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So I had an entry in Dan’s Design Contest. Compared to the others, it looks like it was drawn by a preschooler with crayons. And the people who eventually won all had great designs, that actually illuminated what they were trying to say.

The thing is, when I look at this non-entry by the inspirer of the contest, and one of the judges, I don’t get it. I mean, it’s pretty, and nice to look at, but I can’t even begin to tell what he’s talking about. Without reading the tiniest text, I couldn’t even tell if the image was supposed to represent music, or travel. It is entirely possible that this is clear to others, and I just don’t get it. Nevertheless: I just don’t get it.

I have a very small section of my library that are must have books. Oddly enough, despite my own poor design skills, more than half of them are design books. Prominent among these is Don Norman Design of Everyday Things. Reviewing it just now, it comes off as a bit dated (it was written in the mid 80’s – technology has changed markedly since then), but a lot of the observations made remain salient: Often things that are design to be attractive or elegant have the functionality designed right out of them. He repeatedly rails against “award winning design” that completely undermines the intended function of whatever was designed.

This formed a lot of my early design opinion. I didn’t design much mechanical stuff. Despite being in the computer graphics business, I didn’t do much graphic design. But I did design stuff, and I always focused on how it would be used by other people, focusing on functionality at the expense of aesthetics. At a nuts and bolts level, being on the inside of machines, out of the view of the end user, that was just fine.

Years later, Dr. Norman published another book, acknowledging the importance of aesthetic appeal alongside functionality, but he remains a champion of usability. (He actually posits three axes of design, of which useability is only one. He also posits, above, that people have preferences along those three axes as well. I’m clearly behavioral.)

That well roundedness in design is part of why Apple has the impact that it does. It’s part of why Toyota is eating GM for lunch. I’m still struggling to catch up to that. But I’m working on it.

Hopefully, as my aesthetic sense improves, I will retain my ability to communicate an idea without letting it get overwhelmed by the pretty. AFter all, the idea is the reason I’m making the effort at all.