Why Design Matters

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 16, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Until about 2005, Linux users were focused almost entirely on function. Considering that the operating system was trying to catch up with its proprietary rivals, that focus was only natural. However, over a decade later, many users still have some misleading ideas about design and dismiss its importance.

At least four of these misleading ideas are still so common as to be almost universal in free software:

#1: Design is secondary
The first misleading idea is that design is an after-thought. If they had to choose, they would pick function over design. The trouble with this idea, however, is that it frames the relationship between function and design in either-or terms. You might as well say that, given a choice, you would choose a car with ignition rather than brakes, when a fully functional car requires both. The truth is that a successful desktop application or a LibreOffice document requires attention to both both function and design.

It is no accident that the rising success of free software coincides with the years that developers, have equaled the design of their rivals, started paying attention to design as well. And if you think that correlation is accidental, ask yourself why new distributions like elementary and deepin who focus on design sit so high on Distrowatch's list of page hits.

#2: Design is meant to be noticed
The second misleading idea is that design is supposed to call attention to itself, like the now obsolete HTML blink tag, or some of the over-designed pages that emerged with the first word processors, when users were trying to take advantage of all the new features suddenly available to them.

In fact, the opposite is true. Good design works unseen by all except expert eyes, enhancing function and meaning while remaining unnoticed. In my book Designing with LibreOffice and its excerpts, I emphasize this fact by using photos from the Sun Yat-Sen Garden, Vancouver's classical Chinese garden.

Like all classical Chinese gardens, the Sun Yat-Sen is based on the principles of feng shui. The garden looks completely natural, even wild in places, but every square centimeter has been consciously planned. And that's no exaggeration, either: in the Imperial Gardens burned by Lord Elgin, the exact position of vases and ornaments in pavilions was planned and marked, so that the overall effect would never be left to chance. In the same way, all the details of an application or a document should work behind the scenes.

#3: Design is only pretty printing
Many programming languages have options for what is labeled "pretty printing." The term simply refers to formatted output, but it always seems to me -- no doubt incorrectly -- to carry an overtone of contempt, as though formatting was an extra that could easily be done without.

Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Part of design is about what might be called prettiness, but as developed over the last five hundred years in typography -- the art of book layout -- done properly, design is almost ruthlessly practical. One of its key principles is that, if a feature does not have a definite function, it should be left out.

Take, for example, the default table of contents (TOC) design in both Microsoft Word and LibreOffice Writer. This design includes a series of periods or leader dots between the TOC entry on the left margin and the page number on the right margin. These leader dots are supposed to compensate for the distance between the entry and the page number, making their connection easier to see. Unfortunately, though, because the leader dots are separate characters, they delay the readers' eyes moving across the page, and therefore should not used.

A better solution would be to use a continuous line between each entry and page number, drawing the eye swiftly across the page. An even better solution would place the entry and page number closer together; my own preference is to place the number before the TOC entry, separated by only a small tab. In either of these solutions, the design works to make the TOC more functional.

Another key role of design is to reduce the work of the writer. Styles, for example, allow a writer to change the formatting in one location, and have it instantly updated throughout a document, instead of manually changing the formatting instance by instance -- the equivalent of setting format in the preamble of a LaTeX document, rather than defining it anew in each section of the document. Similarly, templates let writers get down to work immediately, rather than spending time reinventing a similar document structure. Even a simple feature like Hide in LibreOffice Writer saves effort by allowing users to include multiple versions of a document within the same file.

#4 - Design is obsolete
Modern design is the result of centuries of practical application in the printing of books. More specifically, it is the result of The New Typography, a German school of the 1920s that sought to reduce design to its essentials.

For some critics, the fact that design today is often online means that traditional concepts of design no longer apply. A printed page, they point out, is very different in its constraints from a computer screen, and is used under different conditions. However, to anyone who has studied typography, that claim makes no more sense than saying the practical knowledge becomes obsolete when you are designing a brochure rather than a book. All design is constrained by the medium and intent, and designing for online use is only another special case. For instance, online design is more likely to be successful when using a sans serif font than a serif one, but the same is also true when you are designing a poster.

Still others argue that following traditional concepts of design is restrictive. However, design is not simply the blind following of arbitrary concepts. Rather, it is the accumulated experience of the craft of typography. It is worth paying attention to because it tells you what is likely to work. There are exceptions -- for instance, you might want a post-modern effect -- but by paying attention to tradition, you can often be more effective in your design with less effort. You can, of course, completely ignore tradition, but, unless you are an expert designer, don't be surprised if the result is a mess that not only looks horrible, but handicaps function as well.

Far from being the opposite of function or an irrelevant side issue, design can -- and should be part of function. In free software's earlier days, focusing on function was understandable. Today, though, design and function are inseparable for those who want professional results.

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