1. Seven deadly excuses for poor design
2. The Principles of Design

Seven deadly excuses for poor design

By Dr. Kevin Scoresby, Special to ZDNet
Published on ZDNet News: September 2, 2004, 7:33 AM PT

external image 083104kscoresby_ms.jpg COMMENTARY--I’ve experienced many different corporate cultures though the course of my consulting practice. Some companies embrace the idea that their products are only successful when they meet the needs of those intended to use them; and these companies’ processes, metrics, and rewards work together to encourage good software and web design. However, many companies unwittingly reward their staff for products that don't meet the needs of end users.
Most often, a culture that rewards poor design has an unbalanced focus: The company focus is primarily inward, and to some degree, there is a neglect of customer needs and goals. There are many subtle ways that companies can forget about the customer and become too internally focused, and these are often exemplified in excuses I’ve heard throughout the years—excuses for poor design.
The seven deadly excuses
When people make excuses for poor design, they reveal a lot about a corporate culture, as well as about their own beliefs and the level of personal responsibility they feel for a product’s success. I’ve chosen to discuss seven of these excuses and the underlying problems they represent:
1. "We have to be first to market."
Translation: “We don’t have time to make sure the product meets our customer’s needs.”
Underlying this excuse is the fear that a focus on customer needs will slow the development process. However, a customer-focused process can actually save time overall by eliminating less important features, reducing rework when customer needs are discovered too late, and reducing programming time through increased consistency and greater re-use of constructs and components.
Another underlying assumption is that first to market will lead to market dominance—presumably by hooking customers before other alternatives become available. Unfortunately, history does not always support this conclusion. Thomas Edison was first to market with the phonograph, but Emile Berliner’s Gramophone ultimately dominated the market; the Apple Newton was the first to market but the Palm Pilot won out.
These and countless other examples demonstrate that the lack of competitors is only one factor of a product’s ability to capture market share. And if a product fails to meet customers’ real needs, “first to market” may well mean “first to flop”.
2. “Our budget doesn’t allow for design specialists."
Translation: “We can’t invest what’s needed to maximize long-term company revenue."
This excuse can indicate a fragmentation of company goals across departments and management levels. Even if the higher-ups understand that a usable product will result in greater revenue, they often fail to convey expectations to the IT department that products must be usable. Instead, they continue to reward IT for internally-focused metrics, such as speed to market and project cost, to the exclusion of externally-focused metrics, such as increased sales or the transfer of traffic from call center to web site.
A fragmented corporate culture fails to engender ownership at all levels. It may instead create microcosms where each department has difficulty focusing on the company as a whole—let alone the customer. A highly intense, customer-focused project can be more costly at the department level, but the rewards for the company as a whole can be enormous…if the culture allows it.
3. "The requirements make it clear what has to be done."
Translation: “Simply including certain features is more important than how those features are implemented.”
Development of requirements should be part of a customer-centered design process: it should be based on established user needs and followed by a design process that includes customers throughout. However, many cultures have become feature-focused, and they over-emphasize what needs to be done while paying little attention to how it is to be designed.
Companies with feature-focused cultures will tend to generate requirements in-house and base requirements on scanty, anecdotal, and/or antiquated customer information. They may also consider the requirements the measure by which finished products are evaluated, instead of balancing that view with external measures such as usability test results.
4. "Well, it makes sense to me."
Translation: "I’m a representative sample of our customer base."
Unless you’re developing tools for the project team itself, no one on the project is a true end user. For one thing, it’s rare that the target audience consists of developers or project managers. And even if that were the case, team members still do not qualify, simply because anyone assigned to the project will have a much more intimate knowledge of the system than the average user, and their ideas of how the system should work will always be skewed by that knowledge.
The tendency to evaluate designs based on ones own perspective goes hand in hand with point #3. This is because corporate cultures that are inwardly focused when generating requirements also tend to look inward when assessing the value of proposed designs. In these cases, management often becomes the target audience by evaluating the designs and making judgments based on their own needs and expectations—or on what they believe customers to need. However, in my experience, what companies believe their customers need and what they actually need are often two very different things.
5. "It will be so cool if we do it this way."
Translation: "My personal target audience is my co-worker (or resumé) rather than the customer."
Once when consulting with a Fortune 100 client, I worked with a very talented graphic artist who refused to render some of the screens as I had laid them out because he didn’t “want to have his name associated with them.” In the end, his manager had to do the graphic design and despite the disdain expressed by this particular artist, the final implementation was hugely successful with customers.
It was that experience that first made me realize that while we may pay lip service to the customer as the primary audience, it’s not necessarily true for everyone on the project. For this particular employee, the audience was other graphic artists, not the customer.
Sometimes a company seeks to distinguish itself from the competition by doing something in a completely different way. Such an approach is great when it’s also better for the customer. However, sometimes a corporate culture places value on “cool” technology, on odd approaches to user interaction, or on unusual (or off-the-wall) graphic design simply for its own sake. But this is just another trap which causes companies and their employees to become imbalanced and internally focused.
6. "Customers will get used to it."
Translation: “Customers will continue using the product long enough to lose touch with how difficult it is."
It’s rare these days to have a product that is so unique and intrinsically valuable that customers will readily overlook design flaws. Adoption cannot be guaranteed even when the target audience is captive, such as for a corporate portal. For instance, an April 2004 study by Forrester Research found that nearly half of employees offered a benefits portal have never used it—and the problem is apparently failure to consider employees’ goals in the design.
By expecting customers to use a product that is difficult or doesn’t meet their needs, companies are often implying that the customer is dependent on them rather than the other way around. There’s a fine line separating company pride and egotism, and statements like this may indicate a culture that engenders the latter.
7. “That’s what the help desk is for.”
Translation: The design issues will soon be someone else’s problem.
Many corporate cultures simply accept that training is a part of every project, and there often seems to be a belief that training will "make up" for poor design. IT is sometimes very willing to accept this perception, since it means that they can transfer ownership of the problem onto someone else. And companies encourage such shifting of responsibility when they measures IT only on whether they were able to deliver on time and in budget, rather than also including the product’s success with the customer in the formula.
Until they see it done, companies rarely understand that it’s possible to create software and web applications that need no explanation. One company I consult with has a dedicated training department that met with me as we were nearing deployment of a large web application. They were somewhat distraught because while training guides had always accompanied past web applications, this latest design was so straightforward that they didn’t feel like they had anything to say.
Achieving balance
If excuses like the above are being tossed around, it’s probably time to for a company to look at consciously shifting focus back toward the customer. Here are a few ideas to begin that process:
Install champions of the customer experience. There is usually a trade-off between “easy for the customer” and “easy for the programmer”, and companies need to make sure that they have customer advocates on every project. The most successful projects will give equal power to both groups, and when differences of opinion arise, a single manager will make the final decision.
Follow a user-centered process. Generate requirements through field studies and other customer-focused activities. Include usability-related statements as part of the requirements. Evaluate products with actual customers and allow those evaluations to carry at least as much weight as management’s opinions.
Reward IT for meeting externally-focused criteria. Expand on the theme of “on-time and in budget” to include other metrics, such as adoption rates, reduced shopping cart abandonment rates, reduced call center volume, etc. Look for ways to increase personal and departmental ownership for company success. For instance, consider increasing IT’s budget by a portion of the profit resulting from a successful product.
Dr. Kevin Scoresby is a Business Analyst, Designer, and Trainer focusing on the customer experience. He has been consulting with large and mid-sized companies since 1996 to develop customer-focused strategies, design and evaluate products, and mentor internal personnel in usability techniques and best practices. More information is available on his Web site

The Principles of Design

In: Columns > Design in Theory and Practice
By Joshua David McClurg-Genevese
Published on June 13, 2005

Starting with the Basics

This column is about Web design—really, it is—though it may at times seem a bit distant and distracted. In my opinion, any good discussion about design begins with the fundamentals. Almost by definition, the primary tenets around which any field is based are universal: they can be applied to a variety of disciplines in a variety of ways. This can cause some confusion as principle is put into practice within the unique constraints of a particular medium.
Web design is a relatively new profession compared to other forms of design, due to the youth of our medium. As with any design discipline, there are aspects of the Web design process that are unique to the medium, such as screen resolution, additive color spaces and image compression. But too often these more unique details override our sense of the bigger picture. We focus on the fact that it is Web design and push aside core design concepts—concepts that can that make any project stronger without interfering in the more technical considerations later on.

How Does Web Design Fit In?

We can group all of the basic tenets of design into two categories: principles and elements. For this article, the principles of design are the overarching truths of the profession. They represent the basic assumptions of the world that guide the design practice, and affect the arrangement of objects within a composition.

I tend to define Web design as being one of many disciplines within the larger field of design (a peer to print design, industrial design, interior design, etc.). To step back even further, I see design as a discipline within the field of art (a peer to painting, illustration, sculpture, etc.) The point is that in order to start with a discussion about the fundamentals of design as they relate to Web design we need to understand that there is a good degree of inheritance that design has received over the years from other art forms. These art forms, such as lithography, typography, painting/illustration and industrial design, evolved over many centuries, and a number of basic ideas have emerged as providing universal guidance to any artistic endeavor. When talking about fundamental concepts we inevitably look outside our discipline and adopt a slightly larger perspective.
The first three articles of this column will be dedicated to unearthing these universal gems of insight so that we may better understand our profession. In the first two articles, we will adopt a larger perspective to establish a foundation. In the third article we will tie it all together, using real-world examples to see how the basics are put into practice through the medium of the Web.

The Principles of Design

There are many basic concepts that underly the field of design. They are often categorized differently depending on philosophy or teaching methodology. The first thing we need to do is organize them, so that we have a framework for this discussion.
We can group all of the basic tenets of design into two categories: principles and elements. For this article, the principles of design are the overarching truths of the profession. They represent the basic assumptions of the world that guide the design practice, and affect the arrangement of objects within a composition. By comparison, the elements of design are the components of design themselves, the objects to be arranged.
Let’s begin by focusing on the principles of design, the axioms of our profession. Specifically, we will be looking at the following principles:
  • Balance
  • Rhythm
  • Proportion
  • Dominance
  • Unity


Balance is an equilibrium that results from looking at images and judging them against our ideas of physical structure (such as mass, gravity or the sides of a page). It is the arrangement of the objects in a given design as it relates to their visual weight within a composition. Balance usually comes in two forms: symmetrical and asymmetrical.
Symmetrical balance occurs when the weight of a composition is evenly distributed around a central vertical or horizontal axis. Under normal circumstances it assumes identical forms on both sides of the axis. When symmetry occurs with similar, but not identical, forms it is called approximate symmetry. In addition, it is possible to build a composition equally around a central point resulting in radial symmetry1. Symmetrical balance is also known as formal balance.
Asymmetrical balance occurs when the weight of a composition is not evenly distributed around a central axis. It involves the arranging of objects of differing size in a composition such that they balance one another with their respective visual weights. Often there is one dominant form that is offset by many smaller forms. In general, asymmetrical compositions tend to have a greater sense of visual tension. Asymmetrical balance is also known as informal balance.
external image principles_of_design_balance_symmetrical.gif

external image principles_of_design_balance_approximate.gif

horizontal symmetry
external image principles_of_design_balance_radial.gif

external image principles_of_design_balance_asymmetrical.gif



Rhythm is the repetition or alternation of elements, often with defined intervals between them. Rhythm can create a sense of movement, and can establish pattern and texture. There are many different kinds of rhythm, often defined by the feeling it evokes when looking at it.
Regular: A regular rhythm occurs when the intervals between the elements, and often the elements themselves, are similar in size or length.
Flowing: A flowing rhythm gives a sense of movement, and is often more organic in nature.
Progressive: A progressive rhythm shows a sequence of forms through a progression of steps.
external image principles_of_design_rhythm_regular.gif

external image principles_of_design_rhythm_flowing.gif

external image principles_of_design_rhythm_progressive.gif



Proportion is the comparison of dimensions or distribution of forms. It is the relationship in scale between one element and another, or between a whole object and one of its parts. Differing proportions within a composition can relate to different kinds of balance or symmetry, and can help establish visual weight and depth. In the below examples, notice how the smaller elements seem to recede into the background while the larger elements come to the front.
external image principles_of_design_proportion.gif
external image principles_of_design_proportion2.gif


Dominance relates to varying degrees of emphasis in design. It determines the visual weight of a composition, establishes space and perspective, and often resolves where the eye goes first when looking at a design. There are three stages of dominance, each relating to the weight of a particular object within a composition.
Dominant: The object given the most visual weight, the element of primary emphasis that advances to the foreground in the composition.
Sub-dominant: The element of secondary emphasis, the elements in the middle ground of the composition.
Subordinate: The object given the least visual weight, the element of tertiary emphasis that recedes to the background of the composition.
In the below example, the trees act as the dominant element, the house and hills as the secondary element, and the mountains as the tertiary element.
external image principles_of_design_domainance.gif


The concept of unity describes the relationship between the individual parts and the whole of a composition. It investigates the aspects of a given design that are necessary to tie the composition together, to give it a sense of wholeness, or to break it apart and give it a sense of variety. Unity in design is a concept that stems from some of the Gestalt theories of visual perception and psychology, specifically those dealing with how the human brain organizes visual information into categories, or groups2.
Gestalt theory itself is rather lengthy and complex, dealing in various levels of abstraction and generalization, but some of the basic ideas that come out of this kind of thinking are more universal.
Closure is the idea that the brain tends to fill in missing information when it perceives an object is missing some of its pieces. Objects can be deconstructed into groups of smaller parts, and when some of these parts are missing the brain tends to add information about an object to achieve closure. In the below examples, we compulsively fill in the missing information to create shape.
external image principles_of_design_closure.gifContinuance
Continuance is the idea that once you begin looking in one direction, you will continue to do so until something more significant catches your attention. Perspective, or the use of dominant directional lines, tends to successfully direct the viewers eye in a given direction. In addition, the eye direction of any subjects in the design itself can cause a similar effect. In the below example, the eye immediately goes down the direction of the road ending up in the upper right corner of the frame of reference. There is no other dominant object to catch and redirect the attention.
external image principles_of_design_continuance.gifSimilarity, Proximity and Alignment
Items of similar size, shape and color tend to be grouped together by the brain, and a semantic relationship between the items is formed. In addition, items in close proximity to or aligned with one another tend to be grouped in a similar way. In the below example, notice how much easier it is to group and define the shape of the objects in the upper left than the lower right.
external image principles_of_design_alignment.gif

Related concepts

There are many additional concepts that are related to the principles of design. These can include specific terms and/or techniques that are in some way based on one or more of the above tenets. In they end, they add to the collection of compositional tools available for use by the designer.

Contrast or Opposition

Contrast addresses the notion of dynamic tensionÔthe degree of conflict that exists within a given design between the visual elements in the composition.

Positive and Negative Space

Positive and negative space refers to the juxtaposition of figure and ground in a composition. The objects in the environment represent the positive space, and the environment itself is the negative space.

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a compositional tool that makes use of the notion that the most interesting compositions are those in which the primary element is off center. Basically, take any frame of reference and divide it into thirds placing the elements of the composition on the lines in between.

Visual Center

The visual center of any page is just slightly above and to the right of the actual (mathematical) center. This tends to be the natural placement of visual focus, and is also sometimes referred to as museum height.

Color and Typography

Many would place color and typography along side the five principals I have outlined above. I personally believe both to be elements of design, so I’ll give them some attention in my next column. In addition, both topics are so robust that I plan on writing an entire article about each of them in the future.


In Web design it is too easy to get engrossed in the many unique constraints of the medium and completely forget some of the underlying concepts that can strengthen any design. To better discuss such concepts, we need to step back from our specific discipline and look to the history of the field. It is here we find the axioms of our profession.
In this article we looked at half of those axioms, the principles of design. The principles of design are the guiding truths of our profession, the basic concepts of balance, rhythm, proportion, dominance and unity. Successful use of these core ideas insures a solid foundation upon which any design can thrive.
In the next column, I will discuss the elements of design—the basic components used as part of any composition including point, line, form (shape), texture, color and typography. Comments or suggestions are welcome and appreciated.

Additional Resources and References

There are many resources available about all of the topics covered in this article, both online and off. The following is a small list of some of the ones I am aware of, but is by no means exhaustive.

Related Resources on the Web

  1. Art, Design, and Visual Thinking by Charlotte Jirousek
  2. Gestalt Design and Composition by James T. Saw
  3. Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications
  4. Graphic Design Basics
  5. Introduction to the Principles of Design by Jacci Howard Bear

Related Books

  1. Design Basics by David Lauer
  2. The Elements of Graphic Design by Alexander W. White
  3. Principles of Two-Dimensional Design by Wucius Wong
  4. Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Muller-Brockmann
  5. Design Principles and Problems by Paul Zelanski, Mary Pat Fisher
  6. A Primer of Visual Literacy by Donis A. Dondis
  7. History of Art by Anthony F. Janson
  8. A History of Graphic Design by Philip Meggs
  9. The Non-Designer's Design Book by Robin Williams
  10. Geometry of Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition by Kimberly Elam