Everything is designed. Coffee tables, websites, streets, and hiking trails are just a few examples of everyday designs by people for people to experience. After reading the aforementioned examples you may have dug deep into your memories to find images representing each. Do you wonder why you were able to do this? How are you able to differentiate a coffee table from a kitchen table? How do you know which spaces are safe to walk along a street? This is because effective design adheres to design conventions that follow similar standards.
Within our everyday lives we are surrounded by design decisions, which either adhere to design conventions or do not. Conventional design helps us easily and quickly collaborate with design. Unconventional design forces us to think deeper about our interaction with design.
Design conventions are agreed upon ways of designing that allow people to quickly and easily make decisions when confronted with familiar products or experiences. For example, there are many different types of car models, but they all have a steering wheel, gas pedal, and break pedal in the same locations. Cars adhere to design conventions when you can sit in any model and easily point out basic functions.
Products or experiences adhering to design conventions are easy to navigate because they feel familiar. Conventional design allows us to seamlessly navigate the steps towards achieving a goal and focus attention on reaching an end-goal. For example, automatic sliding doors adhere to a design convention. Regardless of the building, when you approach an automatic sliding door do you pause and look for a handle to reach for? Do you question whether or not you should kindly ask the door to open? The answer is no because we are all familiar with visual cues informing us which type of door will open for us. We trust that when we see the appropriate visual cues the door will open for us as we walk through. Because the design adheres to a design convention we only need to think about reaching our goal of being inside the building.
Alternatively, design not adhering to design conventions becomes obvious when we hesitate. Hesitation forces us to think deeper about our interactions with design and focus on the steps towards achieving a goal. In other words, unconventional design forces us to take more time to complete a goal through hyperawareness of our surroundings. For example, imagine you approach a glass door and it has no label instructing you to push or pull for access to the building. To make matters worse you notice the door’s handles are the same design on each side. How would you open the door? The typical answer is try one method and if that does not work then try another method. This is an example of unconventional decision because the door does not provide proper visual cues to guide a new user to interact with the door. The design does not clearly adhere to a design convention, so you are forced to think deeper about interacting with the door.
In sum, conventional design allows us to quickly and easily understand how to operate familiar design, which helps us focus our mental energy towards achieving an end-goal. Unconventional design forces us to put more thought into interacting with design by focusing more closely on steps towards achieving goals.
If you are interested in designing products or experiences that are easy and quick to navigate then look to your competitors. What products or experiences are successful? Do you notice any common trends? If so, then you may have discovered a design convention. Take that design convention, apply it to your design, and watch how quickly a user will take to your design.