As I’ve been talking about the decisions I’ve made for the redesign of this site, I’ve noticed myself using a few words over and over. Words like constraints and concept and unity. I’ve said things like one constraint leads to another and how concept leads design. I thought a post talking about each of these words and how they help in making design decisions would hopefully be interesting and helpful.
How to Make Better Design Decisions
To design something means to make a series of decisions about how it should function and how it should look and how it should perform. The better your decisions, the better your design, but how do you know which decision is better?
For example which is the better color to use, blue or red? Without greater context there’s no answer. Blue isn’t any better or worse then red by default. You need more information to decide which to use. If you want a color that’s calm, stable and recedes into the background, then blue is your choice. If you want a color that evokes passion, energy and sits in the foreground, then red is your choice.
Say you’re designing a site for a meditation center. You’d probably go with blue over red as a dominant color since meditation leads you to think of calm and relaxing and blue is the better choice than red for both.
Without the additional information you have no objective way to decide. Blue is blue and red is red and neither is fundamentally better or worse than the other.
You make better decisions when you can defend your choices in some rational way. Your decisions shouldn’t be arbitrary. There should be some reasoning behind them. You’re reasoning won’t always be perfect. You will make mistakes, but you should have a reason for making a decision.
Setting constraints, developing a concept, and striving toward unity can all provide the reasons you need to justify your choices.
Design depends largely on constraints
— Charles Eames
The problem with design decisions is there’s a never ending amount of options you can potentially choose. Constraints help rein in these options. They narrow down all the possible options into a more reasonable amount from which to choose.
Constraints are set by the project. They define the problem you’re trying to solve. The goals of your design set constraints. The personas you might create set constraints. When you ask questions of your client about what they want, you identify constraints to set.
Despite what I said above, you can set constraints arbitrarily at times. When talking about my type decisions I mentioned constraining the body copy to a serif typeface. Later in the process and with additional constraints I could defend this choice, but when made, it was an arbitrary constraint. It was made to eliminate some possibilities and push me toward a certain direction.
In some ways design is a continuous process of adding more and more constraints to remove what you can’t do so that what’s left is your solution.
Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem — the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible — his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time and so forth.
— Charles Eames
Where a constraint is telling us what we can’t do, a concept is suggesting what we should do. Your concept sets a direction to follow for the decisions you make and as a consequence suggests more constraints. If you’re walking in one direction, you aren’t walking in another one.
Take the meditation center example. You might choose a concept based on a backyard zen rock garden. It fits with meditation and if you picture what that garden might look like, it should trigger lots of ideas for the aesthetic of your design.
You might also choose a concept based on a Buddhist monastery. It also fits with meditation, but suggests a very different aesthetic. Where the zen garden might be simple the monastery might be austere. You might see flowers, a pond, and warm sunshine in the garden and heavy stone and cool dark walls in the monastery.
Each leads you in one direction while constraining you in another.
unity (n) — The state of being united or joined as a whole.
If constraints show us what not to do and a concept points the way toward what we should do, unity is about making everything as consistent as possible within your constraints and concept. Unity aims to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Think for a moment of the story of the tortoise and the hare. We all know the hare is faster and should win any race, but in this particular race he’s overconfident and falls asleep. The tortoise takes one step at time toward his goal and consistently makes progress. The hare runs fast, but not always towards the finish.
Had we learned early in the story that in training for the race the tortoise was lazy and often slept and the hare adhered to a rigorous training program the eventual story of the race wouldn’t play out as well. The characters would be acting inconsistently and the choices they make during the race wouldn’t make sense.
Unity aims to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts
When you design a website you’re communicating a story to an audience. Often it’s the story of the business behind the site. That story will have set some constraints and led to the concept for the design. The more consistent the story, the more unified the design, the better it will be.
If you’re trying to communicate how peaceful and tranquil your meditation center is, then using red as a dominant color conflicts with your story. Red is energetic and in motion. It’s not peaceful and tranquil. Using sharp corners and angled lines also conflicts with the message of the story.
The principle of unity is about this consistency. The more your individual choices agree with each other, the more in harmony they are with your concept, the more effective you communicate your story. Unity also helps set new constraints. If each decision should be unified with those that came before, each also decreases the number of options that can work with the unified whole.
In a sense unity is it’s own constraint. The decision to unite constrains all those choices that don’t unite.
Unity discusses the need to tie the various elements of a work of art together. Unity is a measure of how the elements of a page seem to fit together — to belong together. A unified work of art represents first a whole, then the sum of its parts.
Design is about making a lot of decisions that on their own offer little rational basis for choosing one option over another. We need some kind of context to decide.
- Constraints — tell us what we can’t choose
- Concept — point the way toward what we should choose
- Unity — suggests choices that are in harmony with choices already made
Constraints, concepts, and unity provide the context for making design decisions. Your decisions should not look to the constrained options. They should look to those options suggested by your concept. The more consistent you are in doing both, the more unified your design, and the more effective you’ll communicate message and story.
Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.