The Default Design

I give a design exercise to candidates to bring in for their onsite interview. The point of a design exercise is shed light on the following:

  1. Are they masters of their tool?
  2. Are they productive?
  3. Are they creative?
  4. Are they logical?
  5. Are they detail-oriented?

One thing I advise candidates to avoid is the “Default Design”. The default is the choice is actually very common. Here are some characteristics of the Default Design.

Lists, Pages, and Modals

When web applications were new (late 90’s) you would frequently get this particular structure. It would have a long list of an object type. Clicking on an item would navigate to a page dedicated to that single instance of the object. Editing any part of it would pop up a modal. You fill out all the modal and then save and it updates the page.

This mode of interaction works to a degree. It’s logical and covers all the use cases. However, it’s also boring and not particularly efficient for the user. Lastly, this method creates a usage requiring pogo-sticking. This means it’s hard to navigate linearly through the content, but rather have to go from list to detail to list to detail, etc.

What is better is direct manipulation. This is when you can edit items directly from where they are and not have to navigate. All modern applications have direct manipulation built into the design. If you want a nice example: Go to gmail, and click on the little tasks icon on the far right. See screenshot.

It’s truly a beautifully designed little widget. All of the micro-interactions are on point. It has plenty of direct manipulation. I love the way it works. The point is that this is not the default design. It’s a modern application that takes advantage of current technology. It is not the default.

Flat Design

People don’t really understand where Flat Design originally came from. A little over 10 years ago the iPhone was introduced. It had a crumby battery, a slow CPU, and a poor screen. Apple wanted a way to simplify the UI so it seemed quicker. They got rid of shadows, gradients, and rounded corners. In other words, they flattened the visuals. This helped with battery life and performance.

Since the iPhone was such a hit, the style (which was meant for functional purposes) became “fashionable”. Everyone fell in love with “flat”. Microsoft dumbed down their UI to the point of absurdity, even on desktop UIs. Windows is still flat to this day. Everyone went flat. Then Google made a whole design language called Material Design and popularized design languages that were flat.

When a designer makes their designs flat, they are just copying 10+ year old styles. It’s the default. It’s not “clean and modern”. It’s old and boring. It also does a terrible job of providing visual hierarchy.

Monochromatic (or no) Colors

It’s like designers are allergic to color. Nothing is wrong with color. It’s beautiful and natural. Just because Apple (again the fashion problem) makes everything titanium white doesn’t mean that you have to avoid color. Color is an important tool in your visual toolkit. Use it!

Lack of Creativity

The world needs better designers. Stop designing exactly like everyone else. Be creative. Try things. Maybe they don’t work and are bad. Maybe they are amazing. Please try. Don’t just do the minimum. Don’t just design the defaults.

When I interview you, I am trying to see if you are a default designer or not. Show me that you are more than just copying other designers.

Whatya think?