Discovering the laws of design

Design isn't just, like, your opinion, man

When someone first starts out learning about design, it all seems so simple and straightforward. Just make things look better, right? Use cool fonts, mix up the colors a little bit, and suddenly everything's magically improved.

But the further you get into design, the more complicated it becomes. Eventually you're dealing with heated debates about the relative merits of different kinds of interface elements based on conflicting usability studies. Or maybe you're designing an app for different mobile platforms, and trying to account for the differences in thumb reach on the new jumbo-sized iPhones. Or maybe you've just found out that the new sign you designed for a client isn't visible at night because you didn't consider the relative visibility of different colors when backlit.

Basically, design gets complicated.

But you power through. You keep learning. You keep practicing. You keep solving problems.

And over time, a strange thing starts to happen. You begin to recognize common themes and patterns across seemingly different projects. You find yourself explaining the same ideas to clients repeatedly, even when their problems have little in common on the surface. You start identifying underlying concepts, not just specific executions.

Design gets simple again.

Looking Beyond Preference and Opinion

This struck me many years ago when I was talking to a friend who ran his own design firm. We shared the methodology and process we followed for in-depth corporate rebranding projects, which involved a relatively complicated conceptual structure, and a very specific process for extrapolating visual and verbal styles from it.

The thing that fascinated me was that our processes turned out to be nearly identical, even though we'd both essentially developed them in isolation. The process my firm used was the result of extensive experimentation and iteration. We hadn't copied anyone. We'd gone deep into it, all on our own, and had developed a process we thought was unique to us.

He'd done the same, and came up with a nearly identical result.

It was like two scientists meeting each other and realizing they were studying the same thing, and that their experiments had led them to the same conclusions. I wasn't annoyed that someone else was using the same process we'd been using; I was actually overjoyed that it seemed like we were uncovering some kind of hidden truth about the universe.

What if Design Doesn’t Come from Designers?

I used to think that design was about opinion or preference or creative inspiration. As years passed, and then decades, I came to understand that design isn't something that exists in my head. It's not coming from me personally. It's out there, somewhere. It exists in the universe, and as designers we're just tapping into it and trying to figure out how it works.

Humans didn't create design. It was always there. We're just trying to figure out how it works.

There's part of me that wonders if there's some kind of spiritual aspect to design, but in reality I think it probably works more like physics: there are laws, constants, principles, theories, models, concepts…and between all of them, we get us a clearer picture of the reality around us. Those scientific aspects aren't always clear in the beginning of a design career, but you can't help but observe them the deeper you get into it.

And understanding this about the nature of design introduces a complicated new party into the design process. There's a designer, there's a client, and then—sometimes unwelcome—there's reality: the reality of the problem they're trying to solve, and the reality of how design can be used most effectively to solve it.

Designers often use words like "creative" or "maker" to describe themselves, but those words have never really clicked for me. They don't seem accurate. A designer, a great designer, isn't necessarily creating anything. They're uncovering a solution that's a natural and logical byproduct of the goals, constraints, and resources of the project. The logic of a great design is self-evident once you understand the principles. Of course they did that way; it was the best way to do it.

Originality, in itself, has little to do with whether a design is great or not (although the capacity for originality can certainly be helpful when problem solving).

Diving Into the Deep End

Many designers never progress far enough into the profession to see these underlying constants, these universal principles I've been talking about. Sometimes they're artists at heart, wanting to keep their work solidly within the realm of aesthetics and self-expression. Other times design is just a job for them, something relatively low-impact they can do to pay the bills. And in some other cases, they just can't be bothered to think too hard about it.

But there are designers who get it. They know that great design is based on universal principles instead of individual preferences. They understand that design is a process, not a skill set. They put their ego aside and embrace the laws of design. As in professional sports, they realize that greatness comes from relentless drilling on the fundamentals. If you can get the fundamentals right, everything else will gradually fall into place.

There’s No Top-Ten List

If you were expecting me to give you a Buzzfeed-style list of all the design laws, maybe with an eye-catching photo and a snarky caption for each, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. There’s no list. It’s more complicated than that. And the whole point of this Deep Design project is to explore that complication.

I don't claim to know all these universal laws and principles of design yet. I'm still actively trying to figure them out for myself, and I suspect I will be for the rest of my life. But I do know they exist. There are actual laws and principles that exist outside the realm of art and inspiration and opinion and preference. I've uncovered some them already, as have many others, and I’m actively working to find more.

Over the course of this project I'll be sharing many of these basic “laws” of design. Sometimes I'll be talking about high-level concepts, and other times really granular, detailed examples of a specific idea.

Either way, it's definitely going to be an interesting ride, and I hope you'll stick around to see what's next.

James Archer

About James Archer

James Archer is a respected author, speaker, and consultant on the subjects of user experience design, customer experience design, design thinking, marketing, and branding. He has worked on projects for clients like Microsoft, Walmart, Motorola, and Yahoo, and projects he's worked on have appeared in U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Businessweek, Entrepreneur, New York Times, AdAge, NPR, and others. Learn more about James