Good design is about the things that most users never notice

When we talk about design — of software or hardware — we often think about the obvious things, such as the size or shape of an object, or specific features that we like or don’t like. But writer and designer Craig Mod told attendees at Gigaom’s RoadMap conference in San Francisco Wednesday that some of the most important elements of design are the things that most users will never even be aware of.

Mod noted that poet and typographer Robert Bringhurst said 50 percent of the character and integrity of a printed page resides in its typefaces — in other words, the obvious part. But much of the other 50 percent resides in the margins, or the parts that are “felt but not often noticed” (Mod has expanded on this idea in an essay he wrote for Medium).

This is a great metaphor for the parts of apps and software that we overlook, or don’t give enough weight to, or even outright dismiss, Mod said. The designer said that he cried during a Japanese movie about a team of people who spent 15 years creating a dictionary, because of the time that one member of the team put into choosing the right kind of paper that would make the dictionary easy to use.

It doesn’t just have to be print, Mod said — a site like Medium (where he is an advisor) has all kinds of small details that make it a pleasure to both read and to write with, including the way quotes appear and the handling of spaces around dashes in the text. These “small bits of marginal beauty,” he said, “come together to form a texture of experience and delight.”

Like the famous Japanese furniture designer George Nakashima, Mod said he tries to “make objects that will live forever,” even if he knows that they probably won’t. Only by doing that can a designer be sure that they are paying attention to the small details that almost no one will ever consciously notice.

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