Sunday, 11 October 2009

Vision is a feature

A few weeks ago Mark Whiting and I had a brief Twitter conversation about his suggestion that as design quality increases the designer disappears. He went on to suggest that the formalism we when recognising a designer's work is as much an imperfection of the design as a feature.

I was not so sure. There are definitely instances where the designer's mark seems to contribute to the design. Programming languages are a good example. Ruby would not be what it is without the strength of Matz's personal vision.

On the other hand, I do get annoyed when a designer's vanity tempts them to graffiti their signature onto a design that would have been better left alone. I'm thinking here of 'clever' designs like teapots with two spouts.

The difference between these two scenarios is, in my opinion, is whether or not the design space is convergent. I mean the term in the same sense as convergent evolution. In a convergent design space, the differences between designs will gradually disappear over time as individual designers are gradually more successful at approximating the best solution to the problem at hand.

In such a domain, it follows that any deviation from the one true design is noise. The designer's personal touch therefore detracts from their attempt to produce good design. A double-spouted teapot might help the designer express their individuality, but the result is just slightly less convenient tea.

However, it's rare to find a design space where a Platonic 'best' design exists. When have the various stakeholders in the construction of a new building ever agreed what is best? And to revisit my earlier example, which language is 'best' is one of the most common topics of programming flame wars.

Designers usually have to balance competing interests. How much should the finished product cost? What kind of user/customer should it be optimised for? What about older users/customers, or ones with disabilities? And not least, when is the deadline for the completed design? How designers balance these interests will inevitably affect the design. There is rarely any objective way to balance these subjective interests, so there is rarely an objective best design.

In such open design spaces, the designer's vision serves an important purpose - coherence. There are so many elements in a complicated design that it can be hard to take them in all at once. A strong authorial vision helps users/customers by giving them a guide to predict and/or remember the designer's choices.

Many Ruby admirers speak of the Principle of Least Surprise. Ruby is comparatively easy to learn and understand because its design choices aim to produce the least astonishment in the programmer. But since every programmer comes from a different background, they will each have different expectations and standards of astonishment.

So more precisely, Ruby was designed according to the Principle of Matz's Least Surprise. Once the programmer gets a handle on Matz's programming aesthetic, they can make educated guesses about parts of the language that they have not yet encountered.

So in conclusion, the formalism we when recognising a designer's work is a feature because it makes understanding complicated design simpler.


  1. Thanks for the more detailed response.

    It is hard to make generalisations about design and there are of course many areas that different opinions apply, however, I think that in some idealistic sense, the logic and value of a design can be abstracted from the personal mission of the designer. In cases where this happens I suggest the outcome is often perceived as more valuable. As you point out, sometimes the so called mission is critical to the value of the design however I think it is safe to say that in this kind of case the real mission of the designer is to create a certain perspective on value and in doing so implements useful creativity and logic to come to a great design outcome.

    I am afraid that I can not agree with your conclusion as the formalisms which represent a designers work are often not understood by anyone, including the designer. (This is perhaps more often the case in industrial design and architecture) Formalisms of this kind, seem to me to be very complex notions of reason, and drive in design. And I suggest that understanding these only sometimes effects the acceptance or understanding of a design output.

    Sorry I was in a rush so I could not write more elegantly.

    What are your thoughts?

  2. Hi Mark,

    As you say, it's hard to make meaningful comment about something as abstract as design without reference to a specific context. It's especially problematic for someone like me with a background in software and philosophy, not design per se :)

    I agree that the affect I described applies "only sometimes". My conclusion claims too much.

    But I would say that we're discussing instances where the formalism is "recognised", which increases the chance that the it will contribute to the conscious appreciation of the design.

    As an aside, I think your use of the phrase "some idealistic sense" when discussing the value of a design is interesting, because I think that where you stand on Platonic idealism would influence your views on this. I'm something of a materialist, so I would tend to view the designer's "mission" or some other concrete application/audience as the measure of a design's quality.

    Thanks for commenting.