Designing Between the Lines

A little while back I read article by Andrew Coyle titled “The most important thing I learned in Art College”.

You should read it. It’s short. But I’ll go ahead and summarize something that’s short.

First Andrew sets the scene:

my instructor noticed I focused on perfecting a section of the composition before approaching other areas of the scene. She pointed out how the drawing would become out of proportion if I continued.

Based on the teacher’s advice, he adjusted:

I stepped back over and over again to squint to make sure things were coming together as a whole before getting into the details.

I worked and reworked the drawing, visually connecting the parts of the composition until it matched the scene.

And he learned:

It taught me to step back to see the whole and appreciate its connections before digging into the details.

This reminds me of something attributed to the famous artist Henri Matisse:

I don’t paint things. I paint the difference between things.

In other words, if Henri doesn’t mind me saying, it’s not only the things themselves that matter, but the relationships between those things.

Consider dining: it’s not the individual foods alone, but how you put them together—their proportions, sequences, contrasts, and complements relative to each other.

Or consider legos: don’t look at merely the blocks themselves, but how they fit together. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This reminds me of something I read from Ken’s book where he mentions Google’s (in)famous testing of forty-plus shades of blue for link color. Ken cites this example to highlight the narrow nature of an approach that quantifies the performance an individual element in isolation vs. considering the element itself and its place in a larger whole.

A/B tests might be useful in finding a color that will get people to click a link more often, but it can’t produce a product that feels like a pleasing and integrated whole. There aren’t any refined-like responses, and there’s no recognition of the need to balance out the choices.

As I noted from Ken’s point:

Data can help you produce a button whose color is most conducive to getting people to click on it (narrow) but it can’t product a coherent, cohesive product that feels like an integrated whole (broad).

This is all to say that what resonated with me in Andrew’s article is the idea of alternating between perspectives—seeing the trees and the forest—and developing a refined sense of judgment that allows you to find balances between things such that they produce a pleasing and integrated whole.

In other words, don’t merely design things. Design the relationships between things.