NATHANRIGGS

Φ

PhD Candidate
Rhetorics, Communication,
and Information Design

Clemson University

Design Philosophy

Given the wide variety of textual formats I deal with—from user manuals to college-level essays, to web pages and brochures and to resumes and Standards of Practice (and let us not forget code)—having a unified philosophy of design seems a bit like the hubris of conceptualizing the whole of human behavior with simple but abstract generalizations ("People act rationally and in their self-interest," "All people are born in sin," and so on). Such "universalizing" is sometimes pointless, and oftentimes dangerous: we will always be excluding important details (or even excluding certain people from being categorized as people). Surely, there are important differences in the design of a resume versus the design of a video game, and there are even important differences between the design of that video game and the code that makes it happen. Assuming that the same standards apply to the game as and entity and the code as an entity could very well be disastrous for a company: imagine the same (lack of) care that goes into commenting the code going into the parts of the game that are meant to convey valuable information for the player to progress through it.

Despite the inherent danger, however, I do think a foundational design philosophy is helpful and often necessary. There are design principles that are used to make video games and to make resumes alike, just as they are used in the design of vehicles, cell phones, and coffee cups—and it is perhaps these very principles that allow for the differences afforded to the design of different things. This seems counterintuitive, but I offer the trite example that a well-designed text must always keep in mind its audience, and this is why different texts are—well, different. Even then, though, I think that certain principles can be further extracted from the expectations and desires of various audiences, even cross-culturally; Below, you'll find some of those principles that I find important.

AUDIENCE-DRIVEN

This isn't anything new: the audience for a given text, whether it be a professional setting or more relaxed, is obviously the first consideration in design. Different audiences expect different things, and over time these expectations have become codified in such way that if you break those expectations, your credibility plummets. This is why it is important, for instance, to know when to use APA format or MLA format, and how to use these systems well: poor documentation is the mark of an outsider and novice. The same holds true for a variety of document formats, however, and some common mistakes are often fatal: a headshot on a curriculum vitae, cluttered text on a website, a gas-powered engine that explodes on impact where the trunk of a car should be (RIP Ford Pinto). Audiences have different expectations because they have different purposes, and even if the concept of an audience is largely fictional, it is still a useful fiction.

This website, for instance, addresses a variety of audiences—one of them being myself. Obviously, much of the content here is catering to an audience that consists of academic employers, but not all of it; I doubt many in that audience will be persuaded by my collection of Gameboys. And the design is admittedly unconventional for an "academic" website, even breaking some cardinal rules of website design: the particle system in the background can, and probably does, distract readers who are trying to focus on the text, and the moderately high contrast employed here may induce headaches. But this brings us to the next principle:

MEMORABLE

A well-designed text is not well-designed if its content and form goes entirely unnoticed. This is contrary to a lot of design philosophy, which posits that a well-designed text "disappears" while the content remains. Granted, this principle can sometimes be of use: I would rather search engines be presented seamlessly as part of my experience on the web, rather than focus on the idiosyncrasies of the engine itself. Google, famously, presented a clean and minimal interface at a time when search engines like Yahoo were cluttered with never-ending self-referencing links and moving images; it is no mistake that we now use "google" as a verb as opposed to "yahoo" or "bing" (although Microsoft is trying *really* hard to make that happen). Clean, simple, unintrusive, functional: these are all desirable qualities, and they often stem from a principle that aims to make the document itself disappear.

But that isn't the whole story. Especially when the form of a text is a dime a dozen, like resumes, CVs, and websites, and and the content is constrained to be similar due to the purpose of the text, we become a single tuna in a sea filled with schools of us. We don't want to drop out of our school and increase the chances of getting eaten up in the name of individuality, but we do need to stand out to the other fish that might find us interesting (this metaphor has limits, of course; often it is our audience that eats us). The trick is finding where that line can be drawn, and how we negotiate that line will either ingratiate our audiences or repulse them. It is never a perfect process, and often the result, like this website, will come off as uncanny. But that is is our next principle:

ENTERTAINING

By "entertaining" I don't mean that an audience should be howling mad with laughter; that could very well be a problem. Perhaps a better word is "engaging" or "interesting," but the trappings of these words make me uneasy. I tend to follow Marshall McLuhan here: "anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either." The word “entertainment” derives from the latin entre, "among," and tenir, "to hold," and to educate is "to bring up" (educare)—one cannot happen without the other. Readers cannot digest the content of a text without first having their attentions held in common, nor can they be entertained without also learning. This applies equally to the classroom environment as a text and to the design of a website or resume: to inform, one must entertain, and to be entertained is to be informed. This is one reason why the way that mass entertainment functions is of extreme importance, and needs to be dissected thoroughly; we are learning, but we know not what we learn.

Like designing a document to be memorable, this too can be done poorly, with either too much focus on entertaining or too little. Many college textbooks, for example, focus far too little on entertainment, while many YouTube videos focus far too much on it. But inducing delight in an audience when they read a text is far from undesirable, especially when the content of the text is rather dry and uninspiring, like that found in many textbooks (again!) today. In short: a text should not only be legible, but should demand to be read; it should be both entertaining and informative, drawing the eye as well as the mind, and it caters appropriately to a given audience in this way. An entertaining resume, if such a thing exists, would not be filled with jokes, but would ask the audience to imagine (entertain) the possibilities being offered in the seven seconds they spend reading the text (on average, hiring managers and committees spend seven seconds initially looking at a resume).

EASY AND CONSISTENT

A text should be easy to read and use—but certainly these are the hardest texts to write and design. If due focus has been given to the previous three principles, this might come naturally, but a minor principle to follow is to never assume something will happen naturally. And a text will never be easy unless it is first consistent in its design. This often translates to simplicity and minimalism, two tenets of design that are currently in vogue, but it does not have to be simple or minimal to be easy; some minimal designs are in fact quite difficult to read and use. An example of this might be a photographer's website, which rightfully foregrounds the photography and has little to no text: we can infer the photographer's aesthetic, her compositional choices, her most consistent topics—but we don't know who she is, or how much she charges for services, or if she outright refuses to do wedding photography. She is showcasing her work at the expense of herself, and while I find it true that you are what you do and how you act, we are not the actual products of our work, but the process of it; to mistake the product for the process is to mistake the honey for the beehive.

A caveat: there are texts that are designed to be difficult, and these are often still entertaining and suited to a particular audience. I have no problem with these; principles only apply inasmuch as they are principles, not dictates. Care should be taken, however, to not mistake the difficulty of a text with its entertainment. A video game that is difficult, but has no other redeeming qualities, is hardly a video game at all, and the same applies to all texts.

"GENUINE"

My last overarching principle concerns the "genuineness" or authenticity of a text. The issue of authenticity, of course, is rife with technical problems and social problems alike, and I would be foolish to defend the notion that one text may be authentic but another is not. The point to be made is a matter of rhetorical quality than of black-and-white classification; a text should be written with a genuine concern for itself and its audience, in both content and form. Variations of this authenticity can be seen quite clearly in the differences between social media platforms; people will choose one platform to project a persona more "true" to themselves, while neglecting to do the same on other platforms. LinkedIn, perhaps, is the most egregious of them all: few profiles exist that reflect a cultivated and complete persona, instead narrowly catering to an imagined audience of employers, and this easily translates to being canned or inauthentic. This is perhaps because the stakes are high—saying the wrong thing in a professional setting can be cause for homelessness and starvation, so best sit quietly and present your GPA—but I think this is an overly cautious, and possibly damaging, practice.

If a text feels inauthentic, then it probably is. If it's form shouts that the content was copied and pasted into a template, then it probably was; the writer had little regard for its presentation to the audience, or had little confidence in their ability to present it well enough on their own. Even when grave mistakes are made in document design, however, these at least come off as authentic acts, and show that the writer cared enough to design the text on their own, for that audience. This is why, among other reasons, I refrain from using content management systems like WordPress, instead opting to design my own CMS and manually writing the HTML and CSS. I do in fact care, and I would rather risk mistakes (and there are many) than make it seem otherwise.

TL;DR

These five principles guide my design process rather than dictate it, and exceptions are made widely depending on the audience and purpose of the text. But I think that they are general enough to apply to extremely disparate texts while also remaining concrete enough to apply to each text specifically. And honestly, I might change these principles as I grow as a designer, as a writer, and as a person; but that's how principles evolve—along with us.