It’s human nature for us to remember events or things that stand out from the norm. Think of the pyramids in Egypt or the Google Glass. They are different, because they don’t fit within the typical realm of design possibilities in their respective design categories. The pyramids of Egypt were unlike the typical graves of the time, and the Google Glass is unlike a pair of glasses we see on people everyday. Being different has its qualities. We notice it. We stop to digest its uniqueness. It sticks in our mind. But as unique as these designs are, I question the power it really holds in comparison to a normal design.
We don’t question how freeways or roadsigns work. When we type, we expect the keys to be arranged in a very specific way. When designs become ubiquitous and adopted by a mass, it becomes the norm. Our bodies and mentality are wired to react unconsciously to them. For example, we may not know exactly where the “w” is on our keyboard, but if you’ve used a standard American keyboard long enough, you left ring finger will ever reach upwards slightly when you think about typing the letter “w” on the computer. It has become second nature for us to know where the “w” is on the keyboard or for us to move our foot to the left to brake our car. We have disciplined our bodies to respond these designs unconsciously, and when we start doing things unconsciously, the design holds power over our bodies and how we process and react to it.
When a design becomes the normal design, it becomes very difficult to digress from it. The QWERTY keyboard is not built with the ease of typing in mind. We use our left hand more often than we use our right hand to type. In a world where most people are right-handed, it is hard to imagine why a keyboard was designed to employ the left hand the most. It is not an efficient design, but we still use it today. It is the standard keyboard.
I had the fortunate chance to speak with some game developers at GDC this past week about game design. One very interesting point that came up was this concern with kids who grow up playing games on their phones and tablets and how they would be so used to that form of gameplay that it would be difficult for them to transition to console games. People who grew up as kids in the 90s lived with console games and have gradually moved from simple controllers like the one on the original Nintendo to very complex consoles with touchscreens and multiple buttons like the Wii-U. Because kids these days didn’t grow up with that transition and are more likely tapping and swiping when they play their games now, console games may experience a decline in sales and game design itself will shift to gameplay that is only feasible on a touchscreen surface.
This exemplifies the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets and how a new norm has come upon us. So when we design, we shouldn’t necessary design with the goal to just stand out and be different. We should design with the goal to be different in a way that it becomes a new norm. There is power in the normal.