(5-10 minute read)
It's likely that you have never been in this position, but I have. I've sat there, just looking at that circular object we lovingly call a wheel and just wished on a star that someone would come around and design a new one. Let's be honest, when was the last time a wheel has ever thrilled you? But why are we talking about wheel? Because it's a fantastic place to start a conversation about design.
As a graphic designer, it’s my passion to understand and be able to articulate design, and not just pertaining to the design of graphics but to all design (be it industrial, package, web... etc). Wheels just happen to be perfect design metaphor. They are perfectly shaped for their task, designed in every way to be utilitarian and functional and up until the advent of the white-wall, they served very little aesthetic purpose.
A Humble Beginning
There is a logic, hidden deep within and perhaps the best way to bring it to light is with a little story of when I first started at EvenVision.
I was young, and certainly I’ll have to admit am still. I had just landed my first every ‘real’ job and wanted to do the best possible work I could. I wanted to change the world. This is actually a little more difficult than I first imagined. Then one day my boss Garrett, sat me down and said: “Josh, don’t try and reinvent the wheel.”
“Don’t try and reinvent the wheel.”
Design could easily be considered a top-down approach. Top-down. Remember that, because it’s reversed and thus not intuitive. Top-down as a concept is simple, it is the process of proceeding from the general to the particular. By looking at cars we can see this top-down concept in action. The Model-T Ford, built in 1908, has all the main basic elements today’s automobiles have. Doors, check. Four wheels, check. A steering wheel, yup it’s got that too. Brakes, check. Fuel tank, check! You name the key element and the Model-T Ford has it. Today’s cars are merely the natural evolution of the same basic concept - a box to sit in that moves.
Moving from cars to web design we can also see a top-down progression. There are entrenched elements that are important such as prime real estate and core functionality inherent in all websites. In practice these are general items that become more specific depending on need. This is what I didn’t get when I was a young lad. Things are there for a reason that is not immediately obvious, but require experience and knowledge of the craft . They have been tried and tested and are expected to be there. Well that doesn’t sound very sporting or as if creative freedom can be exercised at all, but in truth it is actually liberating.
A Brief History Lesson
Web design evolved from print design; which had years to entrench elements. The English language is read left to right, top to bottom, and thus pages within a book are read from left to right, top to bottom. The web as it was developed, read very strictly like a long page within a book; left to right, top to bottom. Even to this day with the magic wizardry of responsive design and pocket computing, there is retail space more valuable on a website than other areas. Can you name it?
If you said the middle of the screen, I’m sorry but you’re wrong. However, if you said the top left hand corner than congratulations! Even though the web as we know it may be significantly younger than your copy of the Frankenstein gathering dust in your attic, there are still elements that have become entrenched in time and are worth consideration.
If they aren’t there people will become confused, flustered and quickly leave your site.
A Quick Warning
What are some of these "entrenched" elements?
Navigation: a means by which to move from one section to another.
Clickable links: that not only appear clickable but do indeed work upon clicking them, taking you from one logical point to another.
Contact Information: being in a logical location, and is thus easy to find.
And the list goes on…
The web is just like a car; we expect doors to open and shut, the steering wheel to help move the car in different directions, and the wheels to gather traction and move us about. It’s because of these common elements a person can sit down in a car in Russia, and move about with the same ease a person in USA or Argentina can.
Just imagine the confusion that would arise if one morning you hopped into your car to discover the wheel had suddenly been wired in reverse and that by turning left you actually turned right. Even if this was only the case with 1/10,000th of all cars, it would be traumatic for the public. Cars would crash left and right. Riots would ensue. Wheels and tires would surely be burnt. Angry mobs would appear demanding the reversal to the correct form!
With the web that doesn’t happen. What happens is people leave, or "bounce" if you would like the technical term. And thus your site must hold certain elements inline to prevent mass exodus. Knowing these key elements and building a car with them is as important as building a website with these elements considered.
With the web that doesn't happen. What happens is people leave.
Boiling It All Down
Entrenched elements are important but do not take this to mean speech is censored, or that creativity is crushed. But instead look at it as means of exploring expression. What does this even mean?
To explore this, let us look to poetry. I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around a Haiku, and yet they are loved by so many a great poets, and as we know, poets just ooze with this primordial desire to be creative. What I’ve discovered is by having been confined to the strict forms of a Haiku, they – poets – must learn to work within the rules, so that when they do break a rule they can do it with style and intent. When done, it leaves us with a poem that is powerful and meaningful. These entrenched elements. The top-down process. The wheel. It actually fosters creativity!
And that's the point of not reinventing the wheel.
If you’d managed to make it this far, I’m sorry to disappoint, but the only thing you should remember is the word: intent. Because when the air cleared for me I realized Garrett was asking me to be intentional. Learn the rules of the game so you can play it in the top leagues, and learn them so you can break them intentionally to make improvements that are powerful and meaningful. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of the wheel before trying to reinvent it.
The menu button must still take a person to the menu. But the means of designing the menu button, or menu itself, can be stretched, and can change from site to site. I’m not simply redesigning the entire button, but rather just fiddling with it to create a more optimal trigger for the intended event. In a like fashion, the original wheel was and is still the perfect shape – circular. And that shape isn’t about to change, but perhaps the compounds that make up the circle will from time to time change and evolve. Solid wood was brittle and able to shatter, so it fell out of fashion to a combination of metal and rubber. Someday too rubber will pass to some other mythical substance. But the basic, simple and elegant shape will always remain as a key entrenched element.
A craftsmen works in a world of precision, where stokes are executed intentionally, with purpose, poise and grace. A master of a craft would look at the wheel and ask what they don't know, what they haven't yet learned, and why it is the way it is, before attempting to reinvent the wheel. When they act, it is out of intent.
I leave you with a heavily paraphrased version of what Garrett once told me:
"do not attempt at first to design a new wheel, but start by building that old wheel design a thousand times."
The old design was good for a reason. But if you do feel so inclined, be intentional so that you know what rules you are breaking and then maybe, just maybe, you’ll make something great.