Cosmic Wanderlust


Cosmic Wanderlust Alt LogoI started my blog, Cosmic Wanderlust, in the summer of 2007 as a way to help me crystallize my thinking on many of the excellent economic, business and technology books I had been reading.  Since then, I’ve profiled two dozen books or so with topics including uncertainty, productivity, data visualization, brain function, and more.  Here is my entry on one of my favorite books, Universal Principles of Design.

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Universal Principles of Blog Posts

Posted January 9th, 2010 by Paul Pettengill

Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated at Amazon

It’s becoming more and more evident to me that I should have gone to design school instead of engineering school.  Not that I didn’t love engineering school, ok maybe I didn’t love Dr. Royster (Vibrations) and Dr. Kleinstreuer’s (Fluid Mechanics) classes, but it just seems to me that all the design principles I’ve been learning of late are serving me very well in my day to day work.  Design is going into everything I do, its all about putting thought into the why and the how of every task.  I must say I’m truly loving putting thought into every aspect of what I’m doing professionally.

I’ve been looking at various sources for design inspiration, and Universal Principles of Design is the perfect introductory book.  It contains a two page spread on each of 100 (125 in the latest revised and updated edition) design principles listed in alphabetical order.  Each principle has a two-page spread dedicated to it.  A brief overview of the design principle is written on the left hand page, and a series of examples are visually depicted on the right hand page.

The great thing about the design of this book is that its easy to browse if you just want to look at the right hand side of each principle, and get a good sense of the principles themselves.  That’s what I did my first time through the book.  My second trip through the book found me reading each principle in detail, and that’s when I discovered the great use of inline side notes.

Inline side notes appear as typical foot notes in the text body.  The inline side notes themselves appear just to the right of the text.  This placement makes the notes much easier to reference, and the contents of the notes are great.  They aren’t simply esoteric bits of knowledge, but jumping in points for texts that delve into the principle in depth, either the seminal work on the principle or a modern survey of the principle.

Some of my favorite principles:

  • Aesthetic – Usability Effect – Aesthetic designs are perceived as easier to use than less aesthetic designs.
  • Affordance – A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or environment influence its function.  (Think of a handle affording pulling, but not pushing.  So if you have a door that needs to be pushed, placing flat plate on the door will afford pushing much more than a handle, and therefore reduce user error).
  • Constraint – A method of limiting the actions that can be performed on a system (Think of the 0 to 10 dials of most amplifiers, restricting the actions of the user, as opposed to the Spinal Tap dial which goes to 11).
  • Fitts’ Law – The time required to move to a target is a function of the target size and distance to the target.  (Think of trying to click on something on a computer screen.  It turns out that there are two parts to acquiring a target, first is the large ballistic movement required to get to the general area, and then a series of homing movements to get specifically to the target.  Homing takes the most time, so if you can make the targets larger, you will reduce the time it takes to acquire the target.  Buttons in the corner of a computer screen will take on effectively infinite height and width as the cursor will stop at the edge of the screen).
  • Interference Effects – A phenomenon in which mental processing is made slower and less accurate by competing mental processes.  (Think of what happens when something is colored green, but reads “Stop”).
  • Progressive Disclosure – A strategy for managing information complexity in which only necessary or requested information is displayed at any given time.  (Think of the More or Advanced buttons present on software displays to hide complexity).

Obviously this was just six of one hundred principles in the book, but they’re all great and explained very well.

Kudos to the authors.  You can read more about their projects at