Although the title UI Designer suggests a sort of departure from the traditional graphic designer, UI design is still a part of the historical trajectory of the visual design discipline.

With each movement or medium, the discipline has introduced new graphic languages, layouts, and design processes. Between generations, the designer has straddled the transition from press to xerox, or paper to pixel. Across these generations, graphic design has carried out the responsibility of representing the visual language of each era respectively.

Therefore, as UI Design makes the transition out of its infancy, what sort of graphic world can we expect to develop? Unfortunately, based on the current trajectory, the future may look bleak. Much of UI Design today has become standardized and repeatable. Design discussions online involve learning the rules to get designs to safely work, rather than push the envelope, or imagine new things. The tendency for UI Designers to resort to patterns and trends has not only created a bland visual environment, but also diminished the value of the designer as processes become more and more formulaic. The issue is precisely not one of technicalities, but of impending visual boredom.

Thus, the Top Five Common UI Design mistakes are:

  • Following Design Rules
  • Abusing the Grid
  • Misunderstanding Typefaces
  • Patterns and the Standardization of UI Design
  • Finding Safety in Contrast

UI Design Rule Book

Understand principles and be creative within their properties. Following the rules will only take your where others have been.

Common Mistake #1: UI Designers Follow the Rules

The world of graphic design has always followed sets of rules and standards. Quite often in any design discipline, the common mistakes that are made can closely coincide with a standard rule that has been broken. Thus, from this perspective the design rules seem to be pretty trustworthy to follow.

However, in just about any design discipline, new design movements and creative innovation has generally resulted from consciously breaking said rule book. This is possible because design is really conditional, and requires the discretion of the designer, rather than a process with any sort of finite answers. Therefore, the design rules should likely be considered as guidelines more so rather than hard and fast rules. The experienced designer knows and respects the rule book just enough to be able break the box.

Unfortunately, the way that design is often discussed online is within sets of do’s and don’ts. Top mistakes and practices for design in 10 easy steps! Design isn’t so straightforward, and requires a much more robust understanding of principles and tendencies, rather than checklists to systematically carry out.

The concern is that if designers were to cease ‘breaking the rules’, then nothing new creatively would ever be made. If UI designers only develop their ability to follow guidelines, rather than make their own decisions, then they may quickly become irrelevant. How else will we argue a value greater than off the shelf templates?

Be Wary of Top Ten Design Rules

The issue with design rules in today’s UI design community is they are so abundant. In the interest of solving any problem, the designer can look to the existing UI community and their set of solutions, rather than solve an issue on their own. However, the abundance of these guides and rules have made themselves less credible.

A google search for “Top UI Design Mistakes” yields a half million search results. So, what are the chances that most, if any of these authors of various articles agree with one another? Or, will each design tip that is discussed coincide accurately with the design problems of a reader?

Often the educational articles online discuss acute problems, rather than the guiding design principles behind the issue. The result is that new designers will never learn why design works the way that it does. Instead, they only become able to copy what has come before. Isn’t it concerning that in none of these sorts of articles is something like play encouraged?

The designer should have a tool kit of principles to guide them, rather than a book of rules to follow predetermined designs. Press x for parallax scrolling and y for carousels. Before choosing, refer to most recent blog post on which navigational tool is trending. Boring!

Trends are like junk food for designers. Following trends produces cheap designs that may offer some initial pay back, but little worth in the long run. This means that not only may trendy designers become dated, or ineffective quickly. But, for you the designer, don’t expect to experience any sense of reward when designing in this way. Although working to invent your own styles and systems is a lot of work, it’s so worth it day in and day out. There’s just something about copying that never seems to feed the soul.

Common Mistake #2: Allowing the Grid to Restrict UI Design

Despite my treatise against rules - here’s a rule: there is no way for a UI Designer to design without a grid. The web or mobile interface is fundamentally based on a pixel by pixel organization - there’s no way around it. However, this does not necessarily mean that the interface has to restrict designers to gridded appearances, or even gridded processes.

Using the Grid as a Trendy Tool

Generally, making any design moves as a response to trends can easily lead to poor design. Perhaps what results is a satisfactory, mostly functional product. But it will almost certainly be boring or uninteresting. To be trendy is to be commonplace. Therefore, when employing the grid in a design, understand what the grid has to offer as a tool, and what it might convey. Grids generally represent neutrality, as everything within the restraints of a grid appear equal. Grids also allow for a neutral navigational experience. Users can jump from item to item without any interference from the designer’s curatorial hand. Whereas, with other navigational structures, the designer may be able to group content, or establish desired sequences.

UI Design Rule Book

Although a useful tool, the grid can be very limiting to designers.

Defaulting to the Grid as a Work Flow

Dylan Fracareta, faculty of RISD and director of PIN-UP Magazine, points out that “most people start off with a 12 - column grid…because you can get 3 and 4 off of that”. The danger here is that immediately the designer predetermines anything that they might come up with. Alternatively, Fracareta resides to only using the move tool with set quantities, rather than physically placing things against a grid line. Although this establishes order, it opens up more potential for unexpected outcomes. Although designing for the browser used to mean that we would input some code, wait, and see what happens. Now, web design has returned to a more traditional form of layout designer that’s “more like adjusting two sheets of transparent paper”. How can we as designers benefit from this process? Working Without a Grid Although grids can be restricting, they are one of our most traditional forms of organization. The grid is intuitive. The grid is neutral and unassuming. Therefore, grids allow content to speak for itself, and for users to navigate at their will and with ease. Despite my warnings towards the restrictiveness of grids, different arrays allow for different levels of guidance or freedom.

Common Mistake #3:The Standardization of UI Design with Patterns

The concept of standardized design elements predates UI design. Architectural details have been frequently repeated in practice for typical conditions for centuries. Generally this practice makes sense for certain parts of a building that are rarely perceived by a user. However, once architects began to standardize common elements like furniture dimensions, or handrails heights, people eventually expressed disinterest in the boring, beige physical environment that resulted. Not only this, but standardized dimensions were proven to be ineffective, as although generated as an average, they didn’t really apply to the majority of the population. Thus, although repeatable detail have their place, they should be used critically.

If we as designers choose to automate, what value are we providing?

If we as designers choose to automate, what value are we providing?

Designers Using the Pattern as Product

Many UI designers don’t view the pattern as a time saving tool, but rather an off the shelf solution to design problems. Patterns are intended to take recurring tasks or artefacts and standardize them in order to make the designer’s job easier. Instead, certain patterns like F Pattern Layouts, Carousels or Pagination have become the entire structure of many of our interfaces.

Justification for the Pattern is Skewed

Designers tell themselves that the F shaped pattern exists as a result of the way that people read on the web. Espen Brunborg points out that perhaps people read this way as a result of us designing for that pattern. “What’s the point of having web designers if all they do is follow the recipe,” Brunborg asks.

Common Mistake #4: Misunderstanding Typefaces

Many designer’s quick tips suggest hard and fast rules about fonts as well. Each rule is shouted religiously, “One font family only! Monospaced fonts are dead! Avoid thin fonts at all costs!”. But really, the only legitimate rules on type, text and fonts should be to enforce legibility, and convey meaning. As long as type is legible, there may very well be an appropriate opportunity for all sorts of typefaces. The UI Designer must take on the responsibility of knowing the history, uses, and designed intentions for each font that they implement in a UI.

Consider a Typeface Only for Legibility

Typefaces convey meaning as well as affect legibility. With all of the discussion surrounding rules for proper legibility on devices etc, designers are forgetting that type is designed to augment a body of text with a sensibility, as much as it is meant to be legible. Legibility is critical, I do not dispute this - but my point is that legibility really should be an obvious goal. Otherwise, why wouldn’t we have just stopped at Helvetica, or maybe Highway Gothic. However, the important thing to remember is that fonts are not just designed for different contexts of legibility. Typefaces are also essential for conveying meaning or giving a body of text a mood.

Typefaces are each designed for their own uses. Don't allow narrow minded rules to restrict an exploration of the world of type.

Avoiding Thin Fonts At All Costs

Now that the trend has come (and almost gone?), a common design criticism is to avoid thin fonts entirely. In the same way thin fonts came as a trend, they may leave as one also. However, the hope should be to understand the principles of the typefaces rather than follow trends at all.

Some say that they’re impossible to read or untrustworthy between devices. All legitimate points. Yet, this represents a condition in the current discussion of UI design. The font choice is only understood by designers as technical choice in regards to legibility, rather than also understanding the meaning and value of typefaces. The concern is that if legibility is the only concern that a designer carried, would thin fonts be done away with entirely?

Understand why you are using a thin font, and within what contexts. Bold, thick text is actually much more difficult to read at length than thinner fonts. Yet, as bold fonts carry more visual weight they’re more appropriate for headings, or content with little text. As thin fonts are often serifs, its suitability for body text is entirely objective. As serif characters flow together when read in rapid succession, they make for much more comfortable long reading.

As well, thin fonts are often chosen because they convey elegance. So, if a designer was working on an interface for a client whose mandate was to convey elegance, they might find themselves hard pressed to find a heavy typeface to do the job.

Not Enough Variation

A common mistake is to not provide enough variation between fonts in an interface. Changing fonts is a good navigational tool to establish visual hierarchy, or potentially different functions within an interface. A crash course on hierarchy will teach you that generally the largest items, or boldest fonts, should be the most important, and carry the most visual weight. Visual importance can convey content headings, or perhaps frequently used functions.

Too Much Variation

A common UI Design mistake is to load in several different typefaces from different families that each denote a unique function. The issue with making every font choice special, when there is many fonts, is that no font stands out. Changing fonts is a good navigational tool to establish visual hierarchy, or potentially different functions within an interface. Therefore, if every font is different, there is too much confusion for a user to recognize any order.

Common Mistake #5: Under/Over Estimating the Potential of Contrast

A common mistake that appears on many Top UI Design Mistake lists is that designers should avoid low contrast interfaces. There are many instances in which low contrast designs are illegible and ineffective - true. However, as with the previous points, my worry is that this use of language alternatively produces a high contrast design culture in response.

Defaulting to High Contrast

The issue is that high contrast is aesthetically easy to achieve. High contrast visuals are undeniably stimulating or exciting. However, there are many more moods in the human imagination to convey or communicate with, other than high stimulation. To be visually stimulating may also be visually safe.

The same issue is actually occurring in sci-fi film. The entire industry has resorted to black and neon blue visuals as a way to trick viewers into accepting ‘exciting’ visuals, instead of new, creative, or beautiful visuals. This article points out what the sci-fi industry is missing out on by producing safe visuals.

Functionally, if every element in an interface is in high contrast to another, then nothing stands out. This defeats the potential value of contrast as a hierarchical tool. Considering different design moves as tools, rather than rules to follow is essential in avoiding stagnant, trendy design.

Illegibly Low Contrast

The use of low contrast fonts and backgrounds is a commonly made mistake. However, rather than being a design issue. This could potentially be discussed as a beta testing mistake, rather than a design mistake.

How the design element relates as a low contrast piece to the rest of the interface is a design concern. The issue could be that the most significant item hierarchically is low in contrast to the rest of the interface. For the interface to communicate its organizational structure, the elements should contrast one another in a certain way. This is a design discussion. Whether or not it is legible is arguably a testing mistake.

The point is that in only discussing contrast as a technical issue resolvable by adjusting a value, designers miss out on the critical understanding of what contrast is principally used for.

Conclusion

As with the previous 4 mistakes, the abuse of patterns will rarely result in a dysfunctional website, but rather just a boring one. The mistake is in being safe. This overly cautious method of design may not cause the individual project to fail. However, this series of safe mistakes performed by the greater web community can mean greater failures beyond the individual UI design project. The role of the designer should be to imagine, thoughtfully experiment and create - not to responsibly follow rules and guidelines.

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