Design Ethos

Never just create a one-off asset when you can construct something reusable

Never just create a reusable single template when you can design something modular

Never just design modular components when you can devise a framework

Never just devise a framework when you can architect a design system

Never just architect a design system when you can define a user experience

Never just define a user experience when you can plan out a user journey

Never just plan out a single user journey when you can improve lifetime value

Excavated Wisdoms

As part of a side project, a blog, which collects various musings of a mostly political nature, I have produced an art book which I’ve called Excavated Wisdoms.

The title requires an explanation, which I figured might in turn make for an interesting design blog post in its own right.

It started a few years ago with me wanting to push myself, and to not always behave like a nice, well-taught, neat and orderly graphic designer. I periodically grow tired of that professional imperative, a bit like a petulant child who doesn’t want to go to bed, or eat his oatmeal porridge.

I was thinking to myself, ”What is the worst I could do as a graphic designer?”

The answer came pretty quickly: ”Make something illegible!”. ”Make a mess!”

And it occurred to me that I actually LIKE making messes. I’ve always found that the rational side of me acts as a bit of a censor, and that the creative side of me embraces the messiness. Messy design seems to tell a story, whereas tidy, minimalist design seems to wear its corporate suit-and-tie and put on a show that is not necessarily genuine. Picasso said it best: ”The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”

At the same time, I was rueing the entertainment-ification of our news, and the proliferation of ”Fake News”. It was bothering me that it was so easy for people to make lies seem plausible, and that even the truth was being boiled down into less credible and increasingly categorical, poorly nuanced soundbites.

It was bothering me that all this focus on brevity and clarity, all this spreading of bite-sized information, didn’t actually help us determine what was true. It seemed to not prompt us to think and try to verify the information. If anything, the ease and the speed with which we were consuming information seemed to make us more oblivious to the truth, and more likely to swallow actual falsehoods.

Around this time, I came upon a very fascinating magazine called ”Found”. I bought an anthology of it for my wife for Christmas (OK, it was really for myself, I confess). If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It is very engrossing and fascinating. It’s basically a collage of found bits of communication: discarded letters, postcards, torn out ads with handwritten notes, shopping lists, thrown away print-outs etc.

Given the obvious lack of context for these artefacts, they always seem slightly mysterious, but also very appealing. You’re trying to understand what’s going on in a person’s life that would make them write the message you’re deciphering, and this detective work is very satisfying.

The artefacts are also obviously difficult to decode, typographically as well as linguistically, since they are usually handwritten, or at least poorly written. And many of the artefacts are worn, crumpled, grimy, ripped. To say they have ”patina” is being charitable. But I found this didn’t really bother me. In fact, it only seemed to enhance their credibility and ” truthiness”, and motivated me even more to try and decipher them. Which really seemed to activate my brain on many levels.

It occurred to me that what I was doing seemed akin to excavation: I was digging through layers of time to try and make sense of something. And that also seemed like an apt analogy for my own writing process: I have a feeling that there is something already there, buried inside my brain. I just have to dig it out, and the words act as my shovel. It turns out, Michael Ondaatje had the perfect description for this: ”As a writer, one is busy with archaeology”.

So, I decided to take nuggets of wisdom – good quotes that I found to be especially profound – and add layers of grime to them, to deliberately make them harder to read and understand. To treat them as artefacts of buried truth rather than texts to be read, or messages to be communicated.

Why quotes? Well, here I am going to lean on W. Somerset Maugham, who supposedly claimed that ”Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.” There has to be something of value at the end of the excavation process, and wit is certainly valuable.

So, here we are. I’ve produced some 60+ ”excavated wisdoms”. Most of them are witty. Some are less legible than others. All of them are messy and grimy, but all of them contain a nugget of truth, if only we are prepared to dig for it.

So: let’s start digging!

Art, Intent and Execution

I’ve never been able to understand how the intent of an artist can ever be divorced from the execution.

To argue that it can is to suggest that execution has no net effect on how a piece of art is perceived, and that is clearly untrue. If you for instance study art used for fascist purposes, you are learning to paint like a fascist; to express fascist sentiments. If you learn rhetoric from a fascist, then you learn how to convince people like a fascist.

Art is like any tool; it can be abused. And if the abuse can be lethal, we need to create awareness about it and be very careful about how we use that tool.

Skeptics ask if you can infer ideological intents behind art. I would say yes, and not only that – it is very often the actual purpose.

Art has always existed for purposes of emotional expression and effect and I would submit it is rare for that to not be the case. Surely Picasso wanted his execution of “Guernica” to reflect the horror, chaos and pain of the subject matter? Likewise, it seems obvious that medieval church architects and painters wanted to instill a certain awe of God through their work.

I’m not saying we cannot strictly judge technical aspects of art, but we should not turn a blind eye to why they are there, and we should encourage greater awareness of how images can affect people’s perceptions – anything less is tantamount to naiveté.

For instance, in the case of nazi propaganda art, it seems like a clear case of intentional glorification: the perspective and rendering typically has Hitler looking more powerful, the compositions typically designed to convey an impression of strength. These artistic choices are not accidental.

But do we absolutely HAVE to consider the intent when viewing art? Of course, you can look at any detail of an image in isolation, but it seems to me that if you’re really interested in the craft, you’d want to be aware of the purpose for all the artistic choices involved. Exceedingly few artists make those choices unwittingly, although I suppose some do it more intuitively.

If we step out of the political realm, the choice of paintbrush is connected to the desired visual impact. For instance, an artist might want to forego the brush altogether in favor of airbrushing, if they want to create a feeling of flawlessness. Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

I suppose it’s a personal preference where you want to start, whether at the beginning or the end of the creative process.. I personally always prefer to look at art through the lens of intent and purpose. In fact, I think the technique becomes even MORE interesting if seen through that lens.

There are artists who are one-trick ponies and apply the same style regardless of subject matter, but the ones who are really admirable imho are the ones who are astutely able to choose an appropriate style and composition that elevates and amplifies the subject matter.

However, this doesn’t necessitate a moral judgment. I am saying art, in every aspect including the executional, is subservient to the creator’s intent. If you want to express fascist sentiments, that leads you down a completely different path of artistic choices than if you, for instance, want to teach children about the birds and the bees. The objective is usually (whether consciously or intuitively) to affect how someone perceives and internalizes the subject of the art piece. I would assume that most propaganda painters also made/make different technical choices depending on what they’re painting. Hence, the intent seems like an obvious part of the artistic equation, and therefore obviously matters.

The point is, because intent matters, it’s worthy of observation and critique. Which, again, doesn’t necessarily require a moral judgment. There are good propaganda painters, who skillfully apply appropriate techniques to accentuate relevant facets of the subject, just like there are unskilled ones who are unable to do so.

But if we disregard intent, we lose out on a dimension of appreciation, and equate poorly executed art with the good.

That’s not to suggest that we couldn’t, or shouldn’t, discuss the moral and ethical implications of art, but that is a very different discussion. I think it’s somewhat different to suggest that someone’s painting style betrays them as being a fascist, and simply noting that they may (sometimes) have painted with an intent of conveying fascist sentiments.

The former makes a judgment of them as human beings, while the latter merely associates certain techniques with certain ideals. To reiterate, I am making this point to argue why the intent cannot be divorced from the execution. However, a certain communicative intent doesn’t necessarily mean someone sympathizes with the ideology behind it; it’s just indicative of the considerations that go into making artistic choices.

You can obviously also ask the very relevant question of what was the chicken and what was the egg? Fascist ideals did not arise out of nowhere, and art certainly informed some of them.

Anything can be misinterpreted and misappropriated, but I don’t think that invalidates the importance of intent in regards to executional artistic choices. It just makes the labels a bit fuzzier, but we should really be able to discuss intent in art without the shorthand of simplistic labels anyway.

Mobile vs. Desktop

I quite often find myself on the controversial side of a modern UX axiom – the Mobile First manifesto, which basically dictates that design of responsive experiences need to start with mobile layouts.

While I have long considered and fully understand the benefits of this approach from a development perspective, I don’t agree with the Mobile First tenet from a visual design and spatial segmentation perspective. I think it is over-simplifying the process of design at the cost of a universally functional responsive site experience, across all viewports and breakpoints.

Basically, I don’t think sacrificing a functional Desktop experience on behalf of a Mobile experience is necessary or even meaningful. Mobile designs can always benefit from the process of laying out Desktop pages. Desktop designs, however, rarely benefit from Mobile design considerations in my experience.

Here’s why:

1. As a designer, you always design the whole before the details.

To do this, you need to see as much of what’s designed in one glance, not view it piecemeal, as if through a keyhole. Otherwise, you will lose context and cohesion.

2. As a designer, you always consider and solve for the complex before the simple.

The complex cannot always be a mere repetition of the simple, or an indefinite combination of many simple elements, but the simple is always by necessity a reduction of the complex.

Mobile can be considered within the whole of a Desktop layout.

The opposite is not true.

Mobile typically contracts to a single column, where spatial structure is linear and vertical.

Desktop introduces another dimension – the horizontal – which adds complexity, and this needs to be accounted for early on in the design process. Focusing only on Mobile, and thereby ignoring possible spatial complexities on Desktop, means you’re designing with one eye closed.

As long as your design will also be rendered on a Desktop device, you will at some point have to account for both the vertical and horizontal dimensions. Leaving that consideration for later, because you’re starting with Mobile, is likely to cause unforeseen difficulties. Just because a Mobile viewport dictates it doesn’t mean that all things can or should be separated vertically – some need to be displayed side by side, or benefit from such an arrangement.

A single Mobile column can be kept as one on Desktop (which is a very common lazy practice these days, leading to swaths of content that are unscannable, and excessive line lengths that are essentially illegible).

But a single Mobile column can also be split up into two, three, four etc on Desktop. Columns may not be identical – one may need a background, a box or a border for horizontal separation and contrast. One may need bullets, one may consist wholly or partially of an image, etc. Multiple columns require the creation of and adherence to a grid (with gutters, indents and ragged vs. justified columns), but this need and these complexities largely disappear on Mobile, where elements simply stack, and you want to avoid anything that restricts usage of the full column width.

This creates an illusory simplicity which is often deceiving.

Furthermore, text alignment matters on Desktop. Not as much on Mobile. You can center a column on Mobile and it will still not be perceived all that differently, since the column width is restricted.

A single centered column across the full Desktop width, however, will make for a very tiring reading experience, with line lengths that may vary greatly. This also holds true for very wide, single column left justified text, where the eye will need to travel much too far from the end of one line to the next.

The considerations of line length can and often do get lost when basing an entire layout on a Mobile single column visual structure.

3. As a designer, you always seek to reduce, never add.

All design is largely a process of reduction, to arrive at an ideal level of necessary detail. Never more than what is needed. In the process of reduction, it is easier to determine when you have gone too far, and you have lost cohesion. In the process of addition, however, you are always tempted to add more, even when that is unnecessary. It is generally easier to determine what is not enough as opposed to what is too much.

Designs generally need to avoid clutter. Composition and overall visual cohesion requires that shapes and visual structures are shaped and whittled down from a greater whole, not by adding multiple smaller components together and build outward.

You don’t build a house brick by brick – you need a blueprint first, to ensure that all spatial considerations and proportions are weighed before they’re locked in, and create possible dependencies. If you don’t resolve such dependencies on the planning stage, when you lay out the entirety of your design, you may find that you’ve painted yourself into a proverbial and sometimes quite literal corner, when you’re exposed to the actual, full size and proportions of that which you’re designing.

4. As a designer, you always consider visual patterns, repetitions and rhythm, in order to assess if elements are given sufficient contrast to guide the eye, or if the content is rendered too repetitious.

On Desktop, this is a necessity, to ensure you’re creating both cohesion/adherence and contrast across a larger space of which elements are a part.

On Mobile, you don’t see enough of the design in one glance to achieve that overarching balance:  a section can be over- or under-emphasized compared to another, but because you don’t see them together, you can’t make that holistic assessment.

5. As a designer, you always want to spend the majority of your design time upfront, to ensure that you’re not hit with any unforeseen delays later on.

What needs the most time to design is what you should start with, so that finishing the design is less time consuming, and can be given an accurate commitment date with increasing precision.

Given the added horizontal dimension, Desktop layouts are almost unequivocally more complex than Mobile ones.

The more complex issues you leave for later, the harder it is going to be for you to accurately predict when you will be done, and you may even find at the very end that complexities have compounded to such a degree that you need to start over, to rework the layout.

If you had started by resolving the biggest layout complexities upfront, you are by far less likely to run into such problems.

Delaying all these critical design decisions, if you hold off on fleshing out the Desktop view until last, only kicks the can down the road.

Thinking About Design Thinking

Design thinking is not:

  • A new way to design things

Design thinking is:

  • Thinking about business through the lens of design


Design Thinking is not the same as the act of Designing.

Design thinking means applying design as a methodology to work through strategic issues in a clearer way.

Design thinking means using design to organize and visualize thoughts.

When thoughts and ideas are properly visualized, they are much clearer to everyone involved, and much easier to have concrete discussions about.

They are also easier to iterate productively on.

Each update to the visualization of the thought, the idea, or the organizing principle, means the update has a tangible outcome, and is easier to quantify.

In that sense, Design Thinking can very effectively bridge the gap between Strategy and Execution.

As a side note: when people say: ”I’m a visual person”, what they typically mean is that they are visualization deficient. They are unable to see for themselves what you are describing, and need YOU to visualize it FOR them.

(A truly visual person would be able to visualize something without paint-by-numbers instructions).

So, what people really should say is: “I can’t visualize this. Can you show me?”

And what you would apply in order to do this is (you guessed it):

Design Thinking.

Because you’re helping them to think about a concept through the use of design.

You’re helping a group of often visualization-deficient people process their thoughts collectively by feeding those thoughts back to them in visual form, and thereby helping them be more deliberate and effective.

And that is much more than a buzzword.

Input vs. Output

Any designer worth his or her salt knows that it is never appropriate to begin to solve a need with design. The design should, to be purposeful, be an output, not an input.

This is akin to the famous Magritte painting of a pipe, accompanied by the text ”Ceci n’est-pas une pipe” – this is not a pipe. Because the work is obviously a painting of a pipe, not an actual pipe.

This reminds us that an image is not reality, it is a reflection of, or an expression of reality. It may even be purposely created as something entirely different from reality: a fantasy, or an abstract concept.

Likewise, design is not reality, and it is in itself not the solution to the client’s need – it is simply an expression of that solution. The desired communicative outcome represents the actual solution: how the audience responds to it, and how they choose to act based on that.

What does this mean?

It means that, as designers, we should not design for design’s sake. The kind of visual expression that exists for its own benefit is called art.

Design is a tool. A means to an end.

Design Ethos

Never just create a one-off asset when you can construct something reusable

Never just create a reusable single template when you can design something modular

Never just design modular components when you can devise a framework

Never just devise a framework when you can architect a design system

Never just architect a design system when you can define a user experience

Never just define a user experience when you can plan out a user journey

Never just plan out a single user journey when you can improve lifetime value