Designing for Performance

Foreword by Randy J. Hunt

Designers often lament when design is treated like “icing on a cake,” a decorative layer to make something beautiful and desirable. Icing is applied at the end. Icing appears nonessential.

Inside is much more important, we think. The heart of the cake is where the flavor resides. The cake is named for what’s under the icing (carrot), not the icing itself (cream cheese). Oh, the content! Soft, rich, flavorful content. We fall out of love with the icing. We, the designers, are focused on “more important things.”

Time passes, and we come around. We argue with our younger selves. There is value in the icing. Oh, that icing! It tells people what to think and how to feel about the cake, even before they try it. It is the primary interface to the cake.

More time passes, and again we come around. The icing and the cake are meant to live in harmony. They complement each other. The icing holds the layers together. The layers give the icing a foundation, a purpose, and volume. We start worrying as much about the icing as the cake inside. Form and content, wed together in a satisfying whole.

And often, we stop there. Ta-da! We’ve done it—we’ve become an experienced, nuanced designer.

And yet we can’t make a delicious cake. We haven’t paid attention to the most important and most often overlooked details, the invisible ones. Are the ingredients of high quality? Are the ratios and timings right for the altitude, pan, and application? What ingredients do we combine when? What can we do to make the cake maintain its integrity while traveling?

Designed experiences are full of these seemingly invisible details. They’re details we blissfully ignore, but we do so at the risk of not ever baking an excellent cake. They’re the details that allow us to manipulate the context for the design itself. Sometimes they’re deep in the technology (like the nuances of image compression), and sometimes they’re outside the design (how a browser renders a web page).

The novice designer sees the surface. The experienced designer looks below the surface, at the content, the purpose. The enlightened designer understands the surface and the content, and pursues manipulation of the context.

Designing for Performance will help you understand and control the previously invisible attributes that make your design work well. It’ll be delicious. Don’t eat too fast, but please proceed with making your designs much, much faster.

—Randy J. Hunt, Creative Director, Etsy
Author of Product Design for the Web