On Rules and Barbarism

Students often want to know if they’re doing things the “right” way. They want to learn the “standard” way of making sitemaps, wireframes, storyboards, etc. Many are anxious about doing these things “wrong.” I tell them that although there are best practices, there are no strict rules for many of these things. The purpose of making any design artifact is to clarify and communicate intent. What’s “right” is what best articulates what they’re trying to do.

Recognizing what’s right requires practice, and that takes time. As professors, we aim to provide feedback so students can improve over time. Still, I suspect it’s no comfort to answer the question of how to do things “right” with “it depends.” Speaking with a student this week, I thought of a good analogy for what I’m trying to get across: Orwell’s six rules of writing.

In case you haven’t heard of them, I’ll recap the rules here. In 1946, George Orwell — author of 1984 and Animal Farm and one of the best English essayists — wrote an essential piece called Politics and the English Language. (Seriously, if you haven’t read it, stop reading my post now and go read Orwell instead.) The essay’s main point is that language affects our thinking and can be manipulated for political gain. “In our time,” Orwell writes, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Sadly, it’s still highly relevant.

In any case, the essay offers six rules as an antidote for bad writing:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Rules 1-5 are excellent reminders of how to write concise, simple, direct prose. We could posit analogs for making various design artifacts: keep visuals simple and straightforward, use color and typography judiciously and purposefully, don’t let style dominate substance, etc. However, I’m most drawn to rule 6. After laying out five solid directives, the sixth rule reminds us that the rules themselves are ultimately in service to a higher purpose. The point is not to follow the rules, but to do Good Work. The rules are to be sacrificed if they’re in the way.

How do you know Good Work? We’re back to practice and feedback. You must develop criteria for yourself, and this takes time. We can help point the way, but we can’t do it for you. And knowing the rules only takes you part of the way. It’s important to know the rules, but it’s more important to understand what they’re for: thinking and communicating clearly. Applicable to both writing and design.