One of my favourite sites for interesting audio and video content is Ted.com : "Riveting talks by remarkable people".
The talks on the site relate to : Technology, Entertainment, Design, Business, Science and Global issues - I'm usually clicking around in either the Design or Science areas, looking for interesting background noise for when I'm working during the day.
One of my favourite talks from 2010 was "The pattern behind self-deception" by Michael Shermer.
What I love about this talk is that it can be applied to many areas of everyday life. Michael discusses the subject from an angle of behaviour and belief, but I believe a lot of what he discusses can also be applied to how we design, how we perceive design, and - perhaps most importantly - how we perceive successful design.
He suggests that within us all is a "pattern seeking engine", and that we are all "pattern seeking primates" (2mins 30secs). This engine kicks in to help make sense of all aspects of our lives.
He gives the example of the pigeon (2mins 50secs), explaining how it will repeat the actions it made before receiving food, and does so in order to receive more food. It believes these actions are directly linked to the result of receiving the food. This is called a "false positive" - believing a pattern is real when it is not.
On a side note
I am also reminded of the writing of Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion", when he writes about the actions of the native people on an island who go about copying the behaviour of the American army who were stationed there during the war.
From their observations, the people believed that the routines of the army marching and singing were the reason that the cargo of food and supplies arrived from the sky via planes each week. They then mimicked and continued these actions long after the Americans had left, believing that the reason the cargo didn't arrive after this time was perhaps that their dances weren't deemed good enough in the eyes of the gods - yet still they would continue, often with actions becoming more elaborate and often abstracted in an attempt to please the gods to bring them cargo.
Anyway, this is going into an area that - although I find utterly fascinating - I feel is not appropriate for this site in terms of "design". The important thing at his stage is the name given to this behaviour - as stated in Michael's talk:
Patternicity (noun) The tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. (3mins 20secs)
And when we apply this model to the design process
Michael continues his talk in the direction of general behavior and belief, but I'd like to use his explanations and ideas focused purely on the process of design.
Now. As professionals, I believe it is important to spot patterns in our designs and solutions - and in those of others - which have a direct, quantifiable, and measurable impact on the user / viewer. If we make decisions based on assumptions or false ideas, we increase the likelihood of failure in what we produce, or our solutions under-performing.
Often an issue may well arise from the client at the briefing stage of a project. They aren't designers and so are more likely to derive something positive from a "pattern" which may have no direct link to the overall goals and needs of the project.
For example: Let's say a client is looking for you to design and build a new website / application.
The most obvious first call of reference may well be to other sites of the genre which are widely considered to be the market leaders.
A false positive would be to suggest that the style of the logo, the colours used, and even the exact UI and layout ideas from the referenced sites should be the same on this new site. That it needs to use red, that the logo should be x pixels wide in size and in the same location on page etc.
The client may include this specification, or similar, in the brief. Perhaps not quite so blatantly, but enough to place high importance on these considerations in terms of overall project goals. Considerations which are related to style, or can be achieved differently. "There's more than one way to skin a cat" considerations, so to speak.
This is why we see sites of a similar ilk looking often unnecessarily similar. This is why, as designers, we often see things that could be done better, or - at the very least - could be done different, being re-used wholesale. They are being incorrectly diagnosed as "absolutes" for success.
Establishing the links of what needs to be in place in order to succeed, and severing any perceived links of factors which have little, no, or unmeasurable bearing - other than perhaps cosmetic decorative "after-shine" - is a key objective in the design process. Even from a perspective of how best to focus resources, energy and - dare I say - budget, in order to produce something unique and relevant.
The "despite itself" factor
It is often that a product or service can succeed despite itself - perhaps through clever marketing or other factors outside direct design and layout considerations. As mentioned, the false positive would be to relate the design and layout considerations with the success.
We all remember MySpace from a few years back right? This - I would suggest - is a good example of the success of a web based service "despite itself". The content on the site and the lack of immediate competition was the major contributory factor to it's uptake at the time. The concept at root level was also of great value. Though the execution was poor.
But you can bet your bottom pound coin that many people will have wanted to create their own MySpace style product - citing design, layout and build considerations as needing to be the same in order for the new product to succeed.
And so, to my inevitable analogy
A chap wishes to be able to run very fast. He researches that Usain Bolt is the fastest runner in the world. Usain Bolt wears yellow running shoes. Our chap surmises that - in order to run fast - his running shoes must be yellow.
So, as designers, we must try and establish the value of the patterns we see in our research, and as to whether they are directly linked to a measurable positive impact on the core success of what we are producing.
We must also try and educate our clients at planning stage with the same model of looking, measuring and diagnosing things. That way the things that need to be, will be, and the things that can be different, unique, better, can come into fruition in the same process.
And with that, I'm off to find the faces of minor celebrities in some potatoes :) ...