Book Review: Universal Principles of Design
Several years ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of teaching a beginner’s Max workshop at the Technical University of Delft. It was an amazing week – not least because it was the first time I’d taught a workshop to an audience of designers rather than musicians or visualists (I also had my first encounter with Islamic Aazan (prayer) clocks and learned what happens when you have more than one rooster at a time outside of your hotel window, but those stories are for another time). When it was done, a faculty member presented me with a book as a gift that has lived, well-thumbed, on my bookshelf ever since – and a book that I would recommend to you as something for your “basic bookshelf,” if you’re at all interested in design: William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler’s Universal Principles of Design
If you’ve read more than one of the book reviews I’ve been writing over the last year or so, you know that I have a particular interest in and fondness for books that help us locate ourselves in some way – whether it’s placing ourselves in cultural or historical contexts as audio or visual artists, or thinking about our environment and searching for invitations to the serendipitous moment of inspiration. I think this book will help you in that regard.
And I say this as someone who came of age in an era when software for typography and graphic design (in addition to 3D printing and laser cutting) has even more explicitly created a world in which we are all what Alvin and Heidi Toffler called prosumers – people who create what they consume. The hope was that – with the rise of software that made everyone a designer (or typographer) – our own experiences doing designs for ourselves would make us all better designers and in which principles of “good” design would emerge or reveal themselves to us in practice. I’m not sure how all that precisely works when mixed with what science fiction author David Brin calls SoA (suspicion of authority) and – at least in the present political situation – we might call the problem of expertise.
If everyone is a designer, what would a book like this have to tell us? Your mileage may vary, but I’d say this:
Designers know things we don’t – not because we’re dullards or because our unique and individual insights have no value or something like that. Like anyone who specializes, designers spend their time thinking about the things we think with, and spend time attempting to explore and verify (often in very practical terms) why the things they think with (assumptions, if you will) are as they are. As the so-called legibility wars among typographic designers in the late 20th century suggest, that drive to exploration and verification can be loud and messy and entertaining (and when the dust finally cleared, I think that Stephen Heller succinctly summarized the result here: “Making type and typography more readable was ultimately more useful to old and young designers alike than making it less so”).
If you’ve ever looked at something you were working on and wondered what someone with more experience than you have might think of it, I think you’ll find this book a very interesting read in terms of encouraging you to think like a designer. What the book does exceedingly well is the attempt to treat design as a holistic discipline that seeks to engage with global/crosscultural principles rather than a balkanized patchwork of sub-practices. That is sometimes the case with industrial or graphic design, and – I suspect – with our own approaches to design. The 120-odd principles described are most definitely cross-disciplinary: human computer interaction (HCI), biology, gestalt psychology, human computer interaction, mathematics, typography, web design, and so on.
Similarly, the principles strive to be applicable to diverse applications in ways that can be described as qualitative (Framing) and/or quantitative (Fitt’s Law), as well. I expect you may discover more than a few names for clusters of problems or idea that you didn’t realize actually had a name, in fact – Performance Load (“the greater the effort to accomplish a task, the less likely the task will be accomplished successfully”) or the Five Hat Racks (“There are five ways to organize information – category, time, location, alphabet, and continuum”), for example.
You might imagine that such a diverse collection of principles across disciplines and discourses may not be easy to organize in any hierarchical way, and you’d be right. Instead, the individual sections are alphabetical. The effect of this is that opening the book to any random page doesn’t start you off in a hierarchy you traverse – rather, a sequential reading from any random starting point constantly shunts your attention back in forth in ways that may allow or encourage serendipitous personal insights. If this particularly annoys you, don’t worry – the text also includes an alternate “categorical” table of contents to guide non-browsers through the text.
Each of the individual sections is organized similarly – they’re laid out as a set of two facing pages. The left page defines and identifies the pattern, and accompanies the definition by a set of references to studies about the pattern in the literature to contemplate. The right-hand page illustrates the principle in practice using graphs, diagrams, and photos. The examples to illustrate each principle often range across a wide variety of disciplines (for example, you’ll find mechanical devices, software, and road signs as demonstrations of the forgiveness principle), as well. This means that you can open up the book to any page and immediately get a comprehensive and clear overview of the principle. Here are a pair of examples
I expect that anyone who’s read extensively on topics related to the design of user experiences and usability in general will find some of the principles to be things they’re already internalized (iteration and prototyping as practices for good design practice come to mind here) – but, even then, the readings for each section may prove interesting nonetheless.
Some of you may be hearing a still, small voice quietly wondering about just how “universal” these principles may actually be (I tend to be suspicious of any use of the term, myself). There are a couple of portions of this book that would seem to me to run afoul of the tendency to present a specific kind of western cultural bias as “universal.”
The section on the Gutenberg Diagram principle describes how eyes move across a page of information, and describes this as being a movement from left to right. The globally competent reader may rightly observe that this principle might not be the case in any culture where one reads from right to left (e.g. the entire Arabic-speaking world). It’s useful, but not universal. Similarly, I am suspicious about the universality of associating blank space with expensive products or claiming that the color red denotes attractive women and strong men as being something that would travel well across cultural boundaries. The single principle that bugged me the most had to do with the association of gender role behavior with Hunter/Nurturer classifications – it’s my impression that the study that “proved” this has largely been debunked (I also have an older edition of this text, so perhaps a subsequent printing has modified or amended this one).
I’m not without quibbles about some of the content but – that said – this a unique and thought-provoking stroll through a field that we don’t think about as much as we might claim [certainly I don’t, but your mileage may vary]. It ranges widely afield enough that it provides an opportunity to reflect on the ways that there may be subtle and less obvious patterns of good design (yes, the reference to Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order is pretty obvious) worthy of our consideration. At best, you’ll have something interesting to take down and read when you want to clear out the cobwebs and don’t feel like puzzling your way through one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. At worst, this book could function as a great irritant, and that’s a good thing. As we say in Mollusc Land, “No irritant, no pearl.”