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Interface-lift: Elective or compulsory?

Susan E. Metros
University of Tennessee
When it comes to interface design, developers of educational software applications often debate whether or not aesthetics and visual communication are as important as functionality and useability. This paper argues that because all of these features play an integral role in design of the interface, the development teams should either include a graphic designer who is versed in the nuances of information design, or plan to master the techniques of visual communication themselves. There are many available resources with which to address this very issue. However, most of these are rule based; the developer is instructed passively to follow a specific set of guidelines. Although such information is useful, it deters the developer from assimilating knowledge actively in ways that encourage decisions based on both creativity and competency. In other words, thus far developers have relied on an outdated learning model. Moreover, this model undercuts the philosophy behind educational technology, and this leads to the development of powerful applications that are either under used or are discounted because the interface is at best lacklustre or worse - deceptive.

One remedy for this situation is to first examine, then modify and, finally to apply the principles governing the vocabulary of vision to interface design. The vocabulary of vision is composed of fundamental design concepts adapted from the rich tradition of fine art and design. These design concepts serve as the intermediaries between abstract theory and concrete, rule based learning. Armed with the concepts governing good design, a developer will be able to apply this knowledge when faced with design decision making, instead of blindly following prescribed rules. As an active participant in the design process - involving both the functionality and aesthetics of the interface - the developer will enhance the useability and markedly improve the visual quality of the software.

The interface

The interface is the window into the computer system that tracks and facilitates communication between user and machine. Tufte (1989) maintains that the interface reflects the physical properties of the system, the functions to be performed, and the balance of power and control. It determines what customers, reviewers, and users think of the software. He states "Today the competition is at the interface" (n.p.). The following ten objectives of a well designed interface have been distilled from the following sources: Apple Computer, Inc. (1989), Donoho, Donoho, Gasko (1988), Erickson (1990), Hicks & Essinger (1991), Hedberg & Harper (1990), Kay (1990), Marcus (1992), Mountford (1990), Nelson (1990), Norman (1988 and 1990), Semper (1990), Tufte (1989 and 1990), and Vertelney, Arent, Liberian (1990). (Complete citations appear in the bibliography.)

Objectives tor well designed interfaces

1. Visual clarity

Clarity in the design of both visual elements and in visual cues shortens data search time. In contrast, conflicting colours, illegible text, cluttered layout, ambiguous coding and hierarchies, and inadequate spatial relationships affect perception negatively. Impaired perception caused by poor design reduces user performance because of such phenomena as lack of concentration, fatigue, stress, and irritation (Hicks & Essinger, 1991). Well designed software uses constant context switches that force the user to remember things seen in one view in order to use other views more effectively. The frequency and clarity of the visual cues, reduce the user's dependency on memory. Dermot Browne, one of Britain's leading experts on human-computer interaction points out that cognitive scientists suggest that recall for information represented visually is greater than that for written and verbal information (cited in Hicks & Essinger, 1991). He continues "It is known that memory capacity is strictly finite, so not only does a heavy burden on working memory tend to exhaust the user mentally, it is also likely to prevent him from effective use of working memory at other stages in the interactive process" (quoted in Hicks & Essinger, 1991, p. 25).

2. Consistency

Consistency in the use of visual elements, tools, commands, operations, and organisational style, is the foundation of good interface design. Consistency also is effective in reducing memory load. Knowing what type of information will be covered and when and where it will appear builds predictability into the software application. Careful attention to detail in the design and flow of the interface promotes consistency. Standardised interface conventions can also be applied. Although they sometimes lack aesthetic quality, these conventions are easily recognised, and so, they reinforce consistency through familiarity.

3. Good mappings

There should be clear relationships between the user's actions and the machine's responses, the controls and their effects, and the state of the system and the interface. The structure of the learning experience should be apparent.

4. Feedback

Ideally, the user should receive immediate, full and continuous feedback concerning the results of all self initiated and program driven actions. This promotes a sense of progress. Feedback can take the form of written, visual and/or auditory responses.

5. An easily grasped metaphor or concept

Mountford (1990, p. 25) describes the metaphor as "powerful verbal and semantic tool for conveying both superficial and conceptual similarities between familiar and novel situations." Learned associations should mould the metaphor because these familiar experiences help users to grasp complex ideas. Distinct visual and auditory cues, as well as the associated vocabulary, enhance the meaning of the metaphor. Ian Cowles, a consultant for human-computer interaction, (cited in Hicks & Essinger, 1991) recognises metaphors as being abstract, even magical, as well as concrete. The beauty of a metaphor is that it can amplify what it represents.

Although the use of a metaphor is the norm in interface design, some applications are compromised or even impaired by having to adhere to such rigid conventions. To be effective, that is, to spur creativity rather than inhibit it, metaphors require that every function conform. A more flexible alternative to the metaphor is the development of a unifying concept. A concept might be derivative of a story line, a particular theme, or a stylised look. Kay (1990, p. 199) contends "... that metaphor is a poor metaphor for what needs to be done." His group at Xerox PARC coined the phrase "user illusion," a term that incorporates stage, theatrics and magic in its composite.

6. Efficient navigation schema

Users should be able to find out where they are quickly, and how to get back to where they were, in what Florin (1990) refers to as "the information landscape." Navigation tools include: directional devices, maps, headings, visual effects, timelines, online help, user guidance facilities and sound cues. Hedberg and Harper (1990, p. 267) explain that a user can be easily confused because in complex interactive environments, there are multiple paths to the same or different end points. "Navigation systems can facilitate the understanding of students learning sequence and reduce the problems of poor learning schema development."

7. System transparency

The interface should be transparent, concealing the complexity of the system so that the user can focus on the tasks, rather than on the tool. Tufte (1989, n.p.) contends that the attention should be on the data, rather than the "data container." In an educational setting, learners should be intrigued with what they have learned, rather than with the hardware and software through which they learn.

8. Data organisation

Psychologically, a user needs to get closure on one stage of the interactive process in order to move on to the next. This is accomplished by grouping information into readily digestible units. For example, tasks might be divided into a series of attained closures, or the information might be layered and separated using visual techniques. Visually stratifying various layers of information reduces noise and enriches the content of the display. Information should be clearly and succinctly organised, and copy and content should take into account the inherent characteristics of the screen.

9. Interactivity

An active, participatory interface allows the users to control the learning environment by directly manipulating materials. Ultimately, the user, working at his or her own pace, will learn more and have better recall. Interactivity is challenging and inspires the user to respond more creatively. Learning is supported through exploration. In an effective interactive relationship the user's actions should be cost free and reversible.

10. Evaluation

User evaluation is essential at regular intervals of the design process. Demographics, cultural values, working environment, and level of expertise of the user all need to be thoroughly researched before an interface design can be fully implemented. Even though developers are encouraged to design from the user's point of view, the product should still be tested on projected users. Cowles (quoted in Hicks & Essinger, 1991, pp. 32-33) says an interface designer can best assess what is likely to prove most acceptable to the user "by sitting down next to users as they work with a computer system and by seeing what they find easy and what they find difficult, and what they like to do and what they don't like to do ... There's no point in conducting this type of observation exercise unless you have the courage to accept that you were wrong, swallow your pride and start again." User evaluation, combined with feedback from content specialists and colleagues, keeps the developer on track. By this process, the developer is more likely to avoid indulging novelty, marketability, and a need to please the client when in fact the user is the major constituent.

A new genre

In the past, interface design was under the jurisdiction of the computer related disciplines for which programmers wrote the code and produced the software applications. With the advent of the new genre of user oriented authoring tools (exemplified by HyperCard for Apple Computer's Macintosh environment) almost anyone with an idea, some rudimentary skills, and access to a personal computer can develop an application. Moreover, every one of these "new programmers" is needy of the expertise visual skills and talent required to develop and implement effective interface design.

Because the impact of interface design is so broad, it comes under the jurisdiction of many disciplines including: computer science, engineering, cognitive science, business, psychology, education, industrial design and visual design. Current research confirms that interface design is composed of three basic components: 1. Functionality; 2. Useability; 3. Visual communication and aesthetics. Functionality describes how the program operates. Useability defines ease of use. Visual communication and aesthetics refer to the overall style, and visual translation and positioning of information.

Functionality first: Aesthetics later?

Much of the literature on interface design claims that functionality and useability are independent of, and more important than, visual communication and aesthetics. Apple Computer's own HyperCard Stack Design Guidelines (1989, p. 8) maintains that "User interface encompasses all the elements that determine how a stack looks and how a user interacts with it, such as presentation, graphic design, and navigation. It does not include that stack's basic functionality." The term Graphical User Interface (GUI) has been coined to specifically describe the visual qualities of an interface. This term further isolates the visual attributes of the interface by claiming that they are separate entities.

The separation of the graphic based qualities and the functional aspects is difficult. How can the visual elements be distinguished from the functional elements of the operating system in a highly evolved graphic interface like that of Apple Computer's Macintosh? Even the presentation of a simple paragraph of text requires making decisions that are graphically motivated. What typeface is most effective? Which style, weight, size and colour of type are appropriate? Should it be set upper or lower case? How much letter spacing, word spacing, and leading should be applied? What line width works best, and how should it be aligned and positioned? Therefore, for the purpose of this paper interface design will refer to an application's functionality, useability, and visual communication and aesthetic properties.

Interface design is often treated as an afterthought in software development. Don Norman (quoted in an interview with Rheingold, 1990, p. 6) complains that "It implies you already have done all the rest and now you want to patch it up to make it pretty for the user." Kay (1990, p. 191) agrees "Many are just now discovering that user interface is not a sandwich spread - applying the Macintosh style to poorly designed applications and machines is like trying to put Bearnaise sauce on a hot dog!" Padraig Caravan, Project Manager in charge of IBM Educational Television, sums it up nicely.

... Useability is absolutely central to any technology and without useability technology can bring us no benefits. Computer technology makes special demands on user interface designers because the very nature of computers means that they have no visible clues as to their function. Every visible element that lets a human communicate with a computer must be put in by the user interface designer The great challenge facing our computerised society nowadays is that in order to get the maximum benefit from computers we have to start seeing me user interface as integral to the computer system itself, rather than as an add on when you have already decided how the computer is going to work. (quoted in Hicks & Essinger, 1991, p.22)
Why have the visual attributes of the interface been underrated? First, developers harbour certain misconceptions and lack vital information about the discipline of graphic design. Many developers consider the graphic designer's purpose to be purely a cosmetic one, one devoted largely to enhancing the decorative details of the interface. However, graphic designers see themselves in broader terms - as visual translators and purveyors of communication and information (Vertelney, Arent, Liberian, 1990). "Commercial artists" are no longer considered visual cosmeticians who add frill and ornamentation to the advertising campaigns of yesterday. This new consciousness practices a type of functionalism that simplifies meaning without sacrificing style. The new aesthetics is based, not on whim, but on the necessity to attract and capture the attention of viewers, and to direct and influence the way in which they respond to information. Today, visual communication is the primary vehicle for making immense amounts of information accessible, understandable and palatable.

Form and content: Like entities

Graphic based interfaces are rapidly gaining acceptance. Visual communication is central to what interface design professes to accomplish - that is, improving the way people use computers to think and communicate, to observe and decide, to debate and design (Rheingold, 1990). Tufte (1989, n.p.) claims "... careful attention to visual craft is a distinguishing characteristic of nearly all excellent user interfaces now in the marketplace." According to Hicks and Essinger (1991) research in cognitive science suggests that users prefer visual displays of information over verbal. The human eye-brain system automatically searches for a visual order and hierarchy in what it perceives. Hicks and Essinger assert that visual communication and aesthetics should: Visual communication must not be dissociated from functionality and useability. It must not be relegated to a decorative role. Visual communication surpasses in many instances the capacity of a text to communicate. (Allmendinger 1990). Allmendinger goes so far as to suggest that the information age, with its overabundance of data, has evolved into the current visual information age. For this reason, useability and functionality are significantly enhanced when user interface adheres to the principles governing good visual design. Hicks and Essinger (1991, p. 81) predict that "Graphics based interfaces will become predominant in the 1990s precisely because working in graphics mode give user interface designers a richer environment to exploit visual language and present powerful representations of structures and tasks."

Admittedly, at first glance many perceive the interface as merely a matter of elements arranged on a background. The experts argue that this perception is ill founded. Rand (1970, p. 9) states that visual communication is the "embodiment of form and function: the integration of the beautiful and the useful," while Hurlburt (1977, p. 94) adds that "A design can be considered successful only when it is a synthesis of all available information translated into words and images and projected in a dynamic form." Hicks and Essinger (1991, p. 78) state that "An aim of graphic design in relation to the user interface is to provide powerful structures and reinforcements that guide visual perception and communicate the hierarchy of information present in a system." Graphic design manages complex information through order, abstraction, simplification, grouping, coding, prioritising, and assigning relative value to different types of information.

The design process

Graphic design differs from many other disciplines in that alternate solutions perennially exist for a given problem. The graphic designer's role is to accept and examine the problem, set priorities, and then discover, implement and evaluate the solution that best meets the problem's criteria. This is referred to as the design process. The design process combines both convergent and divergent styles of thinking. Hurlburt (1981, p. 12) comments that "... insight, imagination, and intuition blend with rational analysis to create a synthesis and arrive at a design concept." Design is a problem solving activity that embodies creative problem solving methodologies. Koberg and Bagnall (1991) formulated the following seven step creative problem solving model. Although listed linearly here, the stages need not be implemented in a linear manner.

Stages of creative problem solving

1. Acceptance

When the graphic designer accepts a project, he or she commits to directing sufficient energies toward creatively resolving the problem and completing the task. Motivation must be self initiated and last throughout the duration of the project.

2. Fact finding

Lawson (1986) lists four basic sources of information available in design decision making: the designer's own experience, the experience of others, existing research, and new research. Much of the material that a graphic designer must incorporate into a solution is predetermined. Frequently, there are strict copy specifications, a prescribed format, use of required medium, and a host of other requirements. Rand's famous statement that "Graphic design is play instincts within constraints," comes to mind. Once the problem's limitations are digested, the graphic designer is free to explore the language of design, the theories of visual perception, as well as the users' instincts, intuitions and emotions. The graphic designer usually requires additional information to solve a problem creatively. These materials are requested from the client, and gathered from a variety of sources both traditional and electronic. Other research strategies include: investigating similar problems, studying the competition, and conversing with users, colleagues, friends and family.

3. Definition

A problem is defined by breaking down and reorganising previously collected information into the components of who, what, why, when, where and how. These translate into the criteria required to solve the problem. It is imperative in designing for electronic media that problem criteria be well developed. A computer generates numerous options, regardless of quality and fit. The more established the criteria, the easier the process of weeding out, and consequently, the more credible the selection. It is not unusual for the problem to be defined and then redefined to better serve the criteria. In some instances there is more latitude in the design problem than the initial requirements suggest. In other cases, either altered criteria or a re-examination of the problem provokes a significant restructuring of the design enterprise.

4. Ideation

Ideation is the core of the creative problem solving process. Information gathering, thorough research and problem definition, joins forces with, intuition, inspiration, and even accident to formulate innovative and appropriate solutions. Ideas are generated through brainstorming sessions and other creativity evoking techniques. Incubation is another important facet of ideation which Hurlburt (1981, p. 12) describes as "... a calm, detached period in which the factual material that has been analysed and absorbed into the conscious level of the mind can contact and be influenced by the intuitive forces of the preconscious or inductive level of the mind." The objective, no matter what specific processes are practiced, is to generate and record a significant quantity of idea options.

Computers provide the luxury of high quality display (and output). It is satisfying to generate ideas in precise scale with perfectly positioned elements specified in the correct type. However, this level of visual sophistication can sabotage the creative process by circumventing the loose, doodling and sketching stages of traditional ideation. The problem solver must beware not to sacrifice the freedom of an idea to the highly evolved, representational qualities of new electronic media.

5. Idea selection

In the selection stage, ideas should be measured according to the problem's criteria. The ideas that best fit the criteria are either explored further or are selected and implemented. However, in visual communication there are so many variables that cannot be measured or compared that value judgments are unavoidable, and for this reason the role of the graphic designer is interpretive. Lawson (1986, p. 40) suggests:
... there is no natural end to the design process. There is no way of deciding beyond a doubt when a design problem has been solved. Designers simply stop designing either when they have run out of time or when, in their judgment, it is not worth pursuing the matter further. In design then, rather like art, one of the skills is in knowing when to stop.

6. Implementation

This stage involves the production of the chosen solution. In interface design prototypes are produced and tested until the application is proven effective.

7. Evaluation

Ideas are conceived, explored, reviewed, revised and even replaced many times over. As discussed previously, it is essential to solicit user feedback and to evaluate the project at various points during the design process, instead of doing so only at completion. Typically, graphic designers are buffered from the user because they work for and with clients. Often clients approach graphic designers because they do not fully understand the problem themselves. In addition, clients are rarely users. This makes the design task more difficult. As a result, designers rely on cognitive scientists to tell them what users supposedly need. Lawson (1986 p. 67) complains this liaison is not collaborative because "Social science remains largely descriptive while design is necessarily prescriptive ..." It is important that the designer, whether novice or expert, has as direct an access as possible to the user population throughout the duration of the project.

Integrating graphic design into user interface design

Any mark on the screen, how ever small or inconsequential, represents a graphic element rife with meaning and bursting with visual cues. Danger exists in the poorly designed or under or over designed interface. Inferior graphic design can sabotage a good concept. Novice graphic designers often are guilty of over doing symmetry, working exclusively in one dimension, cluttering the screen, relying heavily on cliches, and interpreting the concept too literally. As Tufte (1990, p. 51) points out "Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information." Cognitive psychologists suggest that the more complex a tool is, the more inclined users are to believe that their inability to use it easily and efficiently is their own fault (Hicks & Essinger, 1991). If users are confused or misguided by a poorly designed interface they tend to internalise the failure because they have been indoctrinated to believe that computers never make mistakes. This response is especially harmful in the case of educational applications where frustration and failure compromise learning.

Application developers who incorporate the principles of quality graphic design into their interface design will fulfil all the requirements of functionality, useability and visual communication and aesthetics. Nanny (1990, p. 88) believes "Those [interface designers] who are able to express their ideas clearly and efficiently in a visual manner will be most successful at gaining an audience for their ideas." The user is already conditioned to expect sophisticated, visually oriented media. Imagery from the broadcast media, the advertising industries, music, film and video games bombard modern users daily. The application developer has four choices for deciding how to better integrate visual communication and aesthetics into interface design: 1. Muddle along as is; 2. Hire a graphic designer; 3. Hope that an expert system will soon be developed to solve design problems; 4. Acquire the skills.

1. Muddle along as is

The accepted practice for developers is to pattern their interface after existing products that have already proven successful in the marketplace. In addition, most authoring tool packages provide libraries and clip art collections of ready made graphic elements from which the developer can browse and borrow. In addition, there are numerous resource manuals for interface standards that dictate the look and behaviour of design elements. The problem with these approaches is twofold. First of all, imitation pales in the face of innovation. There is no substitute for having a working knowledge of the principles that guide good visual design. Tufte (1989, n.p.) warns "Design quality and consistency grow from a coherent set of ideas, not from personal taste or committee compromises, not from the baggage of past user interfaces, not from ad hoc reasoning about each little part of the computer screen." Secondly, although authoring packages supply the basic components for designing a visual interface, they cannot educate the developer in their effective use. Graphic libraries and clip art collections cannot substitute for creative design. Nelson (1990, p. 236) commiserates "... almost no one seems to be able to recognise good design - except users, and that only sometimes." Furthermore, because the design process is iterative, it is extremely time consuming for the novice. The developer runs the risk of spending too much time adjusting visual elements - time better spent in their own area of expertise.

Even when developers have the luxury of working with graphic designers, it is still in their best interest to educate themselves about the principles of visual communication. The developer/graphic designer relationship will prosper when both participants can at least understand each other's language. It should be noted that both professions approach problem solving in similar ways, and the similarities create an air of familiarity between disciplines that facilitates learning.

2. Hire a graphic designer

Rand (1985, p. 233) argues that "Design is a way of life, a point of view. It involves the whole complex of visual communication: talent, creative ability, manual skill, and technical knowledge. Aesthetics and economics, technology and psychology are intrinsically related to the process." In short, graphic design is interdisciplinary in nature. The intent of both knowledge and natural talent required of an entry level graphic designer is formidable. The following summary of the University of Tennessee's four year, undergraduate, graphic design degree program illustrates this point.

Required courses
Basic Design
Three dimensional Design
History of Art
History of Graphic Design
Drawing and Illustration
Creative Problem solving Methods
Studio Art
Identity Systems
Computer enhanced Design
Professional Practices
Recommended courses
Computer Science
Human Factors
Business Management
Foreign Language
Liberal Arts
General curriculum
English Composition
Natural Science
Social Science
Foreign Language

Although the trend in interface design is to do without a professional graphic designer, it is quite obvious that the expertise that a graphic designer brings to a problem greatly enhances the product. Effective graphic design does more than gain the attention of the user, it provokes an intellectual or emotional response. In Rand's (1985, p. xiii) words "Graphic Design is essentially about visual relationships - providing meaning to a mass of unrelated needs, ideas, words, and pictures. It is the designer's job to select and fit this material together - and make it interesting." Even if developers immerse themselves in the literature, they cannot equal the expertise of a graphic designer, gleaned through practice, talent, apprenticeship, and proximity to good design. The new class of software is visual, culturally connected, and often metaphorical and rich beyond conventional code. And it desperately needs the attention of a graphic designer (Rettig, 1992).

There are not many graphic designers who have an expertise in graphic design for the interface because the field is so new, and the level of technological competence so high. However, this should not deter a developer who seeks assistance. Those graphic designers who exhibit an aptitude for information design, who have experience with desktop publishing systems and other new technologies, who are comfortable working within a team, and are who genuinely interested in the project will be effective designers for the interface. If funds are restricted, graphic design students could be utilised in a practicum situation. Students are often experienced in computer enhanced design through coursework and have had time to experiment with both software applications and hardware.

Involving the graphic designer at the beginning of the design process is essential. If functionality, useability, and visual communication and aesthetics are equally important, then the intent, concept, code and program interface with all of its visual elements should evolve simultaneously. The best way to work with a graphic designer is to include him or her as a member of the original development team. A team approach to interface design is preferred because of the multifaceted nature of a project's development. The advantage of group participation is that team members, with varied backgrounds and points of view, can bounce ideas off each other. The team provides a forum for members to expand their knowledge base beyond the boundaries of their own disciplines, thereby enriching the problem solving process.

Finally, it is important that both the developer and graphic designer be open to each other's suggestions and respect each other's opinions. It is only natural for developers to think they know more about their problems than does the graphic designer, despite the fact that developers hire designers to solve such problems. (Potter, 1980). It is important to keep in mind how much specialised knowledge a graphic designer brings to the project. Berryman (1979, p.42) reminds us that:

Everyone "looks" at things but very few people see effectively. Designers must be able to "see." Seeing means a trained super awareness of visual codes.... These codes help make up a language of vision.... [Designers must first become] visually literate, to understand how to 'read' visual communication language; then [visually] intelligent, to be able to 'write' or create in this special channel.

3. Hope that an expert system will soon be developed to solve design problems

In the early 1980s Harold Cohen, a British artist, programmed a computer to create drawings based on the fundamental principles of design. The computer was "taught" to emulate his rather abstract style of drawing. In this program he also incorporated some of the rudimentary elements of artificial intelligence, including the ability to learn from past mistakes. (Kruger, 1987). The purpose of Cohen's experiment was to create "aesthetically correct" works of art but, unlike the visual elements in Cohen's artwork, the elements in visual communication must convey meaning. Visual communication and aesthetics are extremely complex affairs. Shneiderman (1987, p. 326) who admits that "Screen design will always have elements of art that require invention, but some principles are becoming clearer," claims that it is very unlikely that an expert system for graphic design can be effectively implemented because "... the demands of each task and user community are so varied and difficult to measure."

4. Acquire the skills

If developers do not want to "muddle through as is," but for reasons of time, budget or location, cannot hire or arrange for the services of a graphic designer, they can make a commitment to acquire the skills. By keen observation and an intense curiosity, an individual can cultivate a sensitivity to visual communication. Rand (1985, p. 79) comments "... curiosity is the common denominator and the pleasure of discovery an important by product." As mentioned previously, resources are available to instruct software developers on how to design for the visual interface. Some of the more popular of these resources include: Apple Computer, Inc. (1989), HyperCard Stack Design Guidelines; Marcus, A. (1992), Graphic Design for Electronic Documents and User Interfaces; Shneiderman, B. (1987), Designing User Interfaces: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction; Smith, S. & Mosier, J. (1984), Design Guidelines for User Interface Software; and Tufte, E. (1990), Envisioning Information.

Most of these sources provide guidelines and rules for working with type, imagery, icons, grids, colour, menus, windows, buttons, text fields, sound and animation. Others elaborate on visual style, screen structure, metaphor development, navigation techniques, concept sequencing and the control of time and space. The trouble with relying solely on rule based instruction is that the developer runs the risk of following orders without understanding the principles supporting them. It is more important to kindle imagination, than to encourage imitation. Lawson (1986, p. 3) reminds us that "In the end perhaps design must be learnt rather that taught." Edward de Bono adds that (quoted in Lawson, 1986, p. 7) "On the whole, it must be more important to be skilful in thinking than to be stuffed with facts."

In academia as well as in the profession, graphic design has outgrown its vocational designation. It is now considered a discipline, with an intellectual foundation in theory, concepts and rules. The theoretical aspects of visual communication have evolved from semiology, Gestalt theory, and research into human perception and behaviour. Although theory plays an important role in academic research by providing the concepts and a language to analyse and study design strategies, it is the practitioners who actually do the designing. In most cases, theory is too abstract to be immediately useful to the interface designer. On the other hand, design concepts, derived from theory and drawn from the rich resources of traditional fine art and design are directly applicable to interface design. These concepts serve as the intermediaries between abstract theory and concrete, rule based learning. Concepts explain why particular design decisions are made, and not how to make them. For example, a rule dictating the use of colour in the interface reads "Never use more than five, plus or minus two, colours" (Marcus, 1992, p. 82).0n the other hand, a concept describes the interactions between colours and explains why choice should be limited. Hicks and Essinger (1991, p. 75) suggest "It is useful to think of graphic design not as a mysterious, artistic process to which few have access, but as a method for implementing visual language that has some basic principles which can be powerfully applied to solve communication problems."

By definition then graphic design should be predicated on concepts and not on rules. A developer who understands the principles behind effective graphic design will have control over his or her visually oriented decisions. Leading educators promote this style of active, participatory learning over the more traditional, passive model. After all, active learning is the impetus behind educational technology. Rule based resources have their place as reference tools, but they are no substitute for actively learning and applying the concepts that embody the vocabulary of vision.

The vocabulary of vision

The vocabulary of vision is the foundation of traditional design. It is composed of the three fundamental elements of design (point, line, and form); their attributes (volume, size, colour, texture); and their behaviour and interrelationships (structure, balance, contrast, direction, movement, position and space). These coexist within the boundaries of a visual field. In interface design the monitor's display defines the visual field. The principles of the vocabulary of vision seldom work in isolation, but rather in complex and integrated combinations. In visual communication, design elements, their attributes and relationships with each other, with and within the visual field, represent a complex order of visual signs imbued with content and meaning. The fundamental design elements of point, line and shape translate into the following visual signs common to interface design: titles, subtitles, copy, icons, windows, menus, dialogue boxes, cursors, design devices, rules, bars, borders, diagraphics, illustrations, photographs, video imagery, animation, etc. Elements are chosen according to the nature of the task, the abilities and preferences of the user, and the abilities of the system (Allmendinger, 1990). Kepes (1944) considered design elements to be living organisms, with laws of growth and structure, that exhibited both internal and external forces.

Developers versed in the vocabulary of vision can create and guide design elements to yield a clear, distinct and consistent visible language that ultimately will improve the quality of visual communication, functionality and useability of the user interface. The principles comprising the vocabulary of vision described below are derived from several sources including: Albers (1975), Berryman (1979), Dondis (1973), Kepes (1944), Hurlburt (1977, 1978 and 1981), Rand (1970 and 1985), and Wong (1972). The illustrative figures used here taken directly from a HyperCard stack developed specifically for live presentation of this material.

1 Characteristics of point

Figure 1

1. Point

A point is the smallest unit of visual communication. It is relatively simple and compact in shape. It has the inherent ability to draw attention to itself because of its concentrated energy. Bullets, dingbats, small forms, and even letters can serve as points if they are small enough in relationship to the other design elements and visual field (Figure 1). When two or more points are introduced into the visual field, both measurement and direction come into play (Figure 2). There is a tendency to connect points. Therefore, a series or collection of points will lead the eye in a specific direction or sometimes suggest an outline of a representational form. Many points scattered across a visual field activate the surface. The degree of activation is directly proportional to the number and proximity of the points. In great profusion these dots can create the illusion of tone or colour as in percentage screens, halftone or grey scale imagery, and full colour reproduction for print (Figure 3).

2 Characteristics of point

Figure 2

3 Characteristics of point

Figure 3

2. Line

A line is defined by its narrow breadth relative to its prominent length. The visual path of a line has direction and purpose. Lines come in a variety of shapes, lengths, widths, patterns and textures. Design elements interpreted as line are rules, bars, leader dots, borders, and sentences of type. A line joins, organises, emphasises, supports, separates and even protects other design elements. Lines have the capacity to express empathy. Horizontal lines represent stability, vertical lines represent balance and order, and diagonal lines are dynamic. Examples of a line's emotional quality include the following: thick implies boldness, thin denotes delicacy, and length introduces the concepts of time and duration (Figure 4). An organic, meandering line appears slow, whereas a zig zag configuration conjures up quick paced excitement. Numerous lines in a visual field can generate rhythm or overall chaos (Figures 5 & 6). Imagery can also be rendered using line (Figure 7). Line art illustration can be easily incorporated into a software application because it scans well, does not consume too much disk space, and is readily available in published collections of public domain drawings, etchings, and engravings.

4 Characteristics of line

Figure 4

5 Characteristics of line

Figure 5

6 Characteristics of line

Figure 6

7 Characteristics of line

Figure 7

3. Form

Forms are created when line meets itself to enclose space. Shapes are perceived even if the form is incomplete. The Gestalt theory of "closure" cites that humans have a natural tendency to mentally complete partial forms because closed shapes are regarded as stable (Figure 8). There are many different types of forms - geometric to organic, mechanical to accidental.

The enclosed area of a form takes on a positive or negative value (Figures 9 & 10). This is referred to as a figure/ground relationship. Figure is the visual image, and ground is the background field with in which the visual image resides. If the percentage of figure to ground is relatively equal, the mind fluctuates between the two, resulting in a kinetic and "noisy" image, as seen in moire patterns and other similar optical illusions. Joseph Albers (cited in Tufte, 1990, pp. 53-65) described a visual effect he called "1 + 1 = 3 or more." When two elements exist in proximity, assorted incidental by products of their partnership are created. The negative space trapped between design elements, in themselves, can command shape and change the meaning or add clutter to the layout. An invisible form can be subtracted out of a visible form, changing the overall shape of the visible form (Figure 11). All areas within the visual field, whether they are occupied or not, are important.

8 Characteristics of form

Figure 8

9 Characteristics of form

Figure 9

10 Characteristics of form

Figure 10

11 Characteristics of form

Figure 11

The number of forms and the way that they reside within the visual field affect the overall ambience of the interface. An information dense screen is visually more active than a sparsely populated one (Figures 12 and 13). Organisation can be formal or informal with forms positioned in an orderly fashion or scattered haphazardly. One of the most effective ways to provide rhythm, harmony, and consistency in design is repetition - repeating identical forms or similarly shaped forms. Gradation is a variation of repetition in which a form gradually changes in an orderly and progressive way (Figure 14).

12 Characteristics of form

Figure 12

13 Characteristics of form

Figure 13

14 Characteristics of form

Figure 14

Attributes of design elements

1. Volume

Flat forms are reminiscent of thin sheets of paper hung in space. They parallel the picture plane. Even though the monitor's screen is flat, elements can be rendered with volume and depth by using size variations, shading, texture and colour shifts. Forms can also be drawn three dimensionally using the illusion of perspective (Figure 15). The more voluminous an element, the more weight and energy it possesses.

15 Characteristics of volume

Figure 15

2. Size

Size refers to the dimensions of an element and the amount of space it occupies. The size of an element is relative to the size of the other elements on the visual field and the size and proportion of the visual field itself. The more expansive the visual field, the smaller the element will appear and vice versa (Figures 16 & 17). Size is a powerful manipulator of depth. Larger elements appear closer to the eye than do smaller ones. Clarity, brightness and detail reinforce the closeness of an element. Size also implies movement. When a series of elements is arranged according to size, the eye naturally follows the path of the progression (Figure 14).

16 Characteristics of size

Figure 16

17 Characteristics of size

Figure 17

3. Colour and tone

Colour is determined by hue, saturation and brightness (whether it be pigment or light). Hue is the colour or chrome itself; saturation is the relative purity of the hue; and brightness is the measurement of the light to dark value of the hue. Tone is defined as brightness, or the light to dark value, in a monochrome environment. It is usually represented by percentage screens or textured patterns (Figure 18). When tonal variations are substituted for colour, some of the emotional qualities of colour are lost, but many of the other colour attributes are still applicable. Colour possesses the following attributes (Marcus, 1992 & Tufte, 1990):
18 Characteristics of colour and tone

Figure 18

These attributes contribute to enhanced learning and recall. The use of colour has also been proven to reduce errors (Marcus, 1992). Colour and tone should be used sparingly and consistently to directly support the task. To accomplish this, familiar colour schemes can be reinforced and shapes can be associated with specific colour references (Figure 19). Colour interacts with its own environment and must be selected it in context, not in isolation. Studies in perception prove that warm colours advance and cool colours recede, whereas dark colours appear closer on light backgrounds and vice versa. Adjacent, saturated colours jitter and bleed while adjacent, low contrast colours blend and fade. To remedy this, Tufte (1990) suggests observing and emulating the palettes used in nature.

19 Characteristics of colour and tone

Figure 19

Colour is easily abused by overuse and poorly matched palettes. Tufte (1989, n.p.) lists the first principle of colour use as "Above all, do no harm." Colour incorrectly used in interface design can contribute to eye fatigue and impair the learning process. In an international market, colour can be culturally confusing, even offensive. Colour should not be the only attribute used to differentiate values of information because there are too many perceptual shifts and ambiguities possible (Tufte, 1990). In some cases, the small portion of the population that suffers from colour deficient vision should be taken into consideration. Furthermore, colour is often chosen subjectively, based on personal preference, fashion, or whim. A colour combination that is stylish today might soon appear conspicuously outdated.

There are also technical problems to consider when using colour. Hardware compatibility becomes an issue because not all machines are capable of generating colour output. Colour requires additional memory. Furthermore, affordable colour monitors display pictures at a lower resolution than their monochrome counterparts. Colour quality is often inconsistent across the user base because even identical brand monitors are calibrated differently. External conditions such as room lighting also affects colour perception. Finally, colour is usually more time consuming to develop and expensive to produce.

4. Texture

Texture is the surface quality of the design element or background. A textural quality is either indigenous to the design element, as, for example, the tonal qualities of a paragraph of copy, or it can be added as a decorative surface, as, for example, the pattern of fur (Figure 20). Elements with crisp textural detail appear closer than elements with diffused textures. Lighting can also affect texture, especially when the light source produces shadows. On the computer screen texture has no tactile quality, only an optical presence. Many of the paint palettes residing in authoring packages provide a wide variety of editable textures for drawing, lettering and filling shapes. Like colour, texture can be overused and misused. Texture should never dominate. It should be used sparingly to add visual stimuli and reinforce meaning.

20 Characteristics of texture

Figure 20

Behaviour and interrelationships of design elements

1. Structure

Structure refers to an infrastructure that governs the position and proportional qualities of design elements residing in the visual field. Generally, it imposes order and determines internal relationships between elements. Structure can be informal, in which case organisation is free and indefinite, or it can be formal, with the structural lines and divisions rigidly and mathematically drawn. Informal structure relies on the designer's own natural and intuitive sense of proportion, whereas formal structure relies on a grid system. Grid systems bring cohesiveness to a visual piece by making complex information understandable through organisation. Gestalt data reveals that humans tend to prefer organised visual and verbal information (Berryman, 1979).

Hicks and Essinger (1991) report that studies of human memory and cognition prove that the human visual system is designed to produce organised perception. Rand's (1985, p.195) observations about the grid in traditional graphic design can be readily applied to electronic media.

The grid system employed by the designer provides for an orderly and harmonious distribution of miscellaneous graphic material. Creating the grid calls for the ability to classify and organise a variety of material with sufficient foresight to allow for the flexibility for handling content that might, in one way or another, be altered. The grid must define the area of operation and provide for different techniques, pictures, columns of text, page numbers, picture captions, headings, and other miscellaneous materials.

Structure can simply divide space with invisible or visible boundaries (Figures 12 & 21); or it can interact with design elements by providing varied backgrounds; or it can hide parts of elements that intersect with its structural boundaries (Figures 22 & 23). Visible boundaries are commonly represented as rules, bars, leaders, boxes, borders or colour bands. Grids can be varied even within the same application. Columns do not have to be equal in size. Division emphasis can be straight or curved; vertical, horizontal or even diagonal.

21 Characteristics of structure

Figure 21

22 Characteristics of structure

Figure 22

23 Characteristics of structure

Figure 23

The graphic designer must design for the screen that contains the most amount of information, and at the same time, base the overall proportions of the grid on the smallest element used. Other factors influencing grid design are the viewer's distance from the screen, and the amount and complexity of the information that needs to be conveyed (Marcus, 1992). Content and meaning of the information must be factored into the placement. Related information should be grouped into units and placed in a hierarchical order.

A grid should serve the idea, not dominate it. An excessively complex, obtrusive grid will only confuse the viewer. On the other hand, a grid that is too simplistic for the information it contains might bore the viewer. As Hurlburt (1981, p. 111) warns "The important thing to remember is that while a grid can help to generate a sense of unity and continuity in a design, it is not in itself creative. In the hands of unskilled designers, grids can become straight jackets that inhibit creative concepts."

2. Balance

Elements arranged symmetrically line up along a central axis (Figure 24). The monotony of symmetry often interferes with the user's attention. Asymmetrical layouts incorporate tension and implied movement, dictated by element size, shape and position within the visual field to achieve balance (Figure 25). Although asymmetrical balance is more difficult to attain, it provides a more visually stimulating experience. For example, two small elements can balance a larger item. A block of copy in bold type will appear "darker" and heavier in the balance equation than a block of copy set in a lighter weight. Likewise, a copy block with tight leading, the space between lines, will appear heavier that one with more leading (Figure 25). The key is to create just enough tension to whet visual interest, without destroying visual harmony.

24 Characteristics of balance

Figure 24

25 Characteristics of balance

Figure 25

3. Contrast

Contrast is the quality that differentiates between design elements (Figure 26). It reinforces visual hierarchy though emphasis. It affects the relationships between each and every principle of design, including mood and sound. When applying contrast to colour, tone, or texture, the element that appears bolder or brighter will advance and draw attention. This is useful in creating hierarchies for typographical information. The results of contrast of size are apparent. Elements that take up more space are considered more commanding. Contrast of mood relates to the implied message. A screen or application can contain more than one emotional stimulus. Content can be delivered aggressively or passively, humorously or sadly, loudly or softly, and so on. It is better to exaggerate the contrast between elements than to run the risk of confusing or boring the viewer by underplaying the differences. Dondis (1973) says that ambiguity, the most undesirable visual effect possible, is the enemy of design. Psychologically upsetting and visually misleading, it should be avoided.

26 Characteristics of contrast

Figure 26

Another type of contrast is anomaly. Anomaly is defined as the presence of irregularity in a design in which regularity still prevails (Wong, 1972). The design element that deviates from the norm becomes a focal point that adds interest, demands attention, relieves monotony, or provides transition. Anomalies are generated by altering or exaggerating any of the principles that make up the vocabulary of vision (Figure 27).

27 Characteristics of structure

Figure 27

4. Direction

Direction refers to the path that the eye takes when scanning a visual field or tracking a design element. Direction is usually culturally derivative. Western cultures read left to right, top to bottom. Design elements arranged according to this principle appear to progress (Figure 14). In interface design, directional forces are not limited to right/left and up/down. They can also lead the eye in and out of space. Perspective rendering is a powerful force that provides this illusion of directional depth (Figure 15). Direction also plays an important role in navigation. If the developer is adhering to a specific metaphor, the conventions of direction that the metaphor defines should be closely observed. For example, pages of typical English language books flip to the left, at a fairly constant speed. On the other hand, actors enter a stage from different angles, at varying speeds.

5. Movement

Movement is implied in a static environment and actualised in an environment capable of generating full motion (Figure 28). It has been proven that dynamic elements, including moving images, music and sound effects, attract more attention than text and still images (Ambron, 1990). In interface design, motion is suggested through card flipping, two dimensional and three dimensional animation or full motion video. Motion is a powerful asset for navigating through data, creating transitions, simulating complex examples, providing alternative viewpoints, compressing or speeding up time, and energising inanimate objects. The Gestalt theory of continuation suggests that organisation in perception leads the eye to continue along and beyond a straight line or curve (Berryman, 1979). As a result, a viewer seeks motion, real or perceived, even on a static screen.

28 Characteristics of structure

Figure 28

Nanny's (1990) research on motion for the interface focuses on the developer's control over space and time. Where you are, what you see, and what angle you see it from is affected by moving location (Figures 29 & 30). Tampering with size allows the user to scale him or herself, or the object, to observe things that are too big or too small to view from a normal perspective. The developer controls time by freezing it and adjusting the rate at which it passes. The user can select specific periods of time from which to view historical events and replay them for closer analysis. Events can be viewed that rarely occur or are difficult to observe in real life. The rate at which time passes can be compressed or expanded into manageable slices so that the user can observe things that normally are impossible to see in a normal time frame. In this environment, time can even be reversed.

29 Characteristics of movement

Figure 29

30 Characteristics of movement

Figure 30

6. Position

The ability of the eye to assemble and arrange elements and to understand their meaning is at the root of the design process. Elements can be positioned to create tension that, in turn, stimulates viewer response and enhances continuity. Gestalt theory suggests a natural tendency to organise visual components into a unified whole. Elements in proximity, especially if identical or similar in shape, size, colour and direction, often form sub groups or units. They are composed of a combination of separate points, lines and forms, that visually merge into a complex but unified new form (Figures 31 & 32).

31 Characteristics of position

Figure 31

32 Characteristics of position

Figure 32

7. Space

A visual field is considered flat when all forms appear equidistant to the eye and sit parallel to the surface plane of the visual field. Tufte (1990, p. 12) refers to this two dimensional phenomenon of paper and video screen as "flatland." Space is merely an illusion in which forms are displayed at varying depths and/or angles. The greater the difference or variance in size, colour, texture, tone, etc., the deeper the illusion of space. Every point, line and shape positioned within a visual field influences and alters the spatial equilibrium of that environment. The depth of the visual field is affected when design elements encounter one another. When design elements, of similar colour or tone, are separate or touching they appear to sit on the same plane (Figure 33). However, when an opaque element overlaps another element, the opaque form appears to be on top (Figure 34). The illusion of depth is negated when transparent elements penetrate each other because their contours remain visible even though they are overlapping (Figure 35).

33 Characteristics of space

Figure 33

34 Characteristics of space

Figure 34

35 Characteristics of space

Figure 35

Spatial depth is also indicated by differentiations between foreground and background. Point of view also affects depth perception. A full frontal view appears parallel to the picture plane whereas the illusion of rotation appears to push an object slightly back in space. Shadows provide the illusion of depth by emphasising the physical existence of the element. Motion techniques can affect spatial depth by realtime scaling of design elements, allowing the user to zoom in or out of the environment. Sound effects also reinforce the illusion of travelling in and out of a space. In addition, design elements and information can be layered in space. For example, increasing the dimensionality of a screen by using pop up fields, and other navigation techniques increases the density of that data.

The development of virtual reality has tremendous potential for exploring spatial relationships within the interface. A virtual reality system provides the user with a fully interactive experience that includes the illusion of being inside a computer simulated world. Instead of observing images, a user dons a helmet and data glove and actually interacts with the simulated objects surrounding him or her (Walker, 1990). Other future advances in motion include: total, seamless integration of full motion video and live camera, animated guides and simulated agents, surrogate travel, and info-tainment systems (Mountford, 1989).


Provisions for a thorough understanding of the vocabulary of vision and how experienced graphic designers apply these principles to the design process are beyond the scope of this paper. What is important in this context is understanding that an individual with a keen interest in using visual communication more effectively can apply these principles and make intelligent design decisions. One of the major objectives in designing for the interface is to create a clean, uncluttered, visually stimulating appearance for an information rich screen. Tufte (1989, n.p.) recommends screens that have a high density of information, similar to traditional printed materials, such as books, maps and photographs. His suggestion for achieving this balance between simplicity of design and complexity of information is to reduce the "noise" by eliminating every pixel not serving user important data, muting minor visual elements, removing distracting patterns, ending clutter, and avoiding redundancy. Ideally, the majority of the screen's "real estate" should be turned over to user information, not to what Tufte (1990, p. 89) terms "computer administrative debris."

This visual house cleaning applies to the overall design of the application including the concept, copy, and other design elements Rand (1970), commenting on traditional design, warns against using illustrations that do not involve aesthetic judgment and that are merely literal descriptions of reality. Some twenty-five years later, the same holds true for electronic environments. As Rand predicted "The visual statement that seeks to express the essence of an idea, and which is based on function, fantasy, and analytic judgment, is likely to be not only unique, but meaningful and memorable as well" (p. 36).

The very near future promises a new medium that has the capacity to catapult interactive multimedia beyond its existing boundaries. Computers will look different. They will be integrated into everyday lives in the form of furniture, transportation, appliances, clothing, and fashion accessories. The interfaces of tomorrow will be capable of conversation and full motion video to guide users through the complexities of the information landscape (Oren, Salomon, Kreitman, Don, 1990). Entire workspaces will change to accommodate natural gesture and the individual style of the user. The interface will advance to be fully adjustable, supporting and conforming to the user's cognitive capacities and natural learning styles (Hicks & Essinger, 1991). With these changes imminent, developers and graphic designers must to learn to speak one another's language and in doing so, band together to design interfaces that are both visually powerful and intellectually stimulating.


I am grateful to Dorothy Metzger Habel and William J. Morgan for reading a previous draft of this paper and making suggestions.


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Author: Susan E. Metros is Associate Professor of Art with the Department of Art at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA 37996-2410. Her email address is METROS@UTKVX1.UTK.EDU, or she can be reached on AppleLink at METROS.S

Please cite as: Metros, S. E. (1992). Interface-lift: Elective or compulsory? In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 110-150. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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