because its UI or design was limited, instead it let people use it the way they wanted to. It even let external companies (App developers) integrate with the design, something that would not have been possible (or at least as broad) if it was a very prescribed interfact. Apple products are not great because it is clear and easy how to do everything, I still have to Google functionality occasionally for my iPad and Mac, but they encourage consumers to explore the product and push it to its boundaries.
Good design is often slightly funny
Products that do not take themselves too seriously are more likely to be considered beautiful designs. Graham writes, “[t]o have a sense of humor is to be strong: to keep one’s sense of humor is to shrug off misfortunes, and to lose one’s sense of humor is to be wounded by them. And so the mark– or at least the prerogative– of strength is not to take oneself too seriously.”
The value of humor is often seen in movies (using movies as I can’t think of a funny mathematics proof). Marvel movies generally outperform those about DC characters, not because the superheroes are more famous or the special effects are better but because they incorporate humor into the stories.
Good design is hard
Design cannot be an afterthought but instead needs sufficient resources to create something beautiful. As form should follow function, if function is hard enough, form is forced to follow it, because there is no effort to spare for error. In math, difficult proofs require ingenious solutions that do not happen overnight. Graham writes, “[i]n art, the highest place has traditionally been given to paintings of people. There is something to this tradition, and not just because pictures of faces get to press buttons in our brains that other pictures don’t. We are so good at looking at faces that we force anyone who draws them to work hard to satisfy us. If you draw a tree and you change the angle of a branch five degrees, no one will know. When you change the angle of someone’s eye five degrees, people notice.”
While design is hard, you should not pursue difficulty for its own. There is beneficial pain and unnecessary pain. Graham explains, “[y]ou want the kind of pain you get from going running, not the kind you get from stepping on a nail.”
Good design looks easy
While good design is hard, it should appear easy to users. A mathematician might create brilliant proofs through months or years of hard work but the great ones will appear as if they created the proof overnight while reading the morning newspaper. Some of the best inventions are ones where we ask ourselves why we did not think of them previously. The great athlete looks like they are barely exerting themself while they are actually probably training 100+ hours/week.
In design what looks easy comes from practice. The more you train yourself, the more your subconscious handles the basic tasks freeing your mind on creating beautiful.
Good design uses symmetry
Symmetry is a powerful tool in helping achieve simplicity. There are two types of symmetry, repetition and recursion. Recursion is defining a problem in terms of itself. The reflection in a mirror of a mirror is recursive: the reflected mirror is reflecting its own image and doing so indefinitely. In math and engineering, recursion, especially, is a big win. Inductive proofs are wonderfully short.
While you do not want to use symmetry to replace original thought, it is a powerful design principle that can create both striking and very understandable designs. As the user only has to learn a concept ones, using it in a repetitive or recursive manner becomes easy for the customer.
Good design resembles nature
By designing to resemble nature, you are capturing both what people already know and what nature may have taken centuries to perfect. As Graham writes, “[i]t’s not cheating to copy.” Using ideas from nature in your design allows you to build on proven schemes.
Good design is redesign
One key to success, not only in design but in most areas of product development and marketing, is iterate, iterate, iterate. Most books are barely readable the first time the author puts pen to paper but are the result of painstaking editing. The best games have gone through months of prototyping, user testing and feedback. It is the same with design.
Part of the iteration process is abandoning some, or most, of the earlier design. As Graham writes, “[i]t’s rare to get things right the first time. Experts expect to throw away some early work. They plan for plans to change. It takes confidence to throw work away. You have to be able to think, there’s more where that came from….Mistakes are natural. Instead of treating them as disasters, make them easy to acknowledge and easy to fix. ”
Good design can copy
Starting with a good existing design will often lead to a more beautiful design. While I did write that a key to the most innovative creators is don’t copy, that concept is not counter to beautiful design copying existing design. Creating a beautiful design is not about creating an innovative design; it is about creating a product that beautifully solves the right problem. Thus, if you base your design on something that has already approached solving the problem, it frees you up to solve it even better.
If the beauty of your design is about how to solve the problem, then you have a responsibility to incorporate existing best practices. Graham writes, “I think the greatest masters go on to achieve a kind of selflessness. They just want to get the right answer, and if part of the right answer has already been discovered by someone else, that’s no reason not to use it. They’re confident enough to take from anyone without feeling that their own vision will be lost in the process.”
Good design happens in chunks
Beautiful design does not have to come from just one designer. A team or group of designers can sometimes create a better design than just one brilliant designer. While Jony Ive is often credited with Apple’s design success, the key to Apple’s successes was creating an Industrial Design Group, under Ive, with some of the best designers in the world. They would collaborate on projects, often focusing on different elements, in creating products that captured the world’s attention and hearts.
Good design is often daring
The most successful designs and new products are ones that required the champion to be daring. Apple would not have created the iPhone or iPad if they wanted a safe solution, they would have just improved on existing devices. Amazon would not have created a billion dollar business if they had tried to create a better bookstore. Graham writes, “at every period of history, people have believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you risked ostracism or even violence by saying otherwise…. Today’s experimental error is tomorrow’s new theory. If you want to discover great new things, then instead of turning a blind eye to the places where conventional wisdom and truth don’t quite meet, you should pay particular attention to them.”
Using these principles in creating games
Design is critical to creating great products. To have long-term success and build a competitive position, you are going to need beautiful products that reflect great taste, not simply a lot of data and optimization. Creating beauty, however, is not easy. If you follow the steps above, however, you improve your chances of creating the next hit product.
- While many game and tech companies focus on data and testing to create product, the key to building a game-changing product is beautiful design (see Apple) that represent great taste.
- At the core of creating a beautiful product is simplicity and timeliness, rather than focusing on making something pretty focus on solving the user’s true problem.
- Another key to creating beautiful products is understanding it will not be easy, great design is very difficult and requires painstaking work and iteration.