Design Made Human

Here’s the problem, designers become so fixated on the need for purpose that they begin to fabricate decision making into arbitrary grid systems. Let’s be honest, that logo you’re working on probably doesn’t need that grid.

The problem is that there’s a lack of humanity in the way so many of us design—I’m guilty of it myself. Too often we’re focused more so on even numbers, grids, and calculations rather than the way something actually looks—the way it actually enters our retina.

Sticking to a strict grid is a means of hiding. It removes the human touch. No longer do things become optical and adjusted for the eyes of humans, instead they become ratios and specific numbers for robots or become a mere showcasing of some underlying grid. When the grid becomes more important or even integral to making the design understandable or good, it is no longer serving the purpose you had set it out to do.

The way we experience and see design is through perceived relationships, not calculated, exact relationships. “Do these two look the same size” versus “Are these two the same size?”

Just because two objects are numerically equal in size does not make them perceptually equal. Of those two, when it comes to visual design, it’s our perception which really matters. Because viewers aren’t taking out tiny pixel rulers, they’re making judgements based on their eye sight. So it becomes important to then learn about how we perceive shapes, sizes, and object relationships.

Above is an example of the Muller-Lyer Illusion. When viewers are asked which of the two vertical line segments is longer, they’ll nearly without question claim that the line on the right is longer. However, if we look at the image below, we’ll see that the two vertical lines are, in fact, equal in length.

While these two types of lines are very specific, there are cases similar to this in our every day design practice which calls into question whether or not we should use exact calculations or make visual compensations. This example comes off more so as an attempt to be an illusion rather than an actual situation you may face, however, we can explore how the Muller-Lyer Illusion is experienced else where.

When a square and circle are both equal in height and width, the circle will always appear smaller in comparison. This illusion occurs for the same reason the Muller-Lyer Illusion occurs, the negative space around the shapes guide us in opposing directions which makes the square feel larger or closer while the circle appears smaller or further away. To further understand how the Muller-Lyer Illusion works with other shapes or in different scenarios, let’s look at it in regards to typography.

In order to make a square and circle of equal size appear the same size, we must visually compensate by increasing the size of the circle. In type design, the same approach is taken by overshooting letters like the _O_ so it visually appears the same size as some of the other letters.

Other ways the letterforms often make visual compensation is by making the weight of the vertical stress of curved letters, such as the _O_, thicker than that of vertical stems like the _I_.

It’s through the deviation from the grid that optical decisions are made in order to make objects and relationships appear visually correct rather than mathematically correct because what really matters in these cases is our perception, not the calculations.

None of this is to say you shouldn’t use grids, but just as you may use a ruler to draw a line, the ruler doesn’t become the line nor is it interchangeable with the line nor does it become integral to demonstrating that you have, in fact, drawn a line. Grids are a great starting point, often times they can serve as a catalyst for getting us through ruts in which we can’t conjure our own perceptible solution due to the overwhelming theory of infinite possibilities.

Again, this isn’t to say grids are the devil, but be weary of falling into the trap of geometric perfection. Take an S for example, it isn’t directly derivative of two or more circles as it’s often perceived. While that was explored in the past and plenty of old documents may suggest they are, the results from doing so generate a rather exhausted and stiff letterform.

If we look at the Romain du Roi pictured above which was designed in 1692 to be used exclusively by the Royal Print Office, we can see the side effects of the grid. While the image above features a simplified 8×8 grid, the Romain du Roi was constructed using a 48×48 grid and sought mathematically perfect the letterforms. The incessant desire to be strictly bound to a mathematical solution yielded letterforms with strange kinks, misbalance, and discoloration.

Rather than pulling directly from geometric forms and forcing these shapes—which we regard as letterforms that are to be read by humans—into these jigs of falsified perfection, we can instead imply the geometry, the circles, the relationships, the connections.

Much of our obsession with geometry derives from our projection of absolute mathematics in nature. I suggest that this is projection not because it doesn’t exist but rather to argue that the geometry we witness in nature more often than not makes note of itself and relies on suggestive relationships rather than perfection or exactness.

We take inspiration from the subtle geometry of our natural surroundings and aspire to be like it or even surpass it, but in the process forget what it is which makes nature’s work so beautiful. In our attempt to display geometry, we forget about the humans on the other end. For the sake of familiarity, we can inspect Paul Renner’s Futura which is most often placed on the pedestal geometric typefaces.

On the left is the an actual version of Futura while the right side shows a new and improved, geometrically perfected version of Futura. Obviously, the right side pales in comparison to the original. The geometric version lacks overshoot to compensate for optical sizing, the top and bottom stress of the _a_ is heavy, all of the joints are heavy, the _u_ is too wide, and the _t_ and _f_ appear off centered. But it uses geometry, it has to be better, right? How about I show you the grid, maybe that will help you understand why it’s better.

Now you see the grid. You can see my decision making. You can see how I improved Futura. You can see how it uses geometry. You can see all of the relationships. You can see how it’s better, right?

You can see all of these things, however, this isn’t how design is experienced nor does it validate the quality of the design itself.

If this isn’t how type is designed—which I’d argue epitomizes the need for optical correctness, legibility, and readability—then why are we designing logo marks and entire identities like this? Use grids, make grids, learn about them, begin to understand them, utilize them as a catalyst, but do not rely on the grid, do not become a slave to it, do not make it integral to your design—learn to suggest it. We are all human here, it’s about time we starting working as such.