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Episode #17: Design roundtable (Part 2 of 3)

Matt Linderman: Welcome to the 37signals podcast. On the last episode we began our design roundtable with three members of the design team at 37signals: Jason, Ryan and Jamie. And we were talking about design influences and inspiration when we left off. So let's pick up from there. Here's Jamie discussing the difference between art and design, especially when it comes to the web. So Jamie will be talking first. Then you'll hear Ryan's voice and then Jason's.
Jamie Dihiansan: The web is this interesting place where, especially when it was first starting out, there were a lot of tinkerers on there. And there's definitely a lot of traditional design, people that were formally trained. But there's this fine line between art and design. There always is. And on the web it's even harder to separate. It's sort of like a lot of what I admire out there is art, but it isn't really design. And what I mean by that is it looks beautiful and I'm like amazed that they managed to do it, but is it really communicating something or is it just in and of itself this beautiful site? And I could think of a lot of different web sites that I've seen that I think it looks cool, but I couldn't even remember what the hell it was about. And to me design is about communicating. What's the problem? And I definitely respect the art part. So I think that's an interesting thing when you were talking about K10K and Surf Station and all that stuff and all that crazy flash stuff.
Ryan Singer: I love design graphic like Michael Young and - what was it - Mike Cina, whatever it is?
Jamie: Yeah. Yeah.
Ryan: I love those guys' work. But now it's like I've found, I think, I've waited to find out which side you're on between the art and design game.
Jamie: Yeah.
Ryan: And if you asked the question why? What can you say? If you ask an artist why, the greatest artists will tell you, "Well, it was beautiful."
Jamie: Yeah.
Ryan: "It inspired me. It touched me. It reminded me of this or that."
Jamie: Yeah.
Ryan: But you ask a designer why and he says, "Well, I've got these 15 different things that all have to coexist in this 800 x 600 pixel area."
Jamie: Yeah. Yeah.
Ryan: "And if I do this, that doesn't work. If I do this, it breaks the other thing. So in order for these three things to be in harmony, I have to do that and so on and so forth like that."
Jason Fried: The other thing, there's companies too that I think do great design. But one of the companies that I'm really liking lately is just Google's design. Even though Google, like people would say, "It's ugly and stripped down or whatever." The decisions they're making I think are really wise. Everything's based on speed. And the more you use it the more you realize speed trumps aesthetics in most cases, I think, today. If you can be fast and good looking, that's great. But I think I'd almost prefer fast. And so, I like some of the decisions they're making about that. And I think that's starting to influence us a little bit in terms of picking up some speed here and there by maybe doing things that are a little bit less fancy than we might want to do, a little less arty than what we might want to do but really just are better because they're faster.
Matt: At what point does that enter? Is that at the very first stage as you're thinking, "Well, this will take too long to load"? Or is it something that you design and you're looking at load speeds? You're like, "This is just not moving fast enough." Where does that come in?
Jason: I don't know how everyone else does it. But the way I tend to do it is I'll design something the way I like it, and then I'll figure out how I can pull stuff out of it. So for me it's more an editing process. Speed is about editing, I think, for me. I want to get the idea out there first and then I can start peeling back. But the stuff I do is pretty fast to begin with because I don't really do a lot of fancy stuff. But I just really admire Google's focus on speed. And that's a design decision too. It's not just a business decision. It's a design decision. They're saying, "There's some design." I'm sure they have very talented designers in some places, and they are talented even though they may not be artists in the same way.
Matt: It might not be an impressive portfolio piece.
Jason: Right. Exactly. But they're really talented because the site's fast, and it's easy to use. And things like that that really matter.
Matt: It's solving the problems.
Jason: Yeah.
Ryan: That points more and more to the challenge to somebody who's trying to get into or who's trying to get a job doing UI design, that it's not about looking at screen shots. Because then you're putting yourself in the graphic design box. It's about your ability to describe problems and your ability to show how it is that a design that you did worked. And if you can show the reasoning and the different relationships between the elements, then you can show that you really know something.
Matt: And I think it's something we've seen at Sortfolio and some other sites that we've just discussed, internally, like portfolios that we're impressed by. A lot of times it's not just a screen shot. It's someone who can take a screen shot and then also explain why they made these choices or why they're doing what they did as opposed to just, here's a pretty picture.
Jason: Yeah. And to wrap it up too, like, Jason Santa Maria I think is doing really great work.
Ryan: He's doing awesome stuff.
Jason: Dan Cederholm and people like that, I think are just awesome people to look at because they seem to really get it beyond just the art side of it.
Ryan: I've been really inspired by Art Lebedev. How do you say it?
Jamie: That Russian guy.
Ryan: The Russian firm.
Jason: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Ryan: They've got a really amazing style. And it's cool because they don't come from the same historical line of development that we do, so you can see certain things. You can see certain kind of cleanliness, a certain kind of modern style, but at the same time there's certain things about the way the elements are arranged or the way things are spaced that you're really like, "Whoa! That's really something different."
Jason: Right.
Ryan: It's easy to become blind to how much we all follow in line with each other, how we see the Swiss posters. You know what I mean?
Jamie: Right. Sure.
Ryan: You see the Helvetica or whatever, and it's like you forget what a box you're in when it comes to design.
Matt: Well, you've visited Japan a couple of times, one time recently, is that something you noticed there too, a cultural sort of language or vernacular that was different?
Ryan: There's definitely some interesting things with the television and the advertising. But for me, actually, that wasn't the most striking thing because I think that the Japanese aesthetic is one of the things, along with the Swiss aesthetics, that is in the mainstream of design aesthetics. The Russian aesthetic isn't necessarily part of our story.
Jason: I also like Persian stuff, like old Persian stuff, it's beautiful, like the way they use shape and color in a way that we don't use it here.
Matt: And the intricacies...
Jamie: Yeah. That's the other thing that I find so interesting about that sort of stuff is, yeah, the intricacies like Arabian art and stuff. It's just beautiful.
Ryan: And the patterns.
Jason: Yeah. The patterns are phenomenal. I don't know, like that doesn't show itself in the stuff I do. But I still feel like it influences me somehow. I'm not sure how though.
Ryan: Yeah, something I find really inspiring is when you go to places that have really intact kind of traditional style, even if you just look at a really traditional style, American buildings or something. One of the things that you see is something that Christopher Alexander points out. You see many, many different levels of detail. You see details in a building that are the size of six feet tall. You see a flat wall that's six feet tall. But then you walk closer to it and there's a ledge that's about the height of you know maybe from your wrist to your elbow. And then inside of that, there's details that are the size of your individual fingers. And you look into that and there's textures that are millimeters in size. And then you look up to the building and at the top of the building where the roof comes out, there's all this detail there.
Jamie: Yes.
Ryan: And in the modern tradition, especially if you take simplicity and these things where sometimes 37signals is sometimes associated with, if you take those things too literally, you get this kind of simple modern thing where everything is flat. And it's not interesting, your eyes can't dig into it. And if you look at our apps, I don't think that you see anything that reminds you of a traditional building. But I hope that you see font sizes, where you see a certain weight that is really comfortable for your eye. And you see other weights that require you to strain a little bit because there's detail there. It has to do with some finer point. You see headlines that are more big. You know, I hope that there's some, that we're integrating this idea of different levels of scale in order to give a kind of richness and interestingness to the apps.
Matt: Yeah, like when you talk about architecture I'm reminded of when you walk in Chicago looking at, say the Wrigley building, or some of the other buildings downtown or in New York, if you look at the facades of these buildings and you see the ornate details there, gargoyles or different elements of the structure and compare that to modern architecture, so much of It just seems so cookie-cutter. Like people are just making something as quickly and cheaply and simply as possible. And obviously there's some pros to that, but you lose something along the way, some sense of individuality that's gone in modern architecture in a lot of these newer buildings that you see.
Ryan: There's this interesting steep edge. Where you can have a building like the Farnsworth house or something. Which is a modern building with not a lot of detail, but the proportions are just so perfect. But then if you take that design and you just mess up the proportions a little bit, then you just have something uninteresting.
Matt: Or even if you put that structure somewhere else. The way it works with the land and in the context of the environment around it and how it was made for that place and that purpose and...
Ryan: And also with like Dieter Rams and stuff like that, there's this quality to the really well-executed modern stuff. There's perfect balance of proportion that is for me a challenge. Because I think in general you could say that our aesthetic is modern. But to give it that feeling of being interesting, modern and still interesting, requires some magic factor that's kind of subtle and hard to pin down.
Matt: All right, we've got some readers at Signal vs. Noise who had some questions for you guys, so.
Jason: Actually something just popped into my head, I'll just drop it in real quick. It's like the thing I'm starting to see more and more is that like the goal, I think, with good design is kind of what Ryan's bringing is proportion. And that's one of the things that I'm starting to notice is what's really most important about something is, is it in proportion. Regardless of the style it has or anything like that, it's just about proportions.
Matt: Can you give an example?
Jason: Like the space between objects and elements, and it's kind of hard to do that over the audio here. But like if you have buttons, like a bar of buttons, is the space between the buttons adequate? Is it too much space, compared to the size of the buttons themselves, and the space between the text and the edge of the buttons, all that kind of stuff. That's the stuff that I think makes things feel right. It's not the color. The button could be purple or green or yellow, it doesn't matter. It's like, is it in proportion? That seems to matter to me most. That's where I find the harmony in design is in the proportions.
Matt: Almost sounds like a timing in comedy or music or something.
Jason: Yes, maybe. And that's a classic notion, too. You look at the great Greek buildings and Roman buildings, it's all about proportion.
Matt: The golden ratio.
Jason: The golden ratio and all that stuff.
Ryan: I think it's not only aesthetic. It's not that you see a certain proportion visually and like the geometry there pushes a magic button in your brain or something. It's that when the spacing is right and when the proportions are right, it also fits with how much do these things have to do with each other. Like the buttons that are together on one area of the screen and they're separated by so much from these other buttons. They usually have some kind of common function, or they are alternate possibilities relating to some kind of certain function. Or they're things that you want to think about together versus thinking about separately. And it's a matter of degree because everything on the page is visible at the same time. So it's like when you have things a little bit nearer or a little bit further with more contrast or less contrast, it's partly that the visual proportion is there, but it's also a kind of proportion of meaning. A proportion of relationships that you can get when you see it, these things make sense together, but it's not so easy to explain.
Jason: Yes. The last thing I'll say too is that I feel like great proportions melt away impurities in a design. So if you have buttons and there's too much space between them or whatever, that's like the space between them is another element that you have to comprehend. So if you have two buttons, you now have three objects. You've got the button, the button, the space. But if things are the right proportions, you just have two items, the two buttons. And I think over a big screen, if you get the proportions right, you could be eliminating 10 or 20 different extra negative space things and things that you just have to comprehend. So it's very soothing.
Matt: Alright. That's the end of part two of the Design Roundtable. On the next episode, the design team will answer questions from readers at Signal versus Noise. As always thanks for listening. If you want to see related links to this or other episodes, you can go to 37signals.com/podcasts. We've got all the other episodes there and transcripts as well.

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