Posted by: rolfsky | April 18, 2008

design cancer?

When we create design layouts in tools like Photoshop or Illustrator, does the ease of copy-paste ultimately create artificially dense, human-unfriendly spaces?

Are these interfaces not unlike a cancer, grown without natural physical boundaries of human creation and cognition? Could we make it better, if we forced ourselves to sketch, everything?

A few weeks ago Eric Burke made a great graphic on his Showing the typical Apple product and Google product, it was obvious to see that simplicity was paramount with one giant button or one simple search box. Contrasting it to “your product”, it was apparent that no user wants to deal with an interface littered with buttons, dialogs, mandatory and optional fields. (see the awesome comic)

But how did we get this way? I think the productivity tools we use every day might be part of the problem.

Dan Roam came and talked at eBay, discussing his new book “The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures”. In his presentation he told a story of developing a piece of dashboard software for a major organization, and he said with a certain amount of pride that all the design was “done in a notebook”. The rough hand-drawn style of the mockups for the dashbord apparently kept execs and designers from quibbling over the little details and everything progressed smoothly.

While sitting there, I imagined trying to capture our eBay homepage with pen and paper, and it made my head hurt. We have so many links and such a dense interface, you would wear out our nib trying to document them. Let alone creating multiple copies to share and discuss.

So therein lies the question? Because it has become so easy to design high-resolution, high-fidelity interfaces; endlessly duplicating elements and text blocks, are we creating structures humans can’t visually and mentally digest?

Is the ease with which we copy-paste both elements and information, forgetting the necessary influences of natural growth, decay, and selection?

If we forced ourselves to design only with pen and paper, would it necessarily create a more understandable interface? Pushing complexity away from the user, exactly where it should be?

Try this experiment for yourself, either in your next design, or your next powerpoint.

If you aren’t willing to take the time to draw each one of those fields and links, I can guarantee that your users don’t want to fill them in.


  1. Wow Rolf — what a brilliant insight! It seems to me that you’re really on to something: cut-and-paste (or any aspect of design that can be that easily automated) allows us to stop thinking about what we’re doing.

    I hadn’t taken the potential dangers of software-driven design to that level. This is worth thinking more about.

    – Dan Roam

  2. If you want to open your product up to non techie older people you better keep it simple with easy buttons and a straight forward design. This also goes for worn out single mommies and sleep starved teens. Less but better options would get my vote.

  3. This reminds me muchly of Kevin Cheng and his drive to use comics to communicate design. Here’s a slideshare from last year at the IA Summit. I hope he puts up his slides from this year soon.

  4. I highly recommend watching:

  5. […] post that drew my attention was one by my favorite Pattern Houd, Rolf Skyberg. He writes about the principles of design and challenges us to rethink the way user interfaces are designed: Is the ease with which we copy-paste both elements […]

  6. Hi Rolf, excellent points and the simplicity of site design is something I am constantly aiming for. We recently redesigned with the sole aim of zero distractions. We’re not there yet, but most certainly a lot closer than with our launch design.

    Just ordered Dan’s book and would like to recommend an ebook I recently read called Save The Pixel by Ben Hunt championing the less is more approach.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: