Design is in the Details

by Naz Hamid

47 Reader Comments

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  1. I can see how it is important to recognize that details must be paid attention, but I’d like to hear/read more about how such focus and care pays off in tangible, measurable ways for the end user.

    I’m not saying that details are not important, and I’m not saying that there is much bad advice in this piece, but what I don’t see—and what I’d like to have seen—is an explanation of purpose. Details like rounded corners, gradients, font faces, colors, sizes, and rhythm are all very important, but it should be understood that they all have individual roles specific to overcoming the restraints and challenges set before the designer. Frivolous adjustment to detail could prove to be only disastrous regurgitation of easy-to-follow trends.

    Rounded corners soften an interface and are generally more feminine and friendly. They probably wouldn’t work as a platform for a site that sells power tools. Gradients (and other lighting effects) create depth, helping guide the user’s eye through a design by providing contrast in a third dimension. They also are commonly described emotionally as sleek, modern, and tangible. Again, perhaps not good for a site selling power tools.

    My point: yes details are important, but let’s not overlook the importance of understanding the purpose of our decisions in the microscopic world of our designs.

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  2. Stop worrying about how good a designer you are, and start worrying about the myriad tiny details that can elevate your work from passable to near-perfect.

    So true I may have to blow it up big and stick it on my wall. I used to worry about not being a good designer. Frankly, I probably wasn’t. It was only when I learned to stop worrying and love the detail that my work got any good.

    And to Colin

    details are important, but let’s not overlook the importance of understanding the purpose of our decisions in the microscopic world of our designs

    I think you just answered your own question. The article doesn’t even mention gradients and rounded corners, let alone imply they’re the only detail game in town. Naz is exactly saying that picking the right details and using them well is the key to making your design work.

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  3. The article doesn’t even mention gradients and rounded corners, let alone imply they’re the only detail game in town.

    You’re right. And that’s why I feel it’s slightly incomplete (lacking details, you might say).

    This article seems to say that detail is good for details sake. I just wanted to stress to other readers the importance of purposeful design decisions. Detail needs to be more than decoration.

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  4. I found this very helpful. Especially the bit about not being afraid to scrap it and start again. Something I need to do more and not get stuck with the first design option that comes my way.
    Thanks for the helpful advice.

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  5. I really can’t agree more, I just mentioned this issue on my blog few days ago.

    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.

    This is really true, it really helps to go around, fetch some stuff, free your mind & come back.

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  6. I think this article was really focused on basic design principles and self-examination – which are both extremely important. I’m not a great designer so I love these sorts of articles. I’ll take any and all the tips I can get (and I think we all should)!

    my2cents

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  7. With an article like this I think some visual examples would have been helpful.

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  8. Really nice article, if not a little thin on ideas for implementing a design methodology of one’s own. You did however cover one of my pet peeves, of all the pitfalls I’ve seen designers (and developers) fall into over the years, the most insidious has to be:

    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.

    I have lost weeks of my life in client/design review meetings where the whole train went off the rails because of one, pedantic, little detail like a logo using the print layout guidelines. You are being trusted as the steward of someone’s brand/product/identity and need to show your clients that you care as passionately for it as they do. Take the extra time to make sure you have buttoned up every little aspect of a design.

    Additionally, I’ve got to back up Colin on this point.

    Detail needs to be more than decoration.

    Any aspect of a design system that doesn’t directly assist the user in getting through your design, or make the user experience significantly better, needs to be considered for the chopping block.

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  9. One point that particularly struck home with me was

    “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.”?

    I have definitely been guilty of this on more than one occasion and I know I’m not the only one.

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  10. …for posting before I’d finished my first cup of coffee and so being predictably incoherent. I think there is an underlying theme that the devil is in getting the detail right, and that by ‘detail’ we’re not simply talking decoration, but it’s perhaps a little too easy to miss it. Nonetheless Naz does say:

    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.

    and

    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.

    and of course

    less is more

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  11. No need to apologize, Sophie, but I appreciate the gesture. I don’t think Naz advocates excessive decoration at all. I only raise the issue of purpose as further thinking for the reader, and perhaps a nice follow up to this article could address purposeful design detailing.

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  12. 9 out of 10 times, the design needs more work, so I agree with Naz. So maybe being wrong 1 our of 10 times is an acceptable loss for better work in the long term. In other words, being a bit of a perfectionist and having higher quality work in the design world is worth the extra hours you lose on that rare occasion.

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  13. “During a design, it’s best to step away from the design occasionally—even just for lunch or a 15-minute break.”

    Heard that before.  In fact I’d say this whole article was copied out of a generic design 101 book.  Tell us something we don’t know; stop regurgitating content just to fill your blogging quota.

    “less is more”

    Wow, riveting.

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  14. The phrase is “Cut the Muster” (good enough to make the roll call), not cut the mustard (or cut the cheese).

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  15. Nothing new in the article. Still, it is amazing the number of times during a day that all of this comes up. I used to think I was obsessive, always thinking about odd details at strange times. And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stolen pieces of aborted design attempts and incorporated them into a final product. 

    I suspect we all go through it.

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  16. i get excited every time when there’s a new ala out. however, the 2 articles in this issue is a big let down.

    as i read, i feel like i’m walking towards a big pot of stew, it smells delicious. however as i get closer and start to spoon out the meat, potatoes, carrots etc and i find out: there’s none. it’s just a big pot of soup with no substance. i walk away hungry and unsatisfied.

    this thread on detail is nothing new to any half competent designer. i’m not sure who the author’s targeted audience are. i’m normally used to higher caliber content from ALA.

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  17. Knowing is one thing, but have you put the ‘known’ in action every time?

    Sometimes all you need is a good reminder.

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  18. I find myself doing at least 4 really terrible designs as a sort of warm up when I’m making something new.  It’s nice to know that it’s okay, and quite reasonable.  If only I didn’t get nosey people coming around taking a look at these!

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  19. The phrase is “Cut the Muster”? (good enough to make the roll call), not cut the mustard (or cut the cheese).

    Perhaps. Perhaps not.

    From http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/cut-the-mustard.html:

    Another supposed explanation is that the phrase is simply a mistaken version of the military expression ‘cut the muster’. This appears believable at first sight. A little research shows it not to be so. Muster is the calling together of soldiers, sailors, prisoners, to parade for inspection or exercise. To cut muster would be a breach of discipline; hardly a phrase that would have been adopted with the meaning of success or excellence. This line of thought appears to have been influenced by confusion with the term ‘pass muster’, which would have the correct meaning, but which could hardly be argued to be the origin of ‘cut the mustard’. The OED, which is the most complete record of the English language, along with all of the other reference works I’ve checked, don’t record ‘cut the muster’ at all. The fact that documented examples of ‘cut the mustard’ are known from many years before any for ‘cut the muster’ would appear to rule out the latter as the origin.

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  20. Heard that before. In fact I’d say this whole article was copied out of a generic design 101 book. Tell us something we don’t know; stop regurgitating content just to fill your blogging quota.

    Jarrod: Are you this angry in person?

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  21. I can see the point of expecting more examples or a deeper take on some of the more salient points made in this piece, but the piece has, indeed, salient points. Offering constructive criticism is a great way to be part of the solution.

    I’m sure there are many designers or people looking to hear advice to help them either get further in their careers or simply learn from those who “do”.

    Enjoy the prose if you can. If you cannot, then please have the decency to be nice in your comments.

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  22. I agree with others…this article is thin on new ideas.

    However, trying to be more constructive: I find it really helpful to have an html document handy with all the elements I will find on the site I’m working on – external links, lists, forms, blockquotes, whatever…which forces me to attend to these details when developing my css.

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  23. I’m familiar with many of Naz’s designs (web and otherwise), and his skills and his passions definitely lie in the nooks and crannies of otherwise simple designs.  It’s what sets him apart as a designer and really makes people go “wow!” when they see his stuff.  If you think I’m kidding, just look at samples of his work.  He’s got a gift!

    What I am taking away from this article is his advice on how to get a design done and not leave it “okay” or “passable” or even in a place where the client likes it if you know there’s something that can be done to push it further.  This is something as a designer that I constantly suffer from, and it’s because for some reason my brain just puts a DETAIL GOES HERE label in an area.  Now I’ll be more conscious to attack it sooner.

    Thanks for the great article!

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  24. The timing of this article is really great for me, as I was just yesterday trying to make this exact point about a colleague’s design I was reviewing in preparation for them to present it to the product management and project sponsors. I was a little bummed, because I felt I wasn’t able to articulate the need for close attention to detail and the reasons why it’s crucial.  There have been plenty of times where I’ve presented a design only to have the team get hung up on some minuscule detail I either overlooked or intentionally left undone, so when I suggest fixing small details like padding, alignment, etc., it’s not just me being obsessive.  It’s what I expect out of good design (and what I strive to do myself).

    In defense against the argument that the article is “thin on new ideas”, that’s a somewhat valid point.  However, although pretty much everything here I already know and think of as common sense, I realize that it’s not common sense for all designers.  We can all probably use a little reminder to be more detail-focused in our work.  And for those of us trying, sometimes in vain, to encourage this practice in others, it gives us a good place to point to for an illustration of the benefits.

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  25. The ideas are there. The details are there for you to work out. I believe that if the author had loaded this article with detailed ideas it would fail to be impressive, why?,because it would be based on a certain context/assumption that just wouldnt work for all of us.

    I find that when we consider these ideas in relation to our working environment we can each best define the details as they affect our work.

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  26. Nas, you sir are an idiot. Do you ever say anything original, or just re-hash what everyone else has said already, but with poor grammour and spelling?

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  27. Great article! Things that for the most part I already knew, but a good kick in the butt reminder helps a ton.

    Thanks

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  28. There is a strong message to be found here for Art Directors and Project Managers too. Far too often I see project leads fail to engage their designers to tackle design challenges in this way.

    When we neglect to push our designers that extra few steps down the road, we inevitably end up staring at a bored, indifferent or (ack!) upset client that can’t put their finger on why, but knows our work just isn’t up to snuff.

    We need to take pride, help motivate our designers to do great work by giving them what they need (ideas, time, budget) and only let fantastic things ship….

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  29. making sure to pay attention to the little things is very important and I could not agree with you more, having a better looking website than your competition is sometimes better than having better prices, which is why paying attention to the little things is so important.

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  30. Great post, and I agree with all the stuff. But there’s more: details can be different from client to client, and project to project.

    Also, what happens to be a detail for the designer may be lost on one client, but will be a very important issue for another. So what does one do? Educate the client? Or just do the details even if they are not noticed and appreciated? I don’t subscribe to any of the views I mentioned, but it’s good to think aloud!

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  31. I agree w/ Tee(Comment #17). It’s always nice to have an article like this to remind us of some important design principles.

    I think as designers, we sometimes get lost in the whole effort of constantly pushing the boundaries in design and articles like this help us to sort of pull back and give us some perspective as to what we are doing / where we are going.

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  32. I enjoyed this article. However, I think some practical steps are missing. How many beautiful designs have included wasted details that simply wouldn’t implement well on the Web, whether flawed for fluid layout or dynamic flexibility?

    Consider all the details after a few prototypes have been created for testing. Otherwise, the design may need to be scrapped anyway. Even the best Web developers have trouble converting that PSD layered with perfection to XHTML/CSS that matches precisely, and still matches with dynamic content. Lorem ipsum may look good in the design at first, but what happens when that’s replaced with real content, more or less?

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  33. Great write up Naz. I’ve been working web application design for the past few months and swimming in details. In the rush it’s way too easy to forget to be exploratory, thorough and step away from it every once in awhile.

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  34. Your approach has a Zen-like quality. It’s more than best practices, it’s a method of creating satisfying work — both for you and the client. I would point out that patients is a key ingredient needed in the creative process. And give yourself some slack, creativity doesn’t start at 8:01 am.

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  35. I find in my best designs I work with the client on the Concept and then through as set of iterated phases trim all the excess away using constraints.  I also believe strongly in power napping or a good night’s sleep between iterations.  Sleep researchers have determined that high level pattern recognition requires adequate rem sleep.

    What I am saying is that you do not build up to a design; you trim down to it.  A good designer is a sculptor.

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  36. i think this is great article.

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  37. i am glad to read your article it,s a good article keep it up.

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  38. I am amazed once again of how ALA touches all the design points.

    Keep up the good work.

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  39. Any designer worth the title should understand that excellent design will be in paying attention to the details. But to say that one should devote the time needed to make the design great at round one is arguably one of the worst pieces of advise a designer can take when it comes to doing professional work.

    An intial comp is just that. A preliminary idea that reflects the theme, voice, and message of the proposed design. Anything more, and, depending on the client’s response, you could lose the design process entirely. Storyboards, sketches, comps – these are the building blocks needed before getting into the details. They should already know what the quality of your work will look like by seeing your past examples. And if your client doesn’t understand that up front the problem is in communicating the expectation and process; not in the design.

    It should be clear to both your team and your client that you were able to effectively convey the above items before having to sweat the details at such an early stage – at a stage where you should be open-minded enough for collaboration, or even willing to scrap the approach entirely and take a different direction.

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  40. The process depends on the scope of the project, how many people are involved, and any number of other issues. Given the ability (one can hope) of controlling the flow from point one to the end, would you not wish to nail down certain things at the beginning rather than to flit from one unfinished thing to another?

    That said, I like the “not too much” less-is-more idea. However, even with an extremely streamlined design, there must be design there, and elements which will make it not too plain. Even simple designs can have elegant elements.

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  41. Sometimes you spend all day creating a masterpiece, only to discover the next day that it doesn’t look as good as you’d thought. It is crucial to spend time away from your work and keep going back to tweak it.
    the skill is knowing where to stop.

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  42. cery

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  43. to jeffrey and naz, sorry for my comment.
    I posted it a long time ago, but I must have been in a bad mood that day or something. I just stumbled upon it today.

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  44. Thanks good articls..

    Good driver download site

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  46. I love this article and have read it in other places. The one thing I do have to say is that I never believe that a designer feels that a comp they present is 90% complete. comps are there to generate a discussion. I think to spend a bunch of time on detailing a comp is a waste of time for everyone unless you know for sure that there won’t be too much resistance. Comps are there to stimulate a discussion about the details and use the resources of many heads to decide what those details should be. One person can never bring something full circle. I think most designers who are serious about their work know that a comp is just a comp is just a comp—and the road ahead is where the details begin. But I get the idea and agree wholeheartedly.

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  47. nice article, thanks.

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