“Variety itself as a kind of consistency”

~ 08 December 2008 ~

As one who works at an organization with nearly 3 dozen designers and websites and apps that also number several dozen, I feel comfortable admitting that the goal of striving for and maintaining visual consistency is often an elusive one.

Chris Pullman, Vice President for Design at the much respected TV station WGBH, has stepped down following 35 years of service. Upon leaving, he shared ten lessons he’s learned over the years and gave Design Observer the privilege of publishing his remarks in full.

The entire article is worth a read, but #7, “Variety is the spice of life”, is of particular interest to someone such as myself seeking a somewhat elusive goal. It’s worth excerpting in full. Here it is.

When I came here in the early 70’s the trend was toward monolithic design programs governed by a thick and sacred style manual. As I got to understand the business, this strategy seemed to me to make no sense for WGBH. With programming as diverse as The French Chef, NOVA and ZOOM, no one mode of visual expression could logically suite this range of content. It occurred to me that in fact variety itself can be a kind of consistency. But when the visual expressions of a company are always and rightfully different, you have to have some other constant that binds the work together, something that lets individual expressions be different, but makes them recognizable as a family of related materials. The goal in this game is to strive for the smallest number of constants and the largest number of variables. And you have to turn to non-visual sources of consistency.
So, soon after I got here, I proposed that our design team adopt a set of nonvisual criteria to define “good design” without resorting to the normal formal jargon. If you and your client could answer “yes” to the following questions about a solution, then it probably is a good piece of design:
Is it clear? Can I understand what it is, can I read it, can I sense its purpose?
Is it accessible? Does it engage me, does it invite me in, is it easy and intuitive to use?
Is it appropriate? (to its budget, to the amount of time available to make it, to the language style and level of the audience, to the medium, to the objectives of the project, and to the family of materials it will join, etc.)
A final measure, and perhaps the key measure in a business where variety is the norm, is quality. “Of the highest quality” does not mean expensive. It means thoughtful and well-executed in its genre. If all these things are present in a project, then it is likely to be successful, from a design point of view, and otherwise.

Key observation for me: Perhaps “does it look similar?” isn’t always as important as “is it clear?” or “is it appropriate?”. Thank you for sharing, Chris.


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