“Universal” “Principles” of “Design”

I’m reading a book called Universal Principles of Design: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design, by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler.

I picked it up a while ago because I’d like to learn at least a little bit more than I know about standard design principles.

It’s an attractive oversize-trade-paperback book, with high production values. Each two-page spread gives a text description of a particular design principle on the left page, and visual illustrations of that principle on the right page. I had glanced at bits of the book at various times before, but hadn’t gotten around to reading it.

The first thing I noticed when I started reading the text of the introduction is that the print is way too small to be easily readable. But I figured that might just mean that I’m getting older and my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be.

The next thing I noticed was that in the first entry, “80/20 Rule,“ the illustration is of a very old Mac GUI—with stripes in the window title bar, the pre-OS X style.

And then the text of that entry seemed a little vague and unscientific to me.

But I figured, eh, one entry has some problems, not a big deal.

The next couple of entries were fine. (The “Accessibility” entry is pretty good.)

Then I got to the entry on “Aesthetic-Usability Effect,” and I was confused that their visual examples were Nokia phones and TiVo. “TiVo is setting a new bar for recording convenience and usability,” said the caption, and I said to myself, Wait, when was this book published?

Turns out that it was originally published in 2003, then updated in 2010 but apparently only to add some new material, not to update the older examples.

So by now I was starting to have some doubts about the book’s usefulness to me; twenty years is enough time for a lot of change.

But I pressed on.

I was a little put off by their use of the word “aesthetic” to mean “aesthetically pleasing,” but I guess that’s a fairly common usage. But then I got to the end of the “Aesthetic-Usability Effect” entry, where their recommendation seemed to be that you should make your designs aesthetically pleasing because then people will be more forgiving of design flaws. They gave other (better) reasons, too, but that was the one that stuck out for me. Shouldn’t we be striving to improve design flaws, rather than aiming to find ways to get people to ignore them? Is this a book about good design, or about how to fool people into thinking you have good design?

Next came a couple more entries that seemed reasonable to me. Then one about anthropomorphic form that seemed to me to take a too-wide view of what counts as looking anthropomorphic, but I may well be wrong about what people perceive as anthropomorphic. Then an entry on archetypes that cites Jung and Joseph Campbell as its main sources, which also made me dubious. Then another OK entry.

And then came the entry on attractiveness bias, which says that the standards of attractiveness are universal across all cultures, and concludes that if you’re going to include images of people in your design, you should make sure to use ones that have the correct universally attractive waist-to-shoulder ratios for men and women. Also, the women should have augmented sexualized features (which is what men find attractive) and the men should have obvious trappings of wealth (which is what women find attractive).

And by now I was seriously annoyed. I thought this was going to be a book about principles of design; instead, too much of it seemed to be about how to use stereotypes and biases to do sleazy-but-effective marketing.

And it belatedly occurred to me that I had fallen prey to the Aesthetic-Usability Effect:

I had found the packaging of the book so appealing that I kept making excuses for each new thing that I found offputting or annoying or poorly handled.

Join the Conversation