Design Secrets for Engineers
If you are a designer like me, you must be asked on a regular basis to “make it look pretty.” The request can stroke your designer ego, making you feel like a design rockstar with super powers to make this world a more beautiful place. This is especially true at startups, where you are one of the few, maybe the only designer there. However, it can also be really annoying–almost degrading at times. Thoughts like “why the hell can’t engineers do this on their own? It’s all common sense” always go through my head. If only engineers knew how to do visual design, designers would have more time to focus on cooler, more exciting problems like future product concepts.
And if you are an engineer, you might wonder how designers pull off their tricks (and why they’re in such huge demand right now). Is it genetic? Do design schools teach them top secret design tips? Or did they make a deal with the devil to get designers’ eyes in exchange for their souls?
Well, I’m here to bring you some good news: engineers don’t need to drink unicorn blood just to be good at visual design. I am a strong believer that good design is a highly learnable skill, like riding a bike, playing a piano or learning Spanish. If you practice often enough, you’ll become better and better at it, and once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll never go back. I can say this because I too once sucked at design. But then I learned a few tips from my graphic design friends, and a few years later, I could proudly say that I was a design expert. Today, I want to share these not-so-secret tips with you. The first five are more specific to visual design while the next three are geared towards interaction design.
1. Line things up.
This rule is the mother of all graphic design rules. Unless you’re recreating the Mona Lisa on MS Paint, please line things up. Our brains just like it better that way. The slightly more advanced version of lining things up is called the grid system, which is essentially lining more things up. Kindergarten kids can do it and so can you.
2. Design the white space.
When you’re in an elevator with 15 other people, it’s not so easy to breath…especially when someone farts. When you design a layout or UI, try not to jam too many elements into a page; it increases the chance of having one of the elements stink the whole thing up. Leave some white space for the eye to breathe. I often find myself designing the space in between elements, making sure elements aren’t too far apart or too close together.
3. Use designer fonts.
In the design world, there are good fonts and bad fonts. Good fonts like Gotham, Trade Gothic Bold Condensed or Garamond please your eyes and make you feel like you’re having a frosty cold mojito on the beach. Bad fonts, on the other hand, make us designers cringe and feel like we’ve vomited from our eyes. Try to avoid super default fonts like Impact, Curlz, or Comic Sans, to name a few. If you must use a preloaded font, Helvetica and Georgia are two exceptions–they’re classic and restrained enough to be unoffensive. If you want designer fonts that play nicely with the web, try Typekit. Oh…and please don’t use WordArt. Ever.
4. Keep it consistent.
Use no more than two fonts and three colors in your designs. And keep them consistent throughout your sketches. Each time something changes, our brain has to go “whaaaa?” for a moment before figuring things out, so let’s give our brains a rest and keep things consistent. Also, let’s try not to stretch logos or images. Imagine if someone took your face and stretched it horizontally by 5%. Still happy with the way you look?
5. Keep visual hierarchy in check.
I don’t know about you, but when I cook, I always do a little tasting from time to time to make sure that my seasoning is on track. When you design, check yourself from time to time. Squint your eyes every now and then and look at the screen. What pops out at you first? What do you see second? Third? Walk away from the screen, then look at it from 10 feet away. Believe it or not, designers and architects do this all the time to keep things in perspective (literally). It’s a good way to keep yourself from getting lost in little details or adding unnecessary buttons to the screen.
6. Set priorities and stick to them.
“Let’s put a help button there just in case the user is curious what’s going on. Oh…and let’s make the button look a little more like a button. And before I forget, can you make that tab pop a bit more?” Sometimes, I wish there was a robot that would bitchslap the one asshole in the room who keeps bringing up corner cases (cases that apply to only one very specific scenario). Until this bitchslap machine is built, however, we can get by with a list of what’s important and what isn’t, backed by some data if possible. It will save you time and energy, and shut that asshole up.
7. Check the Physicality of the UI.
A lot of what makes a UI successful is how familiar it seems to users when they first encounter it. Most users don’t have exhaustive experience with mobile apps, and will assume that they follow the same rules as the real world. When you’re making design decisions, ask yourself what sorts of physical analogs each element has. If the UI was to be re-created in the real world, would it make sense?
8. Use Keynote.
I love Keynote. I don’t know how else I would have come this far in life without this magical program that lines things up automatically and makes it easy to make things look good. Beyond just making slide decks, Keynote is a great way to mock up UI flows. Do a quick web search for “Keynote mockup templates” and you’ll find a number of great starting points for building good-looking prototype apps quickly and easily.
And remember to listen to others! It’s natural that confidence comes with the thought that you’re right and every one else is wrong. But just admit it: you’re not always right.
Chances are you probably won’t become a design supreme being over night. It takes some practice and confidence that you’ll get good at it. Ira Glass from NPR sums it up pretty well. http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/great-advice-for-creatives.
Just keep repeating “I, too, can be a designer”–eventually you will become one.
ps: we are hiring designers and designer-wannabe engineers!