Artificial Conversations: Normal Design

| Shannon E. Thomas

This week’s Monday morning conversation revolved around Frank Chimero’s blog post Plainness and Sweetness

We were one short today, but that didn’t stifle the conversation. We all started generally agreeing with Chimero – plain, normal, vanilla design is important. But then we got into what normal means, and the conversation got much more interesting.

Normal is a trend.

What makes normal normal?

Most of us started off the conversation adamantly agreeing with Chimero’s statements about defending plainness in design, but as the conversation progressed, Natalia pointed out that the very idea of what’s normal is a trend. After all, the typefaces used as an example of plainness in the post are by one of the trendiest foundries just as normcore is a trend in fashion.

Manjari brought up Frank’s assertion that Helvetica is a cliché. For a designer or a population growing up without the Roman alphabet or ideals of minimalism, western clichés are likely foreign and unfamiliar. Vanilla is subjective.

Furthermore, what’s normal to an expert or practitioner is often not what’s normal to users. Sure, we can all recognize Helvetica. But can our parents? Perhaps as designers we should worry less about what is normal and more about where recognizably abnormal begins.

Normal changes with time and place.

Does normal apply to interaction as well as to aesthetics?

Kamila brought up that sticking to common patterns is more important in some situations than others. For example, when designing for a hospital, what’s expected is more important than when creating other consumer experiences. We worked on an interface for hospital workers last summer, and, while we were a touch disappointed that the most basic option (in both interaction and aesthetics) was chosen, it makes sense considering the stress of such a high-stimulation environment. It’s also worth noting that being basic didn’t make the design any less beautiful.

Hans brought up the industrial design concept of Super Normal (also mentioned in Chimero’s post), and how it’s often mistaken as minimalistic. Super Normal is instead the type of normal that is defined by use. As Naoto Fukasawa says, “…perhaps the continuation of a good relationship that has been around for a long time is better than anticipating something new.”

So obviously what’s normal changes with context, and understanding our users’ contexts is what makes research on any design project so important.

Normal needs to be balanced.

How do we push beyond normal, and how do we know when we’ve pushed too far?

Natalia brought up a situation after a design jam where she struggled to present a concept because it had become so complex. In short – if it’s hard to explain, it’s likely abnormal.

Hans suggested that we can see how far from normal interaction is by knowing how much of our design guidelines fall outside of the standard Android development guidelines or iOS HIG.

As a way of working, Natalia mentioned that it’s important to go too far from normal, then to return, and to repeat until balance is achieved.

This cyclical process might seem obvious, but in practice it’s rare. Many design processes start with interaction design (wireframes) and move into visual design, failing to establish a consistent idea of normal. Normal and special are applied at layers that reflect the organization of design teams rather than being considered holistically for the experience being designed.

Did this conversation change anything for The Artificial? It certainly validated our way of working. Rather than starting with wireframes and layering on the visual design, we start with a normal for both interaction and visual design and layer on what makes the experience special. After this conversation, I suspect we’ll all be a bit more intentional with this process, and we’ll watch more carefully for the boundaries between normal and abnormal (or familiar and unfamiliar).