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Design Terms & Concepts

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Here are some thought-provoking design concepts that you may find useful—as I do—when considering the treatment of a subject. This collection can be found with more depth in the book Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler.

1. 80/20 Rule
A high percentage of effects in any large system are caused by a low percentage of variables.

2. Accessibility
Objects and environments should be designed to be usable, without modification, by as many people as possible.

3. Advance Organizer
An instructional technique that helps people understand new information in terms of what they already know.

4. Aesthetic-Usability Effect
Aesthetic designs are perceived as easier to use than less-aesthetic designs.

5. Affordance
A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or environment influence its function.

6. Alignment
The placement of elements such that edges line up along common rows or columns, or their bodies along a common center.

7. Archetypes
Universal patterns of theme and form resulting from innate biases or dispositions.

8. Attractive Bias
A tendency to see attractive people as more intelligent, competent, moral, and sociable than unattractive people.

9. Baby-Face Bias
A tendency to see people and things with baby-faced features as more naive, helpless, and honest than those with mature features.

10. Chunking
A technique of combining many units of information into a limited number of units or chunks, so that the information is easier to process and remember.

11. Classical Conditioning
A technique used to associate a stimulus with an unconscious physical or emotional response.

12. Closure
A tendency to perceive a set of individual elements as a single, recognizable pattern, rather than multiple, individual elements.

13. Cognitive Dissonance
A tendency to seek consistency among attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs.

14. Color
Color is used in design to attract attention, group elements, indicate meaning, and enhance aesthetics.

15. Common Fate
Elements that move in the same direction are perceived to be more related than elements that move in different directions or are stationary.

16. Comparison
A method of illustrating relationships and patterns in system behaviors by representing two or more system variables in a controlled way.

17. Confirmation
A technique for preventing unintended actions by requiring verification of the actions before they are performed.

18. Consistency
The usability of a system is improved when similar parts are expressed in similar ways.

19. Constancy
The tendency to perceive objects as unchanging, despite changes in sensory input.

20. Constraint
A method of limiting the actions that can be performed on a system.

21. Control
The level of control provided by a system should be related to the proficiency and experience levels of the people using the system.

22. Convergence
A process in which similar characteristics evolve independently in multiple systems.

23. Cost-Benefit
An activity will be pursued only if its benefits are equal to or greater than the costs.

24. Defensible Space
A space that has territorial markers, opportunities for suveillance, and claer indications of activity and ownership.

25. Depth of Processing
A phenomenon of memory in which information that is analyzed deeply is better recalled than information that is analyzed superficially.

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26. Development Cycle
Successful products typically follow four stages of creation: requirements, design, development, and testing.

27. Entry Point
A point of physical or attentional entry into a design.

28. Errors
An action or omission of action yielding an unintended result.

29. Expectation Effect
A phenomenon in which perception and behavior changes as a result of personal expectations or the expectations of others.

30. Exposure Effect
Repeated exposure to stimuli for which people have neutral feelings will increase the likeability of the stimuli.

31. Face-ism Ratio
The ratio of face to body in an image that influences the way the person in the image is perceived.

32. Factor of Safety
The use of more elements than is thought to be necessary to offset the effects of unknown variables and prevent system failure.

33. Feedback Loop
A relationship between variables in a system where the consequences of an event feed back into the system as input, modifying the event in the future.

34. Fibonacci Sequence
A sequence of numbers in which each number is the sum of the preceding two.

35. Figure-Ground Relationship
Elements are perceived as either figures (objects of focus) or ground (the rest of the perceptual field).

36. Fitts’ Law
The time required to move to a target is a function of the target size and distance to the target.

37. Five Hat Racks
There are five ways to organize information: category, time, location, alphabet, and continuum.

38. Flexibility-Usability Tradeoff
As the flexibility of a system increases, its usability decreases.

39. Forgiveness
Designs should help people avoid errors and minimize the negative consequences of errors when they do occur.

40. Form Follows Function
Beauty in design results from purity of function.

41. Framing
A technique that influences decision making and judgment by manipulating the way information is presented.

42. Garbage In-Garbage Out
The quality of system output is dependent on the quality of system input.

43. Golden Ratio
A ratio within the elements of a form, such as height to width, approximating 0.618.

44. Good Continuation
Elements arranged in a straight line or a smooth curve are perceived as a group, and are interpreted as being more related than elements not on the line or curve.

45. Gutenberg Diagram
A diagram that describes the general pattern followed by the eyes when looking at evenly distributed, homogeneous information.

46. Hick’s Law
The time it takes to make a decision increases as the number of alternatives increases.

47. Hierarchy
Hierarchical organization is the simplest structure for visualizing and understanding complexity.

48. Hierarchy of Needs
In order for a design to be successful, it must meet people’s basic needs before it can attempt to satisfy higher-level needs.

49. Highlighting
A technique for bringing attention to an area of text or image.

50. Iconic Representation
The use of pictorial images to improve the recognition and recall of signs and controls.

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51. Immersion
A state of mental focus so intense that awareness of the “real” world is lost, generally resulting in a feeling of joy and satisfaction.

52. Interference Effects
A phenomenon in which mental processing is made slower and less accurate by competing mental processes.

53. Inverted Pyramid
A method of information presentation in which information is presented in descending order of importance.

54. Iteration
A process of repeating a set of operations until a specific result is achieved.

55. Law of Pragnanz
A tendency to interpret ambiguous images as simple and complete, versus complex and incomplete.

56. Layering
The process of organizing information into related groupings in order to manage complexity and reinforce relationships in the information.

57. Legibility
The visual clarity of text, generally based on the size, typeface, contrast, text block, and spacing of the characters used.

58. Life Cycle
All products progress sequentially through four states of existence: introduction, growth, maturity, and decline.

59. Mapping
A relationship between controls and their movements or effects. Good mapping between controls and their effects results in greater easy of use.

60. Mental Model
People understand and interact with systems and environments based on mental representations developed from experience.

61. Mimicry
The act of copying properties of familiar objects, organisms, or environments in order to realize specific benefits afforded by those properties.

62. Mnemonic Device
A method of reorganizing information to make the information easier to remember.

63. Modularity
A method of managing system complexity that involves dividing large systems into multiple, smaller self-contained systems.

64. Most Average Facial Appearance Effect
A tendency to prefer faces in which the eyes, nose, lips, and other features are close to the average of a population.

65. Normal Distribution
A term used to describe a set of data, that when plotted, forms a symmetrical, bell-shaped curve.

66. Ockham’s Razor
Given a choice between equivalent designs, the simplest design should be selected.

67. Operant Conditioning
A technique used to modify behavior by reinforcing desired behaviors, and ignoring or punishing undesired behaviors.

68. Orientation Sensitivity
A phenomenon of visual processing in which certain line orientations are more quickly and easily processed and discriminated than other line orientations.

69. Performance Load
The greater the effort to accomplish a task, the less likely the task will be accomplished successfully.

70. Performance Versus Preference
The designs that help people perform optimally are often not the same as the designs that people find most desirable.

71. Picture Superiority Effect
Pictures are remembered better than words.

72. Progressive Disclosure
A strategy for managing information complexity in which only necessary or requested information is displayed at any given time.

73. Prospect-Refuge
A tendency to prefer environments with unobstructed views (prospects) and areas of concealment and retreat (refuges).

74. Prototyping
The use of simplified and incomplete models of a design to explore ideas, elaborate requirements, refine specifications, and test functionality.

75. Proximity
Elements that are close together are perceived to be more related than elements that are farther apart.

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76. Readability
The degree to which prose can be understood, based on the complexity of words and sentences.

77. Recognition Over Recall
Memory for recognizing things is better than memory for recalling things.

78. Redundancy
The use of more elements than necessary to maintain the performance of a system in the event of failure of one or more of the elements.

79. Rule of Thirds
A technique of composition in which a medium is divided into thirds, creating aesthetic positions for the primary elements of a design.

80. Satisficing
It is often preferable to settle for a satisfactory solution, rather than pursue an optimal solution.

81. Savanna Preference
A tendency to prefer savanna-like environments to other types of environments.

82. Scaling Fallacy
A tendency to assume that a system that works at one scale will also work at a smaller or larger scale.

83. Self-Similarity
A property in which a form is made up of parts similar to the whole or to one another.

85. Serial Position Effects
A phenomenon of memory in which items presented at the beginning and end of a list are more likely to be recalled than items in the middle of a list.

86. Shaping
A technique used to teach a desired behavior by reinforcing increasingly accurate approximations of the behavior.

87. Signal-to-Noise Ratio
The ratio of relevant to irrelevant information in a display. The highest possible signal-to-noise ratio is desirable in a design.

88. Similarity
Elements that are similar are perceived to be more related than elements that are dissimilar.

89. Storytelling
A method of creating imagery, emotions, and understanding of events through an interaction between a storyteller and an audience.

90. Structural Forms
There are three ways to organize materials to support a load or to contain and protect something: mass structures, frame structures, and shell structures.

91. Symmetry
A property of visual equivalence among elements in a form.

92. Threat Detection
An ability to detect threatening stimuli more efficiently than nonthreatening stimuli.

93. Three-Dimensional Projection
A tendency to see objects and patterns as three-dimensional when certain visual cues are present.

94. Top-Down Lighting Bias
A tendency to interpret shaded or dark areas of an object as shadows resulting from a light source above the object.

95. Uncertainty Principle
The act of measuring certain sensitive variables in a system can alter than, and confound the accuracy of the measurement.

96. Uniform Connectedness
Elements that are connected by uniform visual properties, such as color, are perceived to be more related than elements that are not connected.

97. Visibility
The usability of a system is improved when its status and methods of use are clearly visible.

98. Von Restorff Effect
A phenomenon of memory in which noticeably different things are more likely to be recalled than common things.

99. Waist-to-Hip Ratio
A preference for a particular ratio of waist size to hip size in men and women.

100. Wayfinding
The process of using spatial and environmental information to navigate to a destination.

101. Weakest Link
The deliberate use of a weak element that will fail in order to protect other elements in the system from damage.

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Great posts. I will definitely read these sometime this week. Right now my mind is just refusing to process this information properly.

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Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff here, for sure.

I have a bunch of design- and game-theory books in my library. I found this one is best as a potpourri of ideas. Take one, any one, and think about it in depth… find examples in Kong’s games of where the principle works well, and where it doesn’t work.

For example, the very last item, Weakest Link, can be found in lane-defense games where the player installs passive blocks. The blocks are meant to be destroyed over time, but they delay the enemy long enough to (hopefully) kill or provide enough time to erect better defenses. This is the Weakest Link principle in a game context.

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Very useful!
I learn about many of these things but it’s also nice to know what they’re called in english :) I’ll try to get my hands on that book, I don’t think I’ve read it before. I prefer to read my design books in english but with expressions like these the dictionary can’t help much.

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The terms above, of course, have sophisticated meanings. I only included summaries of the terms.

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Here are a few design books that I feel are useful on a practical level. (That is, not inspirational as much as informational.)

Jon Kolko
A practical guide to the “magical” synthesis of design. It’s nerdy, but provides a seasoned designer with new creative tools for exploring, identifying, then refining design solutions.

Jay Greene
Case studies, and the key lessons we can learn from them, from some of the world’s most iconic products and brands… as far as graphic or industrial design is concerned.

Thomas Hine
A fun history and exploration of packaging. Useful for designers in that field.

James Aulich
Thick collection of war and anti-war posters from many conflicts. Terrific for inspiration, but also for considering what makes arresting design work.

Lakshmi Bhaskaran
A collection of case studies in the design of long-form documents. This is an area of design that isn’t covered very often. (Lots of attention gets put on graphic design, logos, and packaging… not so much on editorial.)

Robert Bringhurst
This is the bible of typographic guidance and information. This book is so central to my library, I actually own two copies. They’re sitting there, side by side.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman
Fundamental rules of game design and development. This is the book that anyone in game design, professionally, will tell aspiring game designers to pick up.

Lester Walker
This gorgeous book covers all the eras and styles of American architecture, beautifully drawn by the author in clean, but folksy isometric and elevation views. It’s great information if you need to refer to a particular style, but I find the entire book to be inspiring from a creative standpoint.

It’s not as useful as it once was, but the Process Color Manual has every color achievable by CMYK (print) within it. It’s reference; not so inspirational.

No design library is complete without lots of books by other designers and “collections” of particular types of design. For example, my library has books on CD covers, Pushpin Studios, Shepard Fairey, collapsible structures, advertising from the 40s and 50s, history of graphic design, tons of board graphics, graffiti books, and so on. They’re inspiring, occasionally useful, and have helped me build my design fluency (for what it’s worth).

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I just love how all of your posts are so useful. If the stickied thread was actually updated I wouldn’t be surprised if most of it was composed of your posts. XD

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Thanks, Khnum.

It’s not likely to happen, frankly. A lot of the current sticky posts are relics and not very useful. I have sometimes fought with the mods here about the nature of their involvement in the Kong Arts community. Only one of them appears to actually be an artist, and the others are rarely around except to delete or lock threads. That’s all fine and good, but a healthy community can manage that mundane housekeeping on its own… so they don’t really add any value, at least not the current lot.

Maybe if they appoint some new mods to this forum—ones that are active and interested in the arts—things might improve.

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I’ve been considering this “rule” a lot lately:

31. Face-ism Ratio
The ratio of face to body in an image that influences the way the person in the image is perceived.

The idea here is that human subjects that are rendered with an emphasis on their face are more likely to be perceived as personable, intellectual. The more a subject’s body is included, (the face-to-body ratio), the more that character will be perceived as physical, animalistic, or sexual.

Here’s an example:

You see this a lot on magazine covers. Magazines with a cover feature that promises to reveal the subject’s personality, or will somehow be a “tell-all” is more likely to have a big, in-your-face face. Sports and fashion magazines are more likely to use more body to invoke a sense of sensuality, physicality, or sexuality.

Interesting stuff.