As designers, we often tend to rethink the world around us. When it comes to designing features, we frequently try to reinvent everything.
It’s a natural tendency among creative people to question the status quo and think outside the box. We have good intentions when we try a new approach to a problem, but it’s also important to consider the great work that other designers have already done to solve that same problem. Some of these solutions remain so relevant to current user experiences that we now consider them design conventions.
What are design conventions?
Design conventions are everywhere. They can be shapes, colors, icons, placements — any pattern that is quickly identifiable. They are the design elements that have become so well-established in our minds that, whenever we encounter them, our brain uses them as a shorthand for understanding a situation quickly.
Design patterns are the reason why we’re able to drive a car while having a conversation with our passengers. The red light means “stop,” and we naturally slow down and stop without thinking about it.
Our focus span is narrow, so our brain has to push usual occurrences into the background so it can focus on what’s unusual.
You’ve probably been scrolling down this page while reading without even thinking about it — this is yet another design convention. Similarly, you automatically know to use two fingers to zoom in or out on your smartphone.
Design Patterns and Culture
When designing, we need to remember that design patterns are heavily culture-based. Design patterns that make sense to somebody who grew up in the United States might not resonate the same way to someone who grew up in China.
For example, conventions about color usage vary across cultures. In some countries, the color red is associated with danger or love. In China, however, red symbolizes joy and prosperity. Here’s an example:
The first sign uses two strong conventions to convey danger: the color red and the triangular shape. Even if the word “danger” is visible on both signs, the one on the left gets the point across without needing you to read the label, while the one on the right requires some reading to understand it. Why? Because, to quote Brain Games on Netflix: “Your brain will constantly search in its database of experience to help you identify what you see, so you can make a fast decision as to whether or not it’s worth your attention.”
Your brain relies on past experiences, and we need to give it enough information to interpret things correctly. When using design conventions in your work, you are creating visual shortcuts to make things easier to process for your users’ brains.
When should we follow conventions?
If you’re a product designer, most of the conventions you follow regularly are software design conventions.
Icons in particular are heavily dependent on design conventions. For instance, we all expect that a gear or tool icon will represent a settings page, a lock icon indicates privacy or security, a left-facing arrow means “back,” etc.
Breaking these conventions can affect the usability of your product or website. The user’s brain will analyze icons before it starts reading labels, so the wrong icon will send the wrong signal and misguide it.
This is also true for the position of elements on the screen. When trying to scroll, users expect the scrollbar to be on the right of the screen. When trying to close a modal, they expect the close button to be at the top right of the window. When trying to return to a website’s homepage, they expect that the logo or home button will be at the top left of the page.
In this example, the second screen will make users feel uncomfortable while navigating the website, since it breaks the conventions they’re used to and forces them to learn unnecessary new paradigms. It’s better to stick with existing conventions that make sense.
While design conventions aren’t written in stone (and some of them should definitely be reconsidered), we can’t expect our users to waste their time learning whatever new design pattern they’re presented with. Breaking conventions usually results in a disrupted and frustrating user experience.
Design conventions go beyond just digital interfaces. If you place a light switch too far from the entrance of a dark room, people will react with fear and frustration as they spend time looking for it, and you’ll have fallen short of the ultimate goal: to create the best possible experience.
Extending the Box
Design conventions are useful. If we’re designing a car, not having to reconsider the fact that it has four wheels and one steering wheel means we already have a strong foundation and can focus on rethinking other aspects of the experiences.
Sometimes, though, questioning the status quo and breaking existing standards can result in a better user experience. As long as we’re aware of the potential disruption and are intentional about breaking the rules, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to provide a better experience for our users.
For example, if we’re designing an app for teenagers, using a floppy disk icon to represent the “save” action might not make sense, since most of them have never seen a floppy disk in their lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t even use an icon in this case, but a text label (or, better yet, autosave). Icons work well when they’re universal, but most of them aren’t.
Another frequently-questioned convention is the hamburger button. This icon was first used to solve the issue of limited screen space, but it’s been reused often by designers who haven’t questioned its meaning. To quote Don Norman: “Conventions are slow to be adopted and, once adopted, slow to go away.”
As designers, it’s our role to invent a better future and to think about the next set of conventions. A successful product will have the right balance between conventions and new paradigms. Even though every car has four wheels and one steering wheel, only some companies — most notably Google and Tesla — are questioning the paradigm that every car needs a driver.
Understanding and embracing design conventions is essential when designing products. Good design is understandable, and a product that uses design conventions will be more approachable than one that doesn’t. Familiarity and clarity make a product easy to use.
But, just as technology is always evolving, design has an almost poetic way of reinventing itself. Designers are always questioning the world around them, looking for opportunities to improve it. Does a TV really need a remote? Does a car really need a driver? Sometimes, it’s worth breaking some outdated standards to make it truly awesome.