Brief notes on design

In no particular order. Occasionally updated.

On Skills

  • There are three general skills in product design. Product thinking, Interaction Design, Visual design. Have all these skills but be excellent in at least two.
  • Salesmanship is the single most important multiplier for a designer. Your job is both to propose a solution as well as to get people to buy into it.
  • Write well. It is difficult to overstate the power of a well written document in both structuring your own thoughts as well as helping others understand your vision.
  • Learn to code. But remember coding is just a tool and tools don’t think. Great coders who are bad at product thinking have less impact than great product thinkers who are bad at coding.
  • The more high-level you go as a designer, the less designer-y you will feel. Know that at this height all disciplines converge into product leadership.
  • Given a complex problem, an inexperienced designer will be misled by the complexity. An intermediate designer will understand the complexity but will simply transfer the burden to the user through a complex solution. An expert will be able to resolve the complexity behind the scenes so that the customer doesnt have to.
  • More words often result in less clarity. If words are bullets, don’t spray and pray. Take your time to get it right. One shot. One kill.
  • Recognize that you are ultimately designing a system, and it is the function of the system that is the product. If your local improvements are detrimental to the system (no matter how excellent the improvements are on their own) then you are making the product worse.

On the Work

  • “Looks Good + Works Well + Makes Sense = Feels Right” — Gregg Suzuki
  • Don’t come back empty handed. Do the work, no matter how complex or extensive it is.
  • Every project should start with understanding what you don’t know.
  • Recognize the problems that don’t exist before trying to solve for them. You’ll save yourself a lot of time.
  • Know what the problems are and be able to articulate each of them in a single sentence. Or better yet a memorable name. Unsuccessful designs are often those still searching for a problem.
  • “A well-stated problem is half solved” — John Dewey
  • When a problem is very complex, the answer is not to throw more people at it. The greatest dining experience in the world is not produced by a legion of chefs but by a tight team of trusted individuals. Likewise, a small empowered team of cross functional people who are well informed of stakeholder opinions but are trusted to make their own decisions will achieve wonders if you let them.
  • “In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is” — Yogi Berra. Which is to say, build it to really know.
  • Don’t wait until you have everything figured out to ship what you know is valuable today. If you ship something, you might find out it wasn’t valuable at all.
  • “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.” — John Gall
  • A simple system arises from a simple goal addressed through a disciplined design developed by a singular architect.
  • “A system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts…the defining properties of any system are properties of the whole which none of the parts have. For example an automobile is a mechanical system and its essential property is its ability to carry you from one place to another but no part of it can do that...In any system when one improves the performance of the parts taken separately, the performance of the whole does not necessarily improve and frequently gets worse.” — Dr. Russell Ackoff
  • A common error is entangling a concept together with its method of implementation. Conflating the two in this way causes the concept to be developed by the implementation rather than the implementation to express the concept. The result is usually a concept driven by novelty rather than utility.
  • Everyone loves to think about the next next thing. Few are willing to focus on the next thing.
  • “Good design is clear thinking made visible, bad design is stupidity made visible.” — Edward Tufte
  • Sometimes the details don’t matter. It’s good to be passionate, but bad to get stuck when the needle won’t be moved.
  • Don’t design unique one-offs. Systems are a gift. If it works well and nobody notices, you’ve succeeded.
  • Be opinionated. It’s good to have a stunning number of iterations but unless you focus them into distinct, opinionated, visions your critiques won’t be able to help you move forward with strength or clarity.
  • “you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it…I remember, with the LaserWriter — we built the world’s first laser printer, as you know, and there was awesome technology in that box... And I remember seeing the first print-out come out of it. Just picking it up and looking at it, and thinking, “You know, we can sell this.” Because you don’t need to know anything about what’s in that box. All we have to do is hold it up and go, ‘do you want this?’ And if you can remember back to 1984 before laser printers, it was pretty startling to see that. People went, ‘Whoah. Yes.’” — Steve Jobs
  • When experimenting, set a clear standard for success (based on your problem statements) so that vague results don’t get misconstrued for success and then passively shipped.
  • An answer arises from a complete picture of information. Different people have different parts of the information so they may not agree with the answer until you piece the information together. As information changes, so will the answer.
  • “Is Design ephemeral? Some needs are ephemeral, most designs are ephemeral.” — Charles Eames
  • “Many poor systems come from an attempt to salvage a bad basic design and patch it with all kinds of cosmetic relief. Top-Down design reduces the temptation (because at high altitude you can see that a system as a whole requires a refactor rather than a patch)” — Frederic Brooks
  • “Democracy with regard to architecture results in confusion for both builders and consumers.” — Frederic Brooks
  • “Fun is just another word for learning”—Raph Koster
  • “Dealing with real-world constraints is the hard work of true design. Concepts don’t stem from a lack of confidence. They stem from a dereliction of the actual duties of design.”—John Gruber
  • “UX design is about removing problems from the user. Game design is about giving problems to the user…UX is about clarity that hides complexity, and game design is about clarity that teaches complexity.”—Raph Koster
  • The best things are made through conflict, distress, and extended pressure (true of products and also of people).
  • With regard to new technologies: “There is no predictive value in saying ‘that doesn’t work’ or ‘that looks like a toy’ — and there is also no predictive value in saying ‘people always say that’. As Pauli put it, statements like this are ‘not even wrong’ — they give no insight into what will happen. You have to go one level further. You have to ask ‘do you have a theory for why this will get better, or why it won’t, and for why people will change their behaviour, or for why they won’t’?” — Benedict Evans

On Industry and Levels

  • Elitism is rife in design. Don’t care. It’s mostly posturing.
  • Be wary of people who talk big but ship little. They will waste your time.
  • All the big companies (Facebook, Google, Dropbox, Twitter, Pinterest…) are basically in a ongoing exchange of the same designers.
  • Dribbble is high fashion. A lot of over-the-top ideas that occasionally inspire great work.
  • Career levels are usually a game of economics and internal politics rather than an objective indicator of merit.

Recommended Blogs

  • Daring Fireball
  • Stratechery
  • AboveAvalon
  • Paul Graham
  • Eugene Wei
  • David Perell
  • WaitButWhy
  • AskTog
  • Raph Koster
  • Benedict Evans

Recommended Books & Articles

Design at Apple. Previously Dropbox. Always learning. http://thatedchao.com

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