Designers as Poets

“They are often used unconsciously, arising out of the natural activity of creation and interaction with created things. Yet, when consciously understood, developed, and applied, design languages can build on and improve this natural activity, and can result in dramatically better interactions, environments, and things of all kinds.”
– Design Languages, Reinfrank & Evenson

In my mind, design of everyday products can be generally broken down into two broad categories: There are those that were rigorously thought-out and improved upon over centuries of tinkering. Then there are those that “just work,” which everyone has grown accustom to, even if they don’t work…

In the first case, this is because a thoughtful designer took the time to compose the artifact in a way that falls in line with either an environment that already exists, utilizing affordances. This ‘design environment’ can either be of organic origin (like the layering of shingles inspired by the feathers on a duck’s back) or entirely manmade (like scrolling through a website on a touchscreen, mimicking the movement of paper, or looking even further back, literal scrolls of paper).

Take your typical felt-tip marker for example.

The design of a pencil is restricted to a key element: a thin rod of lead (or graphite today). You want the lead as thin and long as possible because a small tip to write with is desirable and the longer the lead, the longer the life of the pencil.

On the other hand, markers don’t have a solid, pre-formed marking material. Ink can be contained in any shaped vessel. So imagine the designer of a marker completely disregarding the already existing ‘system’ of writing implements and making some blocky or perhaps spherical shaped marker. It would work just fine, so long as the ink was directed through a narrow tip. And, in fact, such markers do exist for those with hand/dexterity issues.

But our fictional ‘marker designer’ said to him/herself, why not create a marker that draws upon* the same design system affordances as existing writing implements. That way people wouldn’t have to juggle two ‘languages’ while switching back and forth between pencil and marker.

The two tools live in the same design environment, why shouldn’t they share the same language, right?


Well, then there are examples of the opposite. Cases where the user has only trial & error and previous experience to draw upon to navigate a design environment.

Take power-windows in cars. Have you ever been in a friend’s car and had to try rocking the widow switch back & forth before getting the window to go in the direction you wanted? Perhaps this was because the switch was inadequately marked or was placed on a horizontal surface. How is the user to infer which direction the window will go?

The owner of the car likely ran into this same quandary when they first purchased the vehicle, but since has memorized which direction the window travels when the bottom is pushed in either direction. With more complicated systems, the user often is forced to develop other tools to help them remember “what does what.” (think ‘lefty-loosey, righty-tighty)


So where did the designer fail? Well, in the case of the window, it’s pretty clear: either install the switch on a vertical surface or, like Toyota has done, design a switch with a recess that allows the user to pull up, involving the action of lifting, a natural affordance that relates to moving the window up.

This is effectively introducing a new ‘word’ into the existing design language.

Even though the owner of the car doesn’t have to think twice about the window switch, and perhaps even scoffs at his passengers when they fumble with it, this is bad design.


As Shakespeare was accused** of “making up” words, so the designer is sometimes forced and, in a certain sense, encouraged, to develop new user experiences. But if Shakespeare would have created an entirely new language no one would have read his great works and all would have been for nought.


* he he!

** this very word is attributed to Shakespeare!