Defer or Defy? Choose a Posture on Design Standards
Design standards are the collection of rules, guidelines, best practices, and other decisions recorded to describe and preserve a designed system. Perpetuating good design decisions is important. Teams working together on a product or web site of any scale cannot design something new at every turn of every project. That path leads to inconsistency, unpredictability, expensive maintenance, and confusion. The business case for standards is an easy one.
Unfortunately, standard designs inspire sighs, grimaces, and even outright resistance from the people who might benefit the most. Designers frequently see standards as “keeping me in a box.” Once formed, standards constrain. They are not sexy. Designers recoil if standards get in the way, and then are left with a choice to follow the standard or strike out in rebellion.
That’s why those authoring and advocating standards are referred to as police (if not something harsher). If there are laws – errr … standards –then they can be broken, and disorder results. Therefore, “Standards Police” must enforce rules, prevent repulsive behavior, detect heinous crimes, and root out evil, right? Wrong.
Unless design teams cultivate the right culture and attitudes around standards, their efforts to persist a design system will meet a fate of dismissiveness and fragmentation over time. The reality is that any culture employing standards must accept three fairly simple truths: designers must choose, designers learn to defer (so teach them), and designers must have a recourse for defiance.
#1. Designers must choose
Every designer makes choices from the moment they engage the design process.
- What color should this be? Purple.
- What label should I use? Go.
- What pattern works best? A leaderboard scoring display.
- What tool should I use? Visio, to create static wireframes.
These choices are informed by a designer’s past experiences, both successes and failures.
Once someone is engaged to design, you relinquish control of their work (at least, until you or others review it). Their field of vision should be wide, so they can apply judgment, experience, and imagination to inform good design choices.
Until you recognize this reality that the designer must choose, avoid design standards. Otherwise, you start down a path that eliminates invention or eliminates you, or both.
Designers are not robots, meant to read algorithms in order to conduct actions automatically. Machines are. Code is. Instead, designers must be inventive and original, applying learned skills and imagination to solve problems. They must have freedom to make choices to make things work, or make things work better.
If you can’t accept this, then the rest of this text doesn’t apply to you. But if you can, then why must designers consider rules, standards, and best practices? Because designers must also be resourceful.
In only the most rare cases do designers of digital experiences work within a context of no limitations, no constraints. One is almost never starting a new design (such as a new visual identity) such that arbitrarily deciding “Sure, let’s make this purple” makes sense.
#2. Designers learn to defer
The reality of any project is that design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is never a sprawling blank canvas onto which a designer is paid handsomely to paint a masterpiece of wondrous invention. (One might argue this doesn’t really constitute “design”.)
Instead, designers work within objectives and constraints that lead to design decisions that balance a wide range of inputs. Decisions can be simple, like these:
- Green is the primary color of the brand’s visual identity.
- One-page web forms conclude with a button labeled “Submit.”
- The experience should promote collaboration, not competition.
- The team will build prototypes using iRise or raw HTML, using a library of existing templates and assets.
Design choices coalesce into a system over time, starting from a simple set of basic truths to a complex ecosystem of principles and prescriptions. Decisions both stabilize and harden a system, and ripple across how individuals refine and maintain an experience together. By the time a designer encounters a problem, the established system may already provide an adequate and appropriate solution.
To have so many decisions already dictated by the design system can fluster designers, experienced and inexperienced alike. To defer choices implies that the designer knows how and what to defer. Newbies fresh from design school come locked and loaded to change the world, but haven’t yet faced corporate constraints. Even designers accustomed to working within established can get flustered by an unexpected impact of an established standards on their work. But people adapt, learning to defer choices to the design system, assuming such a system is codified, accessible, and relevant.
The system, defined through standards, cannot be only in someone’s brain. It must be expressed through the workflow and documentation of how the system works. Learning the basics may be quick, like reading the ubiquitous style guide one-pager. However, appreciating (internalizing?) a system’s nuance takes not just experience and perception, but access to conversant people and usable documentation that communicate standards well.
Equipped and empowered, designers can make more dependable choices and apply the system effectively. Even better, a deep appreciation for a system includes a better understanding of its boundaries: what solutions the system yet provide for the designer.
#3. Designers must have a recourse for defiance
Designing with deference can save time. It can certainly save money (in the short term). But blind obedience can also lead to solutions that actually don’t solve the problems.
Without defiance there is no change, and suddenly designers end up solving today’s problems with yesterday’s ideas. They fall behind. They stagnate. I’ve never met a design system that solved every problem on it’s first try. Far from it – never does a team really know all the problems even as they assert solutions!
When a designer hits upon the system’s boundary, it’s time to stand up! Be heard! Apply skills to define and promote progress:
- “Our primary color is green, but this is a vital, new product line brand that warrants a new color.”
- “Submit doesn’t fit as a label, for Save is a more appropriate metaphor.”
- “Our experience design rewards a winner, calling for competition.”
- “Our new design ideas are rife with new and rich components we’ve barely sketched out, so we’ll be able to move much faster initially if we use Flash Catalyst to prototype early ideas.”
Since progress happens – although, yes, sometimes it can be really slow – a set of standards must be ready to change too. Standards communications cannot end with “Well, that’s it. Use it and stop asking questions.” Instead, the tone of the standards and it’s knowledgeable representatives must be “Well, those are the solutions we’ve created so far. Make a case and let’s see if it works.”
Design groups must leave an open and clear path for new ideas to emerge and be evaluated relative to the greater good. At its best, the path is conversation: frequent, fluid, organic conversation that assesses, decides, and – if necessary – amends a system based on a change. Even without access to such decisive conversation, there must be a “front door” of sorts to a process to evaluate and decide upon system change.
Truth be told, defiance destabilizes a system, triggering discomfort and requiring parts – not the least of which includes both the designers and the standards they use – to adapt. Adaptation comes with a price, not just in dollars but also time, effort, sweat, and even an emotion toll.
Therefore, other conditions often suggest restraint and limit defiance to formed standards: get a feature out fast, deny a proposal as (so far) too complicated, or avoid that “simple change” that can erupt into into seismic systematic shifts.
Sometimes change costs more than the cost of not changing it, despite the how much it the existing system may impair our ability to ideally address a problem. That’s why great designers internalize constraints and patterns: They know instinctually whether to defer, preserving the standard, or to defy, triggering change.