I had a really enjoyable exchange with Anthony Hobday, diving into visual design. This text is my attempt to distill our 3 hours of talking into a few key takeaways. I loved this conversation because we went meta a couple of times, digging into the philosophy of good visual design. We explored how valuable beautiful visual design can be, especially when it’s done consciously rather than accidentally. And I got some valuable clues about how visual design can be best learned.
Anthony thinks that people don’t tend to see the value in visual design, but interestingly everybody will instinctively be drawn to good visual design.
Good visual design works. But when does it work and why? What makes good visual design?
Good design makes a product useful and understandable, is innovative, aesthetic, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, thorough to the last detail, environmentally friendly, and involves as little design as possible.
I’d like to extend the definition of Dieter Rams on design in general. I’m considering what I learned while chatting with Anthony and what’s most important to me when designing and developing digital products.
Visual design can influence people’s behavior. As creators, we have a responsibility, to make sure we use the superpower of good visual design and aim it at desirable goals. By my definition, a design is conscious if it helps you live a better life (online and offline) and intentional when everything you see on the screen is there for a reason.
For instance, at my writing platform Ken, I want to use visual design to make people aware that they don’t have to rush. That the internet can be a slow, thoughtful medium, too. You can read at your own pace, don’t have to respond immediately but come back a few days after when a good answer strikes your mind. Much like a letter exchange via physical mail.
I was glad to hear that Anthony confirmed that to him, the best visual design is purposeful, intensional visual design. I prefer the word conscious instead of purposeful. To me, it’s the highest form of truth. For instance, a design can be purposeful in making you subscribe to an ideology and go to war. But it can't be conscious, as you would have realized in the process, that ideology and war don't lead to a better life for anyone.
How do we get more conscious designs for the products we use daily? For instance, I wish that decision-makers at online platforms become more mindful of the implications their design has for people on a deeper level. If they were aware that providing “related articles” or “people to follow” in a sidebar scatters the reader’s mind and keeps them from finishing an article as a whole, we might see less of this.
There’s this famous quote (I forgot who said it) that a design is perfect when nothing more can be taken away. Most of the design I see out there is not minimal. It’s crowded and noisy. We got obsessed with features, and we don’t even know why they are there in the first place. And then there’s the other side of the spectrum when minimalism is taken too literally. Some products display as little as possible, purely for the sake of aesthetics, while elements that were actually needed to solve the problem are missing.
There’s a tendency that once a design works, it gets copied all over the internet. If you look at the websites of startups you will notice that a lot of them look almost the same. It’s a pity, because not only does that get boring at some point, but it’s also really hard to remember and recognize the different products or websites. Originality is hard though. You can’t be original on command. You need to think about visualizing a certain thing over a long period of time and trust that a great idea strikes you at some point.
There seem to be universal rules of aesthetics. When applied in combination with high-quality typefaces and illustrations the result will be perceived as beautiful.
Anthony: If something is good to look at, you won’t find a person on the planet (unless they are contrarian) who looks at it and says: “No, that's not valuable.” That’s my belief.
The beauty of a design is a property of its own right. It is not connected with the ones listed before. In fact, a beautiful design could be used to trick you into buying something you don’t need. A lot of things you see on Instagram are without a doubt beautiful to look at, but have they also been designed consciously, so they improve your life?
There’s not much we can do to prevent design from being used to promote bad things. But Anthony suggests that you make it a moral obligation to use beauty to outpace the bad guys.
Anthony: Good things should be the most beautiful.
When Anthony started learning visual design he was puzzled. There was no clear path, like for learning architecture for instance. Designers have a lot of implicit knowledge, gained through experience. However, while there’s always a fair bit of subjectivity and trial and error involved to become a good designer, he is convinced there are general principles about how good design works. He wants to make design knowledge more explicit.
There are a lot of bite-sized tips on Twitter or Youtube. Those can be helpful and inspirational, but you also have to keep in mind that most things you see online are attempts from people trying to make money from you.
The most complete visual design education you can get comes in the form of courses. Their creators are charging thousands of pounds because they know there’s a gap in the market and a high demand.
What’s missing are resources that expose more of what is currently tacit knowledge. Anthony wishes that more of these things are brought to the sunlight, and made visible to everyone. So that people could start to see that visual design is not magical. A series of steps you could take. A collection of knowledge, following a standard syllabus.
It might be impossible to create a complete reference for visual design knowledge, but nonetheless, Anthony is trying. He’s collecting everything he knows and structures it as little consumable snippets on his website.
In our call, he emphasized the following habits or ways of thinking that are important to become good at visual design:
Pay close attention to things: Being a good observer is a fundamental skill of a good designer. Once you start to look closely, you will see the world and products out there with different eyes
Iterate many many times: When you see a beautiful functional design it’s probably the 16th attempt of it. The designer did not come up with something great from the start, but improved on it over a long period of time.
Expose yourself to patterns, and collect them: You want to get to a point when with any problem thrown at you, you will say, “yeah I got 3-4 different solutions to this.” Unfortunately most high quality pattern collections are not free and it’s not easy to pick the ones which are right for you. So ideally, we had a good enough library that covers the basics.
Rules and principles: This is a really big area and you can find a lot of these. You can study proportion, white space, contrast, etc., but it’s hard to make practical use of this unless there are a lot of examples.
Anthony wants to contribute to a sort of canon for visual design. A standard text. In the same way, you can refer to a canon of laws of the UK, you should be able to refer to a canon of visual design.
Anthony: It’s really hard to write everything down though. For instance tracking trends, it’s a neverending story because they are changing a lot. Or there is semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. It’s a huge scientific area of study. Every designer will have a different opinion about much you should know about semiotics for instance, or how much about typography you should know. You can start with a few key rules of typography but if you want to become a really good visual designer you have to learn a lot more about it.
It’s hard to know where to stop the collection of visual design knowledge. Where can you put the boundary around saying “past this you are not learning about visual design but typography?” So you are becoming a sort of specialist. Other things are fully contained like the border radius of containers. You should know everything you can about that border-radius, but with something like semiotics, you just want to touch a part of it.
In the past I was thinking, could I create this sort of syllabus of concepts and create a Wikipedia-like page so that details can be annotated more technically easily? Maybe also other people could contribute. But I realized that Wikipedia works because there are millions of people willing to check in on millions of subjects.
There are about 10 people in the world who are really interested enough in visual design to want to try to create this all-encompassing canon of visual design on a Wikipedia-like page. And who would be able to take the time to dive into it and collect all information because it's such a niche topic? So it feels like it could be done, but actually, it's a lot of effort and there are not enough people to put that in.
So maybe once they got started, you could interest people enough to come and chip in something they know about, you know, but then it's such a tacit area, a tacit collection of knowledge for some people.
While creating a syllabus is an important goal (Anthony is on it), it will never be complete. So how should we ever catch up with the latest developments?
What if in addition to a “complete” syllabus, we encouraged written conversations around the topic? What if we had a place where some of the best designers are sharing pieces of their knowledge as short stories? And what if such a story doesn’t have all the answers? What if it is rather a starting point for a scientific exchange, where other experienced designers get involved and share their views? I think this would be a great way to push the status quo of design further, but also a great learning experience. Imagine you can read a letter exchange of some of the best designers on the planet. And you could even participate in those conversations?
This is actually how I became a good programmer. On Github, I got involved in discussions with the maintainers of Open Source Software. The best realizations I had while being part of such conversations, not while studying computer science at the university. Working on actual projects triggered a lot of questions, and GitHub and Stackoverflow were spaces for these questions to be explored.
I learn the most in a conversation when I’m open to the outcome. First, I’m asking myself a question I’m genuinely interested in, and then I’m trying to come up with possible answers and writing them down. My goal is to convince myself of a possible solution, not someone else. Then I share that text. If someone comes along, who also resonates with the topic, they find it easy to start an exchange. And such an exchange can be so valuable. It has been for me!
Anthony is convinced that the general availability of design knowledge is the key to seeing more good visual design out there.
A big problem is that many experienced designers are protective of their ideas and their knowledge. They may think: “If only I know this, I have an advantage over other designers. I can earn money from that knowledge by providing a course or service.”
Anthony: Someone on Youtube said out loud: “I’m not going to show you this because it’s part of my process.” The concept of a proprietary process for visual design is so ridiculous to me because we all learn from other people. None of us has a process they came up with alone.
If you want to be the best or seek the truth, you will be busy the rest of your life, making the next step, making the next step, making the next step. You don’t need to be protective of what’s already behind you. You want to work on solving the puzzle. And the puzzle is big enough, for instance in science. And so it is in visual design. Once you start protecting your ideas you turn from a discoverer of new and better ideas to a maintainer of existing ones.
I’m convinced that when you start protecting your ideas, you are ultimately hurting yourself. If you are confident about what you do, then you don’t worry about others picking up your knowledge. But if you do worry about it, it makes you feel bad. Because somewhere deep down, you know you are not as good as you want to be.
So let’s talk more openly about good design and then make it happen.
Anthony: If twice as many people in the world would know how to make something look better, that would be a great achievement.
„A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.“ Antoine de Saint-Exupery
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