More Thoughts on Learning Design

A continuation of my post from yesterday…

In what ways do you know the materials? What do we associate with the material culturally? (Why are so many courthouses designed with columns, even though most of the columns are merely skinned with stone?) What are the physical characteristics of the material? (Steel and glass can be either smooth or sharp. But they could rarely, if ever, be exchanged for cotton balls or air.) In what ways does a material or shape compel a user to act? (How can you tell when a button need to be pushed? And when it should be turned?) We get to know our materials through experience, specifications, and testing.

I want to return to the example I created. A man enters the room. At some point, he will push the button. When he does, he’ll heighten his awareness for possible effects of his pushing. Nothing happens. He brushes his fingers over at least some of the different panels. And he looks through the glass into the interior of the box. I’ve left out several details. They’re not important.

Buttons compel us to push. A glass cut-out compels us to peer through. Texture compels us to touch. These are predictable reactions based on strong, cultural habits. Less strong, but possibly still true, are the notions that putting the object in a room with nothing else makes it likely that a visitor will take notice, consider, and possibly interact with the object. Making the glass eye-level strengthens the likelihood that someone will look through. Making the box out of stainless steel makes it durable, sanitary, and familiar, each of which help to suggest permission to act on the impulses to touch or interact.

My impulse is to say that design can be simply defined as “action structured in absence.” But that’s an awfully abstract notion. There are nuances that are necessary to the definition if it’s going to be useful in considering the effectiveness of design, rather than merely a user’s action in response to the design. Too simply, but suggestively, it’s question of quantitative versus qualitative evaluation. It’s one thing to measure clicks, speed, and efficiency. But it’s another question entirely to start to consider aspects of the user’s experience such as: comfort, confidence, pleasure, freedom, predictability, closure. More complex still are design questions related to meaning-making and expression.

So… an adjustment. User action. Material structure. Designer absence. All essential for questions of design. But I think function, action, and use are very different aspects of design. Function is conceptual. What needs to be accomplished. Action is very simply what a user does. Click. Drag. Type. And use is the intent that a user has when interacting with a design.

And that last sentence is a segue of sorts. It’s important that I switched from talking about objects to designs. Because what I really want to starting thinking about his interface design for digital documents. And in that regard, a designer (you and me) won’t really have much control over screen technology. Just pixels, and even then, designs gotta be flexible. But that’s nothing new. HTML made fluid design ubiquitous. And vector graphics (read: Flash) has significantly expanded its possibilities.

What I want to start thinking about is how we might go about making ourselves better designers of digital academic texts. And I guess those will be my three primary terms: Digital. Academic. Text.

This is a cool project. Not one that needs to be started or organized or ever completed. Just an impulse I’m articulating for myself. To keep myself thinking through it here on the blog.

As far as texts go, I’m going to be reading and critiquing at least two texts. Donald A. Norman’s print-book, The Design of Everyday Things, and some of the ideas Jakob Nielsen’s Website,

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