Limitations inspire design

What makes great design? Why did design seem to take such a wrong turn in the ’80s and ’90s? What has prompted a partial resurgence of “great” design in recent years? And why am I asking all of these highly subjective questions?

My fascination with design first took hold in the early ’80s, and was largely attributable (along with my love of technology) to my experiences with the Atari 2600. I became obsessed with package design and logos, and I also became obsessed with the art of low-resolution, pixilated on-screen graphics.

My interest in “current” video games tapered off as the ’90s wore on, especially when the 3D polygon-based era began. All the new games just seemed ugly and stupid, even though, in an obvious way, they were more complex and more graphically detailed than the Atari games I loved as a child. Simultaneously, my fascination with logos and package design waned as both seemed to just get more obnoxious and overloaded with swooshes and swirls and gradients and shadows and beveled edges and all of the other excesses technological advances made possible.

I’ve wondered for a while what it was about blocky, bitmapped video game graphics that I found so aesthetically appealing. And, in much the same way, what it was about package design from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that just seemed so right to me, even though they were a lot simpler, and made using much cruder technology, than what was happening in the “now.”

Finally, I realized it was limitations that were the key to the great designs I admired so much. The designers were up against strict limits to what was possible. Mastering these earlier, more difficult techniques required years of practice and experience. And butting up against those limits to produce something of quality required real creativity. This realization led me to the axiom:

Great design happens when designers’ creativity exceeds the limitations of the technologies they use.

Once I understood this, suddenly it made sense to me why so many of the low-budget shareware games I’d seen for the Mac over the years looked and felt like crap to me, even though on a surface level they were clearly more advanced than those old Atari games: it’s easy to create a game on a modern computer, using modern graphics software and object-oriented programming languages. You don’t have to have any particular skill or knowledge to do so. But, because it’s so easy to do passably, it’s much harder to do really well.

Pitfall! and Super Mario 64: Yes, strangely, I really do prefer the one on the left.

Atari 2600 programmers needed an immense amount of knowledge of the intricacies of the system, and the tricks to exploit its extremely limited, but quirky, technical capabilities. You didn’t get into programming games for the Atari 2600 unless you knew what you were doing. Well, OK… there was plenty of shovelware in the system’s later years, but the ratio of good to crap was much higher among the 700 or so games released during that system’s lifetime than it is for the tens of thousands of mostly worthless games currently available for the iPhone.

So then, what is it that has caused — to some extent — “great” design to re-emerge in recent years, even as technology has advanced even faster than before? I suspect it’s due to a reawakening among designers to the merits of the earlier ways of doing things. Letterpress, for instance, has experienced a massive resurgence of popularity lately. “Retro” design is popping up everywhere. Perhaps it’s just that the hipsters are taking over the world, but I think this renewed awareness of what made mid-century design so great has led to designers re-imposing those limitations on themselves. Technology has advanced far enough now that there’s almost nothing that can’t be done, including recreating the limitations of earlier analog technologies in the digital realm. Think of things like Hipstamatic for the iPhone: it takes your iPhone’s digital photos and makes them look like something from an old point-and-shoot camera from the ’60s. Or look at the background design on Web Designer Wall, a visual style that saw a surge in popularity about a year ago but that’s inspired by watercolor and ink techniques that were especially popular in the ’60s. Or look at video games like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (among others) that brought a cel-shaded animation style to 3D polygon-based video game design.

These are just a few examples off the top of my head of modern designers imposing limitations on themselves to inspire their designs, now that technology no longer forces those limits directly. If you can do anything, it’s hard to do anything well. It’s too easy to get lazy or to simply lack direction and focus. In the past, technological barriers forced designers to focus. Now, they have to do it for themselves. Fortunately, that’s starting to happen.

Arial vs. Helvetica: a cheat sheet

Stoking the flames of the ongoing (mixed-metaphor) battle between Arial and Helvetica comes this cheat sheet courtesy of the ragbag. (Found via swissmiss via… wait for it… Daring Fireball, surprise!)

This guide hits all of the key differences I go by (the capital R and G; the lowercase a), and a few I hadn’t previously noticed.

Arial vs. Helvetica

The best part of the whole thing, though, is something I discovered in a comment on the swissmiss post: Helvetica, the Shirt. Sweet. Every one of these is bound to piss someone off, albeit for a different reason: the one actually in Helvetica will enrage those who hate Helvetica on principle (it’s overused, it’s not really neutral, it is really neutral, etc. etc.), while the one in Arial will piss off the Helvetica lovers (including myself), if they bother to look closely enough to see the differences.

The one in Cooper Black… well, I don’t know; for me that font will always be associated with Garfield in the early ’80s. I actually like Cooper Black in a cheesy, retro sort of way. But I think the point is probably that Helvetica is so neutral, or at least aspires to be, whereas Cooper Black is the epitome of a font with a personality of its own. (Well, OK, that title probably really belongs to Rosewood, but Cooper is at least a somewhat versatile.)

And then, of course, there’s the one in Comic Sans, which we will never speak of again.

Dollar ReDe$ign Project

Sure, it’s true that I’m often perhaps too willing to disregard tradition and take things in a brand new direction without adequate regard for the past, but I for one am ready for a radical redesign of American currency.

I’m not extremely well-traveled, but I have been to Canada, Australia, and several countries in Europe — pre-Euro. So I’ve seen a reasonable assortment of international currency and ours is by far the stodgiest, most old-fashioned, and frankly, boring-as-hell. So much more could be done with our currency, in terms not only of creativity but of incorporating new high-tech means (or some not-so-new, since Australia’s been integrating clear plastic in its currency since at least when I visited there in 1995) of confounding counterfeiters.

Alas, the redesigns we’ve seen in the past 15 years or so have been conservative, timid, and way too reluctant to break with the past. But Richard Smith’s Dollar ReDe$ign Project hopes to change that… or at least to allow us to fantasize about a world where American currency is cool-looking.

I agree with Ministry of Type that the following designs, by Michael Tyznik, are among the best, and they’re something that I could actually see some country using on its currency. Too bad it probably won’t be ours. (Not that American presidents and landmarks would make sense on another country’s bills, but you get my point.)


Upon closer examination, I also like how the designer has eliminated the $1 bill, replaced it with a $200 denomination, and bumped each president (or statesman) up a notch (Washington on the $5, Lincoln on the $10, etc.)… with the exception of Benjamin Franklin, who, in deference to P. Diddy, must remain associated with the $100 bill.

Grant leapfrogs from the $50 to the $200. Wait… he’s on the $50 now, right? I don’t see a lot of currency these days, and rarely anything larger than what’s dispensed by an ATM. Oh, and I see Hamilton has been replaced by Jefferson for the new $20. A debatable decision, but at least it’s not Aaron Burr.

There’s also a nice civics lesson, in the form of the Bill of Rights, written on the backs of the notes.

Cool wedding design

Cabel Sasser's awesome wedding invitations (Awesome? Wedding invitations?)I’ve never really thought anything about weddings was “cool.” Sure, our wedding was fun… at least the reception was, especially the 6-piece jazz combo. That was the part I insisted on (and I sat in with them, demonstrating that I had reached the limit of my abilities as a saxophonist).

But “cool?” Well, no, not really.

Then I saw the invitations (and everything else) from Cabel Sasser’s wedding.

I was already impressed with Cabel just for the greatness that is Transmit. Plus, when I lose my registration code (which seems to happen always), the message I get back from Panic at least appears to be sent personally by Cabel himself. Nice touch.

Anyway, back to the wedding. I consider myself a creative person (after all, it is my job, at least to some extent!) but I don’t think in a million years I’d have come up with something this creative and, well, cool for wedding invitations. Then again, maybe if we hadn’t gotten married straight out of college we’d have had more time to come up with something. Still, this would be hard to top. I love the invitations. The combination of the techie pixel-style art and the tactile, “old world” feel of the letterpress printing is brilliant.

Bleeding-edge web design, circa 1994

Microsof’s home page in 1994... don’t cut yourself!A recently-departed (as in left for another company) coworker stopped by my desk on his last day to drop off a backup CD I had burned back in 2001. Today I popped it into the drive to see what curiosities lurked within. I was delighted to discover one of my trademark “Miscellany” folders, with a bunch of random stuff in it. Unquestionably the most interesting artifact was a screenshot of Microsoft’s website, as it appeared in 1994.

I’m simply at a loss to explain this design. Clearly many most all web designs from that early need to be cut a little slack, and I doubt any of them have truly aged well. But even through that lens, this site is inexplicably hideous.

I’m certainly not the first person to look back in time and mock this design, of course. But “usability guru” Jakob Nielsen used it in an article he wrote back at the time, and it’s still lingering on his site with a new introduction written in 1997. (Frighteningly enough, if the conclusion I draw from my brief perusal of the long and boring highly usable article is correct, he’s actually praising this design.) Personally I think Nielsen’s views are overrated, and that if he really knew as much about usability as he is supposed to, his website would look a lot different (and he’d also realize he no longer needs to cater to the bandwidth limitations of those running 28.8 kbps modems — but I digress; besides, these guys rip into him much better than I care to). But it’s still an interesting look back in time.