Thursday, March 15, 2012

Design is in the Details

Design is in the Details

You’re at the table with fellow designers, an art director, and a creative director. The large screen displays designs you’re about to collectively critique. This is the first time you’ll all consider the initial round of concepts. The designs go up, one by one, and the words begin to flow.

It’s a phrase you hear often: design is in the details. With design, paying attention to small details—and in some cases, obsessively focusing on “what isn’t right”—can take a design from “nearly there” to “there” and beyond.

I attend meetings in which designers present their designs—typically the first round of comps—for the first time. Half the time, the presenting designer shows a rough product on the screen, and they usually believe the design is 90-100% done. But to the detail-savvy designer, the work is only 50-70% there. You can see the groundwork, foundation, and feel of the design in front of you, but you know it’s just not finished.

The goal of embracing details is to get you to think critically and present the best possible design you can—right from round one. In essence, you want your design to be ready for a real client presentation. So how do you take a design to 100%? You need to achieve polish, ridding the client’s mind of any doubt that the design is unfinished. It’s all too common for designers to feel rushed: you’re under deadline, you’re under pressure. But if you care about your craft and your ideas, you’ll take the extra time, perhaps working late into the night, as we all have, and add the touches that you know will make your work really shine. You know that feeling you get when you think, “Oh, I knew I should have tried that”? Do it the first time it comes to mind. Don’t let someone in your design review bring up an idea you thought of first.

Tips and techniques fortify any designer’s toolkit, but I must stress that thinking critically about a design is as important as the tools and skills needed to produce it.

Here’s a checklist to guide and inspire you to get the site done, done, done. Leave no stone unturned and no doubts about the design you present—let it shine.


It’s not unusual for me to create up to four concurrent comps for just the first round of internal design presentations. I use these to “sketch” out designs. A navigation or logo treatment that doesn’t work in one comp may work in another comp. This allows you to have what I call “The Beautiful Mistake”—placing elements in other environments that create possibilities. Instead of feeling like you have designer’s block, just throw the ideas you have into comps and see where they lead. Getting started is half the battle.

On the same note, don’t be afraid to start over. If something isn’t working, close it up and trash it. If you think the navigation is too precious, remember how you did it, then start from that point in the next design. The goal is to refine, over and over.


There are many choices to be made when you’re designing—everything from type, to colors, to overall tone of the site. Sometimes, I like to throw a lot of things at a design to see what sticks, and sometimes I start minimally. Strive to make smart, simple choices. If there’s an easier way to design something, do it. The complicated choice will feel complicated to the client and intended audience unless you can make a complex interaction looks simple.

Stay consistent

Once you make choices, stick with them. If you choose to pad items with 10 pixels in sidebars but use 15 pixels in larger text areas, make sure the comps reflect those decisions. Keep notes while designing—these will form a good basis for a style guide. Consistency displays sophistication and shows that you fully understood and made sound decisions. Consistency should be transparent.


Finish the design. Don’t miss a footer or a detail. Don’t say, “That’s to be filled in later—I didn’t have time.” Make the time. Don’t give any reason for others to torpedo the design or allow someone to fixate on a little detail—overshadowing the rest of the work. It’s these little details that deserve your attention. Creative directors, art directors, and especially clients will perseverate on details like this, so make sure the details are there.

Step in, step out, step back: balance

During a design, it’s best to step away from the design occasionally—even just for lunch or a 15-minute break. Look at something else. Come back and look at your design again. Think about your first impressions. Your own gut reaction will likely be similar to the initial impressions of those who see it for the first time. Take note and revise or change your design based on those impressions. Regardless of how “cool” or “neat” a particular element may be, if it doesn’t serve your design in a useful way, get rid of it and try something new. Always step back and re-evaluate.

Be your own critic

If you’re familiar with the team you regularly work with, the client or the client’s needs, look at your design as you get close to done and think about parts that will potentially provoke questions or concerns. Have a solid answer for the decisions you made.

Complexity in simplicity: less is more

When we discuss “less is more”, we mean different things. For example, sometimes the design needs to scale back. It’s got too many elements. Or a design chokes itself with too many colors. When doing detail work, “less is more” is about leaving in only everything that is necessary and making it harmonious. Let the complexity be in the simplicity—a design is not useful when it’s perceived to be complex. A design should be useful, simple, and straightforward—let the complexity shine through via simplicity.

Obsession is healthy

If I don’t feel right about a navigation or a flash widget that displays photos, I will sit and stew and sketch until I find something that fits. Design is a puzzle you create for yourself—you have all the pieces, but it’s up to you to decide how they fit. Perfection is not something to strive for, but close to perfect is—it leaves room for exploration, dialogue, and learning.

I find myself thinking about designs I’m working on at odd periods of the day—in the shower, making dinner, or walking to the corner store. Small, quiet moments are when I have breakthroughs and solve problems. These are the times when the right details will appear. This isn’t often billable time, but it’s a good exercise to think about a design before attempting it. I don’t sketch much using pencil and paper; I like to let a design percolate and grow in my mind before committing it to the screen. I imagine the look, the feel, and the details. I relish the details.

Detail work isn’t easy. It takes time, inspiration, and imagination. It is however, very good practice—it allows you to cultivate a critical eye to help yourself and your fellow designer. Relish the details and your designs will cut the mustard.

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