Over the holiday break, I loaded up On Writing Well by William Zinsser on my new iPad. The book is at once a book about writing great non-fiction and an exercise in meta-writing. Each chapter employs the exact techniques Zinsser is trying to explain.
While reading about writing, it struck me that the modern non-fiction piece is very similar to the design we produce today. Late last September, Allan hammered out “The Flat Design Era” which—by measures of reputable internet statisticians—blew the fuck up. The Tumblr post as received well over 500 notes and reblogs, its fair share of arm-chair developer-as-designer Hacker News comments, and still continues to be a point of contention among many designers. In the post, Allan encourages simplicity and flatness in design as honesty. Rule #6: Good design is honest. But interface design shares a similarity with non-fiction writing: At its core, it is meant to be the vessel for something else.
If you take a good news story, it is simply a retelling of a sequence of events. In On Writing Well, Zinsser stresses that the best stories are those with hyper-specific details and devoid of any fluff. Take one of my favorite examples from the book, a quote from an interview with a librarian in the Science & Technology division in the New York Public Library:
Everybody’s got something to invent, but they won’t tell us what they’re looking for—maybe because they think we’ll patent it themselves.
A single quote tells you the exact type of mood of the section and mindset of the patron. (In other news, I’ve got this stealth startup I’m working on that is going to be huge.) Zinsser goes on to tear down adverbs and go-nowhere statements and platitudes.
Interface design today is similarly about finding the best way to show off something else. In yesteryears, many honestly-designed non-digital tools were exactly that: tools. They performed specific tasks like cutting fingernails; washing dishes; or mixing soap, water, and clothing 34 minutes at a time. Digital design is much more about being a vessel for something else. Our computers display information that comes from somewhere else, our Facebooks display information that happened in real life, and our LayerVaults display design works in progress. The interfaces are not the focus, but how they can best represent the material that they shuttle.
Flat Design is no trend. Gloss and “lickability” are the siblings to colloquialisms and weak writing. No emcee upstages the performers. When designing interfaces we must remember that our work is never the story.
Unless of course, you’re Apple.