4 Tenets for Good Design

Working with dozens of designers and hundreds of projects over the last 5 years, I think I’ve mentally segmented the aspects of good, solid design into 4 tenets.

1. Usage of Negative Space

The space between the ink you put to paper is just as important as the ink itself. Sometimes the inexplicable extra inch of nothingness between sections of content can bring a new level of emphasis to the item immediately above. Have you ever found yourself bored with the design of a project? Start over with the simplest of objects and content in your design and develop a design foundation that is attractive to your eye, then add higher fidelity and more content from there. In addition, correctly utilizing negative space lends itself to the ability to guide a person’s eyes from one part of the image to another which is particularly important if the thing in which you’re designing is to be used for marketing purposes (pretty much everything right?).

2. Pixel Perfection

Nothing smacks of an amateur more than lack of attention to detail. Even if you are crunched for time, you need to learn to pay attention to the smallest of details. Zoom into the most finite of pixel on your images and fix any discrepancies. This becomes even more important the smaller the item is; e.g. an icon or logo. A user should never be distracted by a mistake no matter how small. – Pixel perfection also means that you are properly aligning objects down to the pixel. Think of newspaper design prior to the computer age; editors would painstakingly use guides, rulers, and other straight edges on their templates to ensure things lined up perfectly. It should be the same way for us today.

3. Readability

This is closely related to item 1. A good designer can take “too much” content and make it look readable with the help of negative space, but there are other greater factors as well that influence it more; most importantly, typography. Think of the internet term “TLDR“. If something appears as if the content is “too long”, then a person will skip over it entirely or focus their attention elsewhere. Learning how to make something “readable” regardless of the length, is a valuable skill. The first steps of readability: using a simple font on large groups of text, using a larger leading size, and not having a large ratio of contrast between text and background.

4. Consistency

If Pixel Perfection is accuracy, consistency is precision. Being consistent means more than being consistent within a project. It also means being consistent in your work ethic. There’s nothing more that clients dislike than a designer that is inconsistent with communication, responsiveness, and especially delivery. Consistency means establishing and working within an “ethos” or “convention”. For example, creating a design library prior to working on a large scale project ensures some homogeneity will eventually tie all of your work into one style (which can eventually establish a company’s branding) – And for those of you thinking “sometimes I design purposefully inconsistent”, inconsistency in it of itself is also consistent. It’s like the irony of the emo style, anarchists groups, and hipsters.

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Sports and Religion

My friend Eric is a die hard Lakers fan. He adores Kobe. Loves Kobe. He bleeds purple and gold. I am a tried and true Houston fan. I’ve been to hundreds of Astros, Rockets, and Texans games. I would die for Craig Biggio. Eric is an agnostic. He believes God does not exist. I am a Christian. I believe Jesus is the son of God and the only way to heaven.

We are each fans of different “teams”. We constantly berate the other’s “fandomness”. We do not agree with each other’s beliefs. And we will fight tooth and nail for our standpoints.

However, we remain very good friends. We will not try to force our beliefs upon the other because we know we can not. I can not convince Eric that the Rockets are a “better” team (statistics aside) than the Lakers the same way Eric can not convince me that Christianity is ridiculous. We are individually determined to maintain our own dogma. 

This all to say a one thing:

It is next to impossible to argue your way into persuading someone when it comes to religion or sports. Generally none of us, through debate or argumentation, can persuade another to switch our fanaticism. We are so deeply rooted in our beliefs, we can not be moved through words alone. It requires action and friendship to eventually persuade anyone of true change. So the next time you find yourself in an angry argument about sports teams or religion realize this: the Lakers are 9-14. Go Rockets.

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Design with the Ugly in Mind

Some years ago when some designers were creating the profile page for MySpace, they neglected to realize one thing: people produce ugly shit. Allowing a user to change the application design to fit their style was a unique and fairly revolutionary concept, however, leaving things open-ended allowed for their product to ultimately be destroyed in a design and literal sense.

Almost every application in existence now allows for some kind of customization where the user can alter imagery, color, etc. Although the extent to which they can change these design features is usually far more limited, UI designers must keep in mind that their users could and WILL produce ugly. A user WILL upload a clashing logo that would even make Jackson Pollok roll over in his grave. You may have put 30 hours into designing a beautiful application template, but in 20 seconds a user can make you cringe. So how do you ameliorate the possibility of a user uglifying your work?

1. Design with the ugly in mind. If you can make your application template work while having ugly imagery in the user-generated areas, it will look spectacular with beautiful imagery. Obviously, this is not fool proof, but it helps considerably.

2. Keep as much as possible in grey scale. The more you introduce color, the greater the chance of user content/imagery clashing.

3. Maintain overall aesthetic even if user content/imagery is terrible. For instance, don’t allow for a user to upload an image that will dominate the screen real estate.

In general, I’ve found thinking about the ugly possibilities often contributes to better design.

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Eat your Ego, Listen to your Users

As of next month, it will have been 4 years since we started work on RealYields.com. When we started, we had zero clue of what we were doing. Well, not that’s not entirely true. We had LESS than zero clue of what we were doing. Negative clue of doing. – All we had was an excel sheet Manish had made to analyze his real estate deals, Daniel’s vast programming knowledge, and my limited design skills. A combination I’d like never to repeat again. - Manish’s excel sheet rivaled some differential equation solutions in terms of formula length, Daniel had just read about Ruby on Rails, and my recently acquired construction science degree was not helpful.

After a few conversations, we figured $20,000 was enough to complete our project. So Manish and I went to work on site architecture and Daniel went to work on converting over 80,000 lines of excel formulas. Looking back on the $20k estimate now, we were off by a factor of TEN. Likely more. (Don’t worry, we paid Daniel more.)

The first year felt like skydiving for the first time. You jump, have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into and hope the chute opens. Every day after our full-time jobs, we would struggle to find the best layout, organization, and design of the application. Every “solution” we came up with would be thrown out and re-done the following month as we taught ourselves User Experience 101. (The application today likely only retains 2-4% of that code/design written the first 12 months). The most difficult part of that first year was translating Manish’s ridiculous spreadsheet into a simple, usable, yet comprehensive app. It was like pulling teeth out of his head. Then taking those teeth and smoothing them down to perfect spheres and using them as ball bearings in a formula 1 car’s wheels. I exaggerate not. This is not to blame Manish for any kind of mental difficulties, I’m merely attempting to describe what it’s like trying to extract and re-arrange a vast amount of information that is neatly organized within someone’s head.

The second year of work, you would think we had a decent grasp of exactly WHAT the application IS/WAS, but as we developed and listened to our growing number of users, we found that the foundation of the program needed to be radically changed. Instead of a being primarily an “analysis app” we needed to become a “marketing app”. This was difficult for us at first because we had spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours on analysis programming and none on marketing. Our baby needed to be re-incubated, created, and delivered. We didn’t want to do it. It felt like failing. But, we still had a bit of that “startup optimism” driving us, and we took the change in stride while learning something invaluable: “eat your ego and listen to your users”.

The next couple years after that, we completely re-designed the app 3 more times, changed the name twice, and created an API for the app to rest on. At every coding iteration and design version we found ourselves looking back on the previous and wondering “what in the HELL were we thinking?” – I guess if there’s anything to be taken away from this it’s the following:

- You can’t spend too much time answering the question: “Where’s the intersection between an app’s monetization and purpose?”

- You’ll succeed only if you don’t allow yourself to become discouraged. Working with good-hearted people is key.

- They say that it takes 7 years for a bootstrapped startup to mature; let’s hope that’s true.

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Generators vs. Hogs

Working at one company for nearly four years, I’ve been observing the psychology of work ethic. The company I work for has hired over 60 people since my arrival and I’ve found that when it comes to new employees you’ll find they usually fit into one of two categories: generator or hog.

This type of person has the aptitude and resourcefulness to get the job done and done right. They often teach themselves new techniques and skills. They always seek to find an answer on their own before asking anyone else. They never ask questions that can be answered with a simple Google search. They are self-sufficient. They can produce work as fast as needed and are often asking for more to fill their plate. They are loyal and look for ways to make processes more efficient. Their perseverance is not replaceable.

This type of person continuously needs something in order to do their job. They need resources to perform and succeed. “I need a new monitor”, “I need this software”, “I need $10,000″, “I need a web app”. Their projects often take 2-3 times longer than first expected and deliver less results. They use catch phrases and trendy terminology to convince their superiors their idea’s are worthwhile. They have difficulty communicating. They are always looking to move up on the company ladder. Their ego clouds their judgment.

Which type of employee are you?

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