Geek looking at data


Some Thoughts On Design

Oct 10, 2013, 12:56 PM by Gary J. Wood

When people ask me what I do, I often tell them I’m a software designer. A software designer needs to know not just about technology, but about design. I’ve been reading and thinking about design lately, and I recently had the pleasure of hearing graphic designer and computer scientist John Maeda deliver the closing address at Tableau Software’s Customer Conference.

His topic was a deceptively simple question: what is design? According to the modernist graphic designer Paul Rand, it’s the art of putting form and content together. Maeda expanded Rand’s definition to say that design is a mixture of message, tone and format. The message is the pure content. Tone is about empathy and emotion, or “how it tastes”. (Donald Norman’s book Emotional Design expands on the importance of tone.) And the format is the delivery medium, whether physical like paper, or digital like software.inte


The keynote address at the 2013 Tableau Conference

Design in the software context has been in the public eye lately with last year's release of Microsoft Windows 8 and this year's release of Apple iOS 7. Both were seen as radical departures from previous versions.

Yet in both of these new products, the content remained largely unchanged. They are operating systems; they provide the same functions and utilities necessary to get their devices up and running, hosting the user’s same favourite programs and apps. The format, too, remained unchanged: both are digital products which are delivered to the enduser directly over the Internet or installed from digital storage media.

What changed was the tone. Both of the new operating systems present a simpler, flatter, lighter and brighter interface to their users. The changes were a result of new ways of thinking about design: less eye candy, fewer parallels with real-world, physical objects; in other words, less visual skeuomorphism. (Briefly, skeuomorphism is when aspects of a graphical user interface emulate objects in the physical world.)

Why the change? In a recent interview with Fast Company magazine, Gadi Amit, President of NewDealDesign, explained, "These [visual] metaphors that were, in the early days of the computing revolution, relevant to assisting people in bridging the gap between the physical and digital worlds, are no longer necessary. Our culture has changed. We don’t need translation of the digital medium in mechanical real-life terms. It’s an old-fashioned paradigm."

Web design, too, has trended toward flatter, cleaner looking sites, even as browsers become more powerful and feature-laden. With less flash (and less Adobe Flash), popular sites now load faster and are easier to navigate.

My own design aspirations are along the same lines. I prefer minimalism to clutter. I want subtle cues to guide you through the workflow without distraction. Screen placement, typography and a colour palette are chosen to help you focus on what needs your attention, while providing a broader context for your actions. To some people it may look too sparse, but I view my job as the designer of ENVISION to inform, not to entertain.


In crafting the look and feel of ENVISION—the original and subsequent editions—I am guided by John Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity. Following his own rules, Maeda gives each law a simple, single-word name. His first three laws are especially applicable to software design, where simplicity equates with usability. He calls them ReduceOrganize and Time.

  • Reduce reminds us that the simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction; eliminating features that are not necessary. Thoughtfulness is required because too much reduction will render the final product unusable.
  • Organize makes a system of many appear fewer. Things can be managed at an aggregate level much more efficiently than at the individual level.
  • Savings in Time feel like simplicity. Time is most easily saved by making things go faster. But when processes can’t be speeded up, the wait can made more tolerable through feedback.

There is science behind my software design, too; the psychology of visual perception. The human visual system is extremely complex, but much of its basic functioning is now well-understood. Effective design can leverage this by facilitating visual queries. By using colour, position, form and motion, designers can make certain features pop out for rapid perception. By using the following gestalt principles of perception, we can organize information coherently and meaningfully:

  • Proximity: We perceive objects that are close to each other as belonging to a group.
  • Closure: When we are faced with objects that can be perceived—as either open, incomplete and unusual, or closed, whole and regular— we will prefer the latter.
  • Similarity: We tend to group together objects that are similar in colour, shape, or orientation.
  • Continuity: We perceive objects as belonging together if they are aligned with one another or appear to form a continuation of one another.
  • Enclosure: We perceive objects as belonging together when they are enclosed in a way that appears to create a boundary around them.
  • Connection: We perceive objects that are connected (e.g., by a line) as part of the same group.


The ENVISION interface.

This application of cognitive psychology is called “visual thinking”. In a future article, I will explore visual thinking in depth, describing the underlying psychology and using it to make choices about effective data visualization.

Recommended Reading

If you wish to learn more about design, visual thinking and data visualization, here are some recommendations:

On Design:

Norman, Donald. The Design of Everyday Things. This is the book that popularized user-centered design. Though it focusses heavily on everyday items like door handles and faucets, Norman’s late-1980’s musings on the future of pocket computers seem oddly prescient.

Norman, Donald. Emotional Design. Norman argues that good design operates at the visceral, behavioural and reflective levels. These emotional responses are why we love some products and hate others.

Maeda, John. The Laws of Simplicity. Maeda offers ten laws for balancing simplicity and complexity in business, technology and design.

Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think: A Common-Sense Approach to Web Usability. The title says it all, really. This is a how-to book that doesn’t get into the science behind its advice.

On Visual Thinking:

Few, Stephen. Show Me The Numbers. A practical guide to effective table and graph design. Most of Few’s examples were created using nothing more than Microsoft Excel.

Tufte, Edward. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. This is the classic textbook on statistical graphics, charts and tables. It is required reading for anyone interested in effective data visualization.

Tufte, Edward. Envisioning Information. This book provides practical advice about how to explain complex material by visual means. It is the most design-oriented of Tufte’s books, with many high-quality examples.

Ware, Colin. Visual Thinking For Design. A complex book about a complex topic. Ware delves into the psychology and physiology of the human visual system and its implications for design.


gary-wood7f5faf532cde67f6a821ff0000150083 (1)The Vice President of Software Development, Gary Wood leads the team that developed Envision, EA’s powerful online micromarketing tool. An accomplished software developer and the chief architect in the 1990s of Compusearch’s MarketMath™ and Zephyr™ desktop systems, he has a broad background in graphic arts, geodemography, market analytics and statistical analysis.